Perhaps it was inevitable that Donald Trump disrupted my interview with Jon Sopel. I call the BBC’s North America Editor at the appointed hour, but alas, it coincides with a breaking news story. Trump has called off his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader he dubbed “little rocket man”.
Sopel’s morning is therefore hijacked by this presidential bombshell — not an uncommon occurrence, with Trump in the White House. And rather fitting, as we’re discussing Sopel’s book If Only They Didn’t Speak English, Notes from Trump’s America, published in paperback this week with a brand new final chapter. Luckily for me, a huge breaking sory doesn’t put Sopel off his stride. After taking five minutes to organise himself, we talk as he drives to work.
I’ve been reading his book and enjoying his crisp analysis of American politics in the Trump era. He explains the title in his preface: “If only they didn’t speak English in America then we’d treat it as a foreign country — and possibly understand it a lot better.”
It is, therefore, a book about America but aimed at the British, an expansion of the work he does every day on television and radio.
Watching him on the news the night before, it struck me just how much content he has to fit in to a very short time on screen. Was writing a book like being let off the leash? He laughs: “ Absolutely! Being short is part of the discipline of working in television, but it’s lovely to expand on and argue points.” His usual broadcast slots are a minute or so — around 200 words — so, writing a book of 70,000 words was a “joy”, he admits. “It’s a different discipline writing for the page,” but his mission is unchanged and very BBC, telling the truth, in context. “It’s not a case of Trump being good or evil, it’s more nuanced than that,” he says. The book illuminates areas where the UK and USA are very different; race, guns. and patriotism all have chapters of their own.
He’s a BBC man through and through, and has worked for them for his entire career, starting out in local radio in Southampton where he went to university, studying politics and serving as president of the Students’ Union. He thrived at the BBC, working his way up as a political correspondent, before being posted to Washington DC. Although once he was active in student politics for Labour, now he is a model of BBC balance. “The values it stands for matter all the more in an era of fake news,” he says. “I’m not paid to have an axe to grind.”
At one press conference Trump singled him out, muttering “another beauty” when he identified himself as a BBC reporter and, when Sopel asserted the corportaion’s values as “impartial, free and fair,” the president sneered back “just like CNN.”
The Trump era has, says Sopel, made him “simultaneously more cautious and more outspoken, if that makes sense.” He takes even more care than ever to be accurate, knowing there will be a backlash if he gets it wrong.
On the other hand, when Trump is caught out not telling the truth — such as when he denied knowledge of the money his lawyer paid Stormy Daniels — “we have to call him out, we can’t sugar coat it.”
What’s more, as the book makes clear, Trump’s election campaign has changed the way that American politics is reported. “I was in new territory,” he writes. “Call me sheltered but in the course of covering politics I had never hitherto discussed penis size or a woman’s vagina — but these were subjects that now had their moments in the sun.”
He describes senior BBC editors having earnest discussions during the election about which words could be used pre-watershed; in his new chapter his incredulity at the saltiness of subject matter and rhetoric used by Trump and his ever-changing team has only grown.
If Sopel personifies one institution, he grew up in another. His describes his parents Miriam and Myer as “pillars of the East End Jewish community”. They were the wardens of the Oxford and St George’s Club in the 1950s and 60s, a youth club in Whitechapel set up in 1914 by Basil Henriques, scion of an old-established Sephardi family. With a badge made up of a Magen David for Judaism, Tudor roses, the deep blue of Oxford University and the red of the St George’s cross, the club’s purpose could hardly be clearer — to anglicise or, as Sopel puts it, “assimilate” newly arrived Eastern European Jewish migrants. “It couldn’t have had a less Jewish name,” he muses.
The 11 years he spent living there were his first (he was born in 1959) and the club’s last. His barmitzvah, in its basement synagogue, may well have been the last such simcha held there, as the building in Berners Street was sold in 1973 and the club moved to Totteridge.
The Sopel family moved to north London and he went to Christ’s College in Finchley, a school which despite the name was half Jewish, half Christian (and which is also the alma mater of Lord Sacks). “That’s how football teams were picked.”
I’d like to ask more about growing up in a Jewish youth club, part of a vanishing community, but he arrives at the office and has to get going on the story. We agree to talk again later, after the six o’clock news, which I watch. In a few hours, he’s put together a report which breaks the news, explains the context and weaves in Trump’s letter, and quotes from the man himself.
Later he tells me that that after the morning’s “chaos” he’d thought about how to convey the “Oh my God” nature of the news, using Trump’s letter as the illustration. The footage of the president at the White House arrived so late that it was still being edited as his bulletin started. “It was stressful.”
He sums up his role thus: “If someone’s crossing a busy motorway, I’m going to guide you over and make it fun and interesting. It’s about being a good storyteller.”
Does he think there’s a Jewish vote in the US any more and if so has it been won over by Trump? “The Jewish community is quarrelsome. If you put a group of Jews in a room you know they’ll argue about every point and every detail. You can’t assume that because Trump is pro-Israel he is winning Jewish votes. At the election, two to one were in favour of Hillary.” Furthermore, he points out the most vociferous group that Trump is trying to please with his Israel policy are evangelical Christians. “They are fanatically pro- Israel, but they don’t much care for the Jews.”
How about First Daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner? “I find this one very difficult. We don’t know how much influence they have.” Sometimes, he says, it feels like “window dressing”, a way of deflecting any suggestion that Trump might be antisemitic. As for the influence of Jared Kushner, “well, he was meant to bring about Middle East peace.” In his book’s index, Jared Kushner gets one mention and Ivanka none — and none for the enigmatic Melania either. Twitter, on the other hand, is mentioned on 32 pages.
Throughout both our conversations, Sopel’s been razor sharp, articulate and very quotable. A joy to interview in fact. But then I ask a standard JC question, how does being Jewish play a part in his life now? And he loses his fluency, as he grapples with a question that he doesn’t seem to expect and would prefer not to answer. He arrives eventually at “culturally Jewish,” alongside “British”, and asks if we can just leave it at that. It’s a distinctly grumpy end to our otherwise pleasant conversation.
I’d have loved to explore how the child of Oxford and St George’s became the voice of Britishness in the White House press corps. But as a journalist myself I know that we prefer being the one who tells the story, not the story.
The next day, Sopel’s on screen explaining another about-turn on North Korea. As he says, in the last line of his book, “Perhaps the question that ought to be posed, one year in, is not whether the presidency will change Donald Trump, but how much he will change the presidency?”