Just like CNN …
Roger Bolton: On the other hand, Mr Trump, whatever his policies, and whoever he speaks for, is a really unattractive individual as a person, and it must be quite difficult for you not to remain even handed (sic), or that’s what some of our listeners think, that actually, you don’t like Trump, liberals like BBC presenters don’t like Trump.
Jon Sopel: Yeah I, [laughing] funnily enough I was at an event recently where somebody made a very similar point to me. I have found Trump the most compelling subject to cover, person to cover, in my journalistic career because everything is so out of the ordinary.
Feedback, BBC Radio 4, 14 October 2016
Donald Trump, to Jon Sopel: I know who you are, just wait.
White House Press Conference, 17 February 2017
People watching yesterday’s unscheduled White House press conference may have been surprised at the rough treatment meted out to the BBC and its North America correspondent, Jon Sopel, by the President of the United States. As Sopel rose to ask a (rather sarcastic) question about the difficulty the President is having with the implementation of his travel ban, Trump asked him: “where are you from?”
Sopel: Aaah, BBC
Trump: Good, here’s another beauty [laughter]
Sopel: It’s a good line. [laughter] Impartial, free and fair. Umh …
Trump: Yeah, sure.
Sopel: Mr President …
Trump: Just like CNN right?
This is the second time Trump has greeted BBC journalists with the sarcastic epithet “beauty.” He obviously doesn’t like the BBC very much. Yesterday he also compared it to his least favorite US news channel, CNN, which he believes is biased against him from a liberal left perspective. The BBC’s own Roger Bolton (presenter of the Feedback programme, which airs critical comments from the BBC’s audience and allows the BBC to respond) gave some support to the parallel made by President Trump when he put it to Sopel that: “liberals like BBC presenters don’t like Trump” (Feedback, 14 October 2016, quoted above).
“Chaotic, even by Trump’s standards”
But why is President Trump so suspicious of the BBC in general and Jon Sopel in particular? Today’s edition of the Today Programme (the BBC’s flagship news bulletin broadcast on its most prestigious station, Radio 4), which played the exchange between Trump and Sopel, did its best to present the confrontation between the two men as a symptom of President Trump’s problems with communication and organisation. Justin Webb, whose left wing bias is documented in another post, introduced his discussion, with Jon Sopel, of yesterday’s press conference with these words: “Donald Trump has held a chaotic news conference, even by his standards.” So not only is the press conference dismissed as chaotic, but Donald Trump is a chaotic President running a chaotic presidency. Maybe that’s why he’s criticising the BBC – it’s just what chaotic people do. Maybe, if he were more structured and disciplined, he might understand how wonderful and impartial the BBC is.
Unfortunately the oafish Webb then puts his foot in it, saying that the press conference “lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, and as CNN put it, ‘it carved out a stunning moment in modern American political history.'” In other words, to support his view of how unusual or “stunning,” the press conference was – and in so doing undermine any criticism of the BBC from Trump – Webb quoted CNN, thereby providing an example of the very connection between the two networks which formed part of Trump’s insinuation of bias against the BBC. One genuinely wonders whether Webb even bothered to listen to Trump’s press conference before discussing it with Jon Sopel.
Webb later reinforces this perception of Trump when he introduces Sopel. Both he and Sopel are laughing as he says these words: “John Sopel returned to the office [after the press conference] where he reflected for us on a pretty strange encounter on a very strange Washington evening.” Sopel says later on in his report: “And then we had this news conference yesterday which was I mean [sigh] it’s so hackneyed to use the word ‘extraordinary,’ but I’m not sure what other word to use for it, it was an hour and a quarter, for 25 minutes we had a bit of stream of consciousness.” So it’s a “strange” and “extraordinary” encounter, Webb and Sopel allege, featuring a “stream of consciousness,” which means a spontaneous flow of words that hasn’t been subjected to any rational filter or careful reflection. Trump’s criticism of the BBC is made to seem dubious because it took place during such a strange, extraordinary encounter, and because it seems to come from someone who wasn’t really thinking about what they were saying.
But let’s take a step back before getting carried away by the BBC’s subjective characterisation of the press conference. Its supposedly neutral report actually has identical premises to those held by Trump’s opponents, who have been trying to present his Presidency as chaotic ever since he took office. We should remember that the President’s supporters, contrary to the BBC and the US establishment, think he is absolutely right to criticise the biased press. Far from being chaotic or extraordinary, one could argue, Trump is just continuing his policy of refusing to play the media’s game. He is deliberately choosing not to politely observe the niceties of the chummy protocol that the establishment media is used to – because he thinks they’re biased hacks and liars. If Trump has a legitimate reason to distrust the media, including the BBC, then what the BBC presents as chaotic and extraordinary may in fact be a legitimate rejection of that media and its modus operandi.
Jon Sopel admits he doesn’t like Trump
I think Trump has a point, and once you understand that, you see that Webb and Sopel’s characterisation of the conference was highly manipulative. I gave a detailed account last year of the BBC’s bias clear against Trump throughout the campaign. And there is a good reason for Trump to distrust Sopel in particular, as his commentary on Trump has been highly biased. In “BBC’s Jon Sopel: the Tapes Ate My Homework,” I pointed out that, in the edition of the Feedback programme from which the quotes above are taken, Sopel had – ridiculously – defended the total lack of commentary on the corruption surrounding Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, uncovered by Wikileaks, by saying that Hillary Clinton was “incredibly lucky” that this revelation had occurred in the same week as the release of the Trump tapes.
But there’s no need to believe me. You can take it from the horse’s mouth and listen to the BBC’s Roger Bolton and Jon Sopel himself, as quoted in the transcript at the top of this post. In a rare slip, the usually consumately professional Bolton says:
Mr Trump, whatever his policies, and whoever he speaks for, is a really unattractive individual as a person.
Wow. No qualifications here. No “some might say” or “his opponent’s might think.” Bolton just goes flying in with both feet and states, as his own view, that the man who is now President of the United States is “a really unattractive individual as a person.” There is no ambiguity here. Bolton. Does. Not. Like. Trump. And this is the man who is supposed to be an impartial investigator into any accusations of bias from listeners to BBC radio. Incredible.
But even more stupendous is Jon Sopel’s answer to this question. And when analysing that answer, the answer he could have given – but didn’t – is as important as the answer he actually gives.
The answer Sopel could have given, but didn’t:
Not at all Roger. First of all I wouldn’t like to be characterised as a “liberal” or any other political persuasion: my job is to report without being influenced by any political sympathies. And, in this particular case, it’s wrong to say I don’t like Trump, I’m here to report impartially on both candidates and I really don’t have any preference either way.
Feedback, as broadcast in an alternative universe by an unbiased BBC Radio 4, 14 October 2016
Now compare this to the answer Sopel actually gave. And note, with reference to the counterfactual answer above, what Sopel doesn’t say:
Yeah I, [laughing] funnily enough I was at an event recently where somebody made a very similar point to me. I have found Trump the most compelling subject to cover, person to cover, in my journalistic career because everything is so out of the ordinary.
The actual Feedback that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 14 October 2016
Sopel does not deny Bolton’s accusation. If you read carefully, saying that Trump is a “compelling subject to cover, compelling person to cover” is not a denial that Sopel dislikes him. Indeed, if you as a journalist dislike someone intensely and think they are an awful candidate, then that person’s campaign is definitely going to be incredibly compelling, since you will be on tenterhooks – because you’re hoping and praying that he doesn’t get elected!
This is perfectly illustrated by imagining what a 1930s Sopel might have said to defend the BBC’s coverage of the German elections:
Yeah I, funnily enough I was at an event recently where somebody made a very similar point to me. I have found Hitler the most compelling subject to cover, person to cover, in my journalistic career because everything is so out of the ordinary.
The edition of Feedback that might have been broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme, 14 October 1932
Sopel could have said exactly the same thing about Hitler in 1932 as he said about Trump in 2016! In other words, what Sopel said when he was accused of disliking Trump is, in fact, entirely consistent with disliking Trump. He doesn’t deny it, even though there was a clear opportunity for him to do so. Nor, in passing, does he deny that he’s “liberal,” though there was a clear opportunity for him to do so too. It’s amazing. The default answer to such a question for any journalist is to deny any bias.
Sopel does not do this. Instead, he equivocates. He says something positive about Trump as a “subject” first of all. But liking something or someone as a subject is entirely compatible with disliking it as a thing or them as a person. You can like Idi Amin, war or disease as “subjects” without liking Idi Amin, war or disease themselves. Sopel then goes on to say he finds Trump a compelling “person to cover.” But, as we saw, you could just as easily say that about Hitler. You can virulently despise someone and find them “compelling to cover” – precisely for that reason. This is classic slippery equivocation from Sopel. He says something which sounds positive about Trump, and uses this to dispel the notion that he is biased. But what he says isn’t really positive about Trump at all, and is in fact perfectly consistent with an intense aversion to him. An aversion which seems to animate Sopel in his reporting.
I have documented the BBC’s bias against Trump in detail, including Sopel’s. But this was in a way a vain exercise. The bias is hiding in plain sight. Bolton expressed it, and Sopel admitted it, on a programme designed by the BBC to investigate its own impartiality. No wonder President Trump was less than impressed by Sopel’s strapline “Impartial, free and fair.” Try “Partial, funded by license fee and biased” instead, Mr Sopel.
Comments or disagreements are welcome. I always respond.