Jon Sopel on Trump’s America: ‘This is the most challenging journalistic assignment that I’ve had’

Jon Sopel, the BBC's North America Editor and author of If Only They Didn't Speak English, discusses the difficulties of working as a journalist in Trump's America.


You’ve been the BBC’s North America editor for 3 years. What made you feel like now is the time to write your first book about America?

I had been thinking about it anyway. I’ve travelled to America so much over the years for holidays, conferences and stories, but when I started living here I realised how different it was. I started to work on the book when everyone was lazily assuming Hillary Clinton would be the next president. I was never convinced, and always thought there was a strong possibility Donald Trump would be. That was fascinating, and I thought it would give the book a real edge.

If Only They Didn’t Speak English – that’s quite a title. Where did the inspiration come from?

My boss Paul, who is the bureau chief here, and I were having a conversation about how sometimes the British audience doesn’t quite get America. He said to me, "God, if only they didn’t speak English, they’d treat it as a foreign country", and I thought that would one day make a good book title! Once I'd started working on the idea of the book, the title became obvious to me.

The book is not about how we pronounce things differently; it’s not about superficial, shallow differences. It’s about the role of government, the state, guns, the history of race and patriotism. There are similarities between Britain and the USA, but there are also very big fundamental differences

What’s it like living and working on the ground in Trump’s America?

This may seem a really strange thing to say, as I’ve reported from war zones and disaster areas, but this is the most challenging journalistic assignment that I’ve had. The President, at times, seems determined to undermine and delegitimise what we do – with endless accusations that we peddle fake news, that we are dishonest, that we are liars. And there are a lot of Americans who are equally hostile to the media. Holding power to account is a journalists’ job, and that’s even more demanding in the angry atmosphere in Trump’s America.

The BBC’s values of fairness and impartiality have never been more important. If the public don’t trust us and just think we’re spinning our own views, we might as well all go home.

Democracy flourishes with a well-informed public and, as journalists, we play a crucial role in making sure we are giving a variety of views, basing judgements on facts and evidence. On social media there is any amount of fake news and fiction.  Good, quality journalism has never been more important.

What can readers expect from the book?

Hopefully they will find it entertaining, informative, and will understand America better at the end of it. I’d like them to come away thinking, "you know, there are some things that America does so much better than we do, and there are other things that make me so proud to be British".

I’m trying to hold a mirror up to America and tell an honest story - and I’m telling it as someone who loves America.

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Holding power to account is a journalists’ job, and that’s even more demanding in the angry atmosphere in Trump’s America.

What would you say the biggest difference is between America and the UK?

That’s a huge question. One of the fundamental things that strike me is that America, broadly speaking, is more optimistic, less cynical. America venerates success, but with blind spots.

The idea that you could be debating a new health policy that could take insurance away from twenty million Americans strikes me as bizarre. In a country where thirty thousand people die from gun wounds (rather than gun violence - they’re two different things), the most powerful lobbying group in the USA, the National Rifle Association, say to make people safer more of us should be armed. A lack of weaponry is an argument that strikes me as odd. But I do think that British people could learn a lot from Americans about patriotism and love of country.

Why is it that we think we know America?

That’s easy – because we wear the clothes, we listen to the music, we watch the movies and we read the books.

When (and if!) you get the time to read, what kind of book do you go for?

It’s one way or the other. It will either be a history, a non-fiction book or something that transports me to another place altogether, to a different place and time.

And what was the last truly great book you read?

I hesitate to say truly great, but I loved the simplicity of A Gentleman in Moscow, which is a wonderful book about a member of the Russian aristocracy who spends his life under house arrest in a grand Moscow hotel during the Russian revolution. It tells of the casual brutality of bolshevism in that period but also of dignity and decency.

As a regular at the White House, what’s one thing you get asked the most about your time there and your job as North America editor?

One of things I get asked most often by Americans is do I know the queen. When I say actually not that well, they seem a little disappointed. I suppose the most frequent question is what is it like covering the Trump’s White House, that’s the question people want to know. Is it as noisy, is it as quarrelsome as it seems? And the answer is yes.

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