‘There were all sorts of players with varying motives in trying to shape what happened in 2016’ – An Interview with Jon Sopel: Extended Version

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Jon Sopel is the current BBC North America Editor. His career in journalism has taken him from BBC Radio Solent presenter to Chief Political correspondent for BBC News 24, to regular contributor and presenter over the years for high-profile news programmes such as BBC News at Six, BBC News at Ten and Newsnight.

Sopel is also a University of Southampton alumnus, graduating with 2:1 honours in Politics, and was at separate points both SUSU President and Wessex Scene Editor.

Back in December 2017, Sopel very kindly agreed to be interviewed by Wessex Scene. This is the extended version of that interview, with a shorter version available in our Employability Magazine issue.

Trump and America

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Sopel was clear that he doesn’t think impeachment is inevitable:

Impeachment is a pseudo-legal process, so if the Mueller investigation found that Trump had obstructed justice, say, which is what people talk about as the most likely thing to happen, it’s a political decision ultimately. It would be the House of Representatives that decides this and if there is a Republican majority then I think it is incredibly unlikely that they will.

He expanded that if impeachment was to take place, which he’s ‘not convinced’ will ‘happen any time soon’, the US Senate would become a jury and emphasised that impeachment has never happened before in US history.

Indeed, Sopel said of the ‘whole range of outcomes’ of Trump’s future course, it’s ‘more possible’ that Trump will be re-elected President in 2020 than impeached:

I think he could win it. I think, if you look at America today, the stock market is up around 30%, a lot of people who have pensions have got their money tied up in the stock market, they’re loving Donald Trump. The Supreme Court pick he made means that there is now a conservative majority in the Supreme Court.

Citing the Supreme Court’s upholding of Trump’s ban on immigrants coming from mainly Muslim countries, he expressed the view that it actually chimes’ with the views and concerns of a significant proportion of the US population.

Addressing whether the electoral college system was flawed, Sopel described it as ‘a complicated system’, which many people had found ‘really extraordinary’ in producing the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, where Hillary Clinton lost on electoral college votes to Trump, but won on the popular vote. However, without the electoral college, elections would be ‘decided, broadly-speaking, by New York, Massachusetts, California, Illnois – the most densely populated states’. Instead, the electoral college acts as a means of ensuring rural America’s ‘very distinctive voice’ is heard:

Now, you could say that what you’ve done now is skewed an electoral system in favour of rural populations, but it’s the system that you have to play by. It worked very well for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and it worked terribly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but maybe that’s more to do with Hillary Clinton than the system. She piled up votes in LA and in New York, but there was no great advantage in doing that.

Discussing his biggest culture shock in the US compared to the UK, the BBC North America editor was clear – having ‘been brought up in a gun-free environment, the number of people who think it is perfectly normal to own 24 guns’. He cited one particular example of this significant cultural difference:

When we were covering the murder in Orlando, we went to a place called Port St Lucy, which is where the killer Omar Mateen had come from. This one guy was talking to me, he said “I own 7 Kalashnikovs”. I asked why he owned seven, and like a shot he came back and said “no one asks my wife why she’s got 7 pairs of shoes”. That’s the way they see it – they see guns as just like having shoes, having hats, like having scarves.

The other major cultural difference between the UK and US which Sopel noted, was the place of religion in society and politics. He contrasted how ex-Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron had resigned because he couldn’t find a way to ‘reconcile being a man of religion and a politician’, while in the US ‘you cannot be a politician if you aren’t religious’. ‘You have to parade your belief in Jesus Christ and the Lord, all the rest of it, and talk about it in a way that is completely different.’

Responding to the question as to whether America’s future involves heading down a dark path, Sopel’s analysis was relatively upbeat. He argued that the US’s written constitution had shown itself to be ‘quite robust’. When the US Congress had not supported Trump legislation or judges rejected the legality of an executive order, he felt that it’d shown that democracy is working fairly effectively in the US’.

On whether Trump and the current US administration represent a threat to journalism, Sopel replied that he thinks ‘Trump would say he hopes he is a threat to journalism’. Trump wants to ‘delegitimise [the media]as much as possible’ because, like other politicians down the ages, he wants to write his own undiluted message. Meanwhile, as part of their job, journalists write ‘disobliging things, like “well, he didn’t answer the question about X, Y or Z”’, frustrating a politician’s desire to ‘write their own message’. What makes Trump unique, however, is that he possesses at his fingertips the means to ‘shortcut the media’ and present his message unmediated, via his 44 million Twitter followers and more than 100 million people on Trump’s Facebook page.

Fake News has developed too, with Trump telling his own ‘straightforward lies’ on a ‘fair few stories’. While expressing the view that it’s the job of journalists to ‘point out falsehood’, Sopel also criticised how some media outlets cover Trump:

I also think that some parts of the media in the US are making a big mistake in behaving like the opposition to Donald Trump. It isn’t our job to be the opposition. Our job is to “speak truth to power”, whether it be a Labour government, a Conservative government, whether it be an EU in/out referendum, whether it be Democrat or Republican.

Our job is to test people’s arguments, and hopefully lead to a better-informed electorate. If media start taking shortcuts over truth, then people will think we are no different from Fake News. That’s why I think it is incumbent upon us to be even more careful than ever about saying things that we can justify.

Media in the World today

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Sopel was hesitant to say the media ‘affected the outcome’ of the 2016 US election and stressed instead the role played by social media, including in aiding the spread of fake news:

There were all sorts of players with varying motives in trying to shape what happened in 2016 – some of them were students in Macedonia who were writing totally fake stories because it was clickbait and they would earn money as a result of it. People were more interested in clicking on stories that were detrimental to Hillary Clinton than they were about Donald Trump.

He also brought up Russia’s role in the election and how his own analysis of their intentions had evolved: ‘I think that if you had asked me this question six months ago I’d have said the Russians were trying to tilt the election in Donald Trump’s favour’. ‘Actually, I think they wanted to sow discord.’ ‘I think they wanted to confuse and anger people – just create turmoil.’

However, also noted was how British broadcast media is more tightly circumscribed by rules than their US counterparts. Legislation in the UK compels broadcasters ‘to be roughly fair and balanced’ Sopel said, before then taking the ‘endless pain and agony’ which went into negotiations for 2017 UK election TV debates as demonstrating how UK broadcast media is ‘quite prescribed’.

Meanwhile, in the US, Donald Trump ‘sucked all the oxygen out of the room’. His unpredictability made him the candidate who TV producers wanted to cover at a rally if a choice had to be made, because his rallies were ‘wild and unpredictable’ and ‘you never knew what was going to happen next’:

If you’re the TV director, and you’ve got a bank of TV screens in what we call the gallery – one with Marco Rubio, one with Ted Cruz, one with Jeb Bush and one with Donald Trump – you’re going to cut to the Donald Trump speech every time.

Sopel concludes that consequently, Trump did receive a ‘disproportionate amount of TV coverage’ and perhaps via this, the media did play a role in the 2016 election.

However, he still above all emphasised the role of social media. Referencing the infamous The Sun headline after the 1992 General Election (‘It Was The Sun Wot Won It’), he argued that traditional media, like newspapers, ‘are of declining importance’ while ‘social media has more of a say’. People don’t make their minds up purely based on a newspaper anymore and the public ‘need be a lot less scared of newspapers than they used to be’.

Wessex Scene asked about how he viewed the influence of the media in the EU referendum. Paralleling it with the rise of Trump, Sopel considered how there’s a ‘chicken and egg argument’ over whether viewers of the likes of Breitbart and FOX, ‘cheerleaders for Trump’, vote Trump based on the views expressed on the TV channels and websites they view, or follow them because they reflect their own pre-held views. He felt that just as Trump had ‘struck a chord’ with voters, Brexiteers’ ‘Taking Back Control’ slogan had been very effective, while the remain side didn’t run an effective campaign: ‘A lot of the leading remain figures were people whose utterances on the European Union had been hostile for 20 years, and suddenly they are saying that we ought to stay in – that’s an odd place to get to’.

While looking ‘from afar’, he’d also thought some of the implications of Brexit had not been probed by some media during the referendum:

…if you look at the acres of news coverage that there has been on the problem of the Irish border, was that ever discussed? Was it mentioned that it would be a huge issue? I think that there are areas where journalism failed, and that isn’t Pro-EU or Anti-EU point, the point is that as the media we ought to be testing people’s arguments.

Speaking from his role as a BBC employee, on the subject of how journalists can both cope and restore trust in the fake news era, Sopel answered: ‘we’ve got to be fair’. ‘We’re free from government interference, we’re fair and balanced, and we are impartial.’ ‘I don’t have a dog in the fight, I’m there to report’. He also expressed his concern that some journalists blur the line between scepticism and cynicism:

I think there is a big difference in journalism between encouraging scepticism – which is exactly what we should be doing, being sceptical about what people are saying and testing their arguments – and being cynical. “Ah, they’re all a bunch of lying b*******” – I hate that, hate that. So, I think that we’ve got a duty to be more reasonable and give people a fair shout. When they’ve done well, give them a thumbs up, when they’ve done badly say “you know what, you screwed up there”

Assessing the US media landscape, he expressed his concern that many news organisations see being extremely partisan as a way to raise revenues – ‘How can I monetise being Anti-Trump? If we are neutral, does that win us new digital subscribers, or do we win new digital subscribers by being anti-Trump?’ However, he also added there’s ‘some fantastic journalism’ in America and that while Trump may say ‘everyone who writes on the White House is fake news’, this isn’t true, with many experienced journalists who entered the profession to not be ‘propagandists’, but have ‘been there to get good stories’. Further, he described American journalists as obsessed by the importance of accuracy, before adding: ‘That’s not to say British journalists aren’t, but when you say “the sun was glinting in through the curtains”, would you say that was early-morning sun or late afternoon sun, was it slanted or…?’ ‘Really, do you care that much?’ ‘Was it a brass doorknob or a wooden doorknob? I don’t bloody know!’

On the reach of the Comment section of media, Sopel was frank: ‘Most people don’t read the comment section’. ‘Look at the attempts made by what used to be called the right-wing press to take down Corbyn during the election.’ ‘It didn’t go so well, did it?’ Elaborating on his Corbyn example, he felt that attempts by the right-wing media to tarnish Corbyn via his previous association with members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) ‘may have reinforced the views of a number of older people, but I think [the right-wing media]completely misjudged it’.

On whether he’d felt personally threatened by the increasingly negative rhetoric towards journalists, Sopel expressed the belief that ‘there is a nastier environment now, and I think it is unpleasant’. Unlike other journalists, he dismisses the idea that getting hate from both sides of the political spectrum indicates getting coverage right and cited one example of hatred directed towards him:

I had this guy on Twitter last week, who was the Reverend Father Somebody-Somebody, and he said “you’re a total dipstick”. I can’t remember what the phrase was. And I just said “very biblical” – is that what your sermon sounds like?

At Trump rallies, he admitted to feeling ‘an edge’ and a ‘threat of violence’ in the atmosphere, although suggested it doesn’t compare to previous times when reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan: ‘comparatively speaking, a slightly angry crowd in Detroit is not going to cause me to lose sleep’.

On whether the negative atmosphere towards journalists today will deter people from pursuing the profession, Sopel felt that people will still go ‘into journalism if they feel the motivation’. The worry he expressed for putting people off pursuing a career in journalism was instead the digitalisation of media, where ‘No-one pays for content anymore’. Recalling how times had changed since his days as a student getting a newspaper delivered to his then house in Northumberland Road, Northam, He explained:

If you’ve got a business model where no one pays for anything, that is not a great business model. I think that journalism becomes tougher because of that. You look at the decline in my industry – obviously I work in TV news – I think that the average age of the audience watching the Ten O’clock News, which is still considered the BBC’s flagship output, is getting older. 20 or 30 years ago when I started out it would be quite common for young people to come up to me and say “you’re that bloke off the news”. If a young person tells me now that they’ve seen me on the news, I go “really!?”. They all use their smartphones.

Journalism is a ‘fast-changing landscape’ with digitalisation and social media enabling individuals to ‘find a new way to become informed’. No longer is the BBC needed ‘to curate’ – instead younger people choose what leads their news. Presence on social media is now a necessity, as ‘every platform provides you with a different audience’.

Regarding what key advice he’d give to a budding journalist aspiring to take on a role like his one day, Sopel said he’d felt ‘incredibly lucky’, but proffered that knocks come along the way and flexibility is key:

One of my favourite phrases that someone said to me was “if you want to make God laugh, tell him you’ve got a plan”. Because if you think that I am going to map out my career for the next 30 years, and not deviate from it you are going to find disappointment. You’re going to have to be flexible, things will come up at times when you least expect them and you’ve got to have the flexibility to go with it.

Sopel further shared how he’d evolved from initial dreams of becoming a professional footballer:

You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to believe in yourself, not be delusional. I wanted to be a professional footballer, it was never going to happen. I had two left feet. There comes a point where you think “I’m not going to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, I accept it”. So don’t be delusional, but if you think you’ve got what it takes, fight for it. Live your dream, be passionate about it. Work hard, be committed. Some people say “you’ve got to be a total s*** and you’ve got to be single minded, be a b******”. No you don’t – you can be nice and you can be real.

He concluded that ‘the best advice I can give to anybody is to be yourself’. ‘Don’t try and be someone else because that’s when you look inauthentic, you look unreal to people, and then they don’t trust you.’.

His book, ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’

Explaining the inspiration behind his book, which was released in paperback form for the first time in May with an additional chapter on Trump’s presidency, Sopel returned to the aftermath of the horrific Orlando shooting. Asked numerous questions on air by presenters in London about how surely gun law would change as a result, he thought, ‘if you understood anything about America, the chances of a change in the gun laws are really remote’ because ‘Americans love their guns’. Expressing frustration at this continued line of questioning with the Bureau Chief in Washington, his colleague responded: ‘well if only they didn’t speak English we would treat it as a foreign country’. The basis (exploring the political and cultural differences between the USA and UK) and title of his book were born.

University of Southampton

Jon Sopel
Credit: SUSU.

As the University Pro-Chancellor, Sopel returns to his alma mater to preside over degree ceremonies and attend other functions. Asked about how the facilities had changed since his time as Union President, this was his response:

‘The facilities are fantastic compared to when I was here. Broadly speaking, this building is the same as when I was here in the early 1980s. That over there (Jubilee Sports Centre) didn’t exist – obviously that (Stag’s / Garden Court) did. The food you’ve got – Starbucks, amenities, it’s fantastic and its huge. Much bigger, but it still feels the same University, and I wander around and I think that the type of people who are here, the friendliness. I did a TV or radio or interview the last time I was here and I just thought “wow” – look at the facilities you’ve got. Amazing.’

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Deputy Editor 2017-18, International Editor 2015-17. Languages graduate interested in Latin America, world news, media and politics.

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