Wimbledon Bookfest Review: Jon Sopel

'A Guide to New America' with the BBC's North America editor

The 11th annual Wimbledon BookFest brings the worlds of literature, the arts, popular culture, film and sport to the Big Tent on Wimbledon Common.

There are almost 100 events taking place until October 15, showcasing a diverse range of literary names, local talent, politics, current affairs, sport, film, music, theatre and children’s events. Here Carol Whittaker reviews Jon Sopel: 'A Guide to New America'.

Jon Sopel gave a fascinating and engaging insight into Donald Trump’s first year in office delivered with authority, humour and fluency at the Bookfest on Monday (October 9).

It went through my mind that only a week or so ago the BBC North America editor was reporting from the scene of the worst gun massacre in US history in Las Vegas. It seemed strange that this same person could now be sitting in front of an intrigued audience in the cosy stillness of a marquee on Wimbledon Common. His responsibility for delivering impartial reporting from the US is huge and yet the slots allocated to him on BBC News are only about 55 seconds long. He says that any personal opinion he has when reporting may only possibly come through by watching the tweak of his eyebrows… 

When a call was put through to Downing Street at 3am on the night of the presidential election a very sleepy and unengaged person picked up the phone at the other end.  “Oh F***” said the man who suddenly shot to life when Jon Sopel announced that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States. The Big Tent’s audience roared with laughter.

Jon is on duty 24/7 in order to respond to the plethora of excitement and intrigue which the new presidency provides. He described his job as both exhilarating and exhausting. His mobile is set to alert him of any Twitter messages the president sends out and there were a few coming in whilst he was on the podium in the Big Tent speaking to us.

It was evident how engaged the audience was by the number of questions  put to him at the end of his fascinating 40 minute account. He was taking two questions at a time and if he wasn’t being followed by another speaker, I’m sure we would have wanted to question him all evening.

Subjects as diverse as; ‘how to  cover a president who is so different to anyone who has gone before’; the coverage of the election by the US media; racism; misogyny; North Korea (“are we going to be blown off the face of the earth?”), Russian interference, were all covered.

Jon Sopel shared his personal insights with us – a selection of which I will attempt to share below;

It was always clear what Donald Trump wanted to do if he was elected (i.e.; build a wall on the Mexican border; reverse Obamacare – to name but two), but that he could never really get to grips with what Hillary Clinton was offering. In the end Trump was voted in because the establishment knew he would deliver a conservative to the Supreme Court. He felt that Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate at the wrong time.  It was clear the US wanted change and she represented the political establishment. 

Nobody really took Donald Trump’s candidature for presidency seriously until Dallas when everybody realised he was not going to go away. It was clear at that stage that “there is something more going on here” and “more than met the eye”. 

For the media Jon Sopel felt that Donald Trump is an enigma and has provided them with a challenge. The way to deal with him as a reporter is to understand that there are no rules and to expect the unexpected. The US News gave Trump unprecedented coverage after his election as they know what he says will be fun and get ratings. He “sucks the oxygen out of the room” so nothing else matters.  But the spreading of fake news in the US poses a serious threat to democracy. Much much fake news was spread on his presidential opponent.

Trump’s support base is angry white men (the swastikas on view at Charlottesville) speak for themselves). He hates to be criticised by women, but despite his misogyny he has a very large white female following. Contrary to this, leaders in industry resigned on mass when he was elected and many people in the republican party are very troubled by his presidential tenure.

One fact that’s not clear is that when he fires off speeches it’s unclear whether his sometimes outrageous comments are gut instinct or whether what he says is part of a deliberate strategy….  What’s clear is that if he’s unable to get any bills through Congress it’s ‘never his fault’.  He blames other people for not being able to deliver in order to make him appear to be faultless.  

Jon Sopel concluded that he thinks it’s more likely that Trump will serve a second term than be impeached. Going forwards it’s clear that his presidential tenure is taking the US in a completely different future direction with unorthodox candidates possibly running for presidency in his wake.

Jon Sopel’s new book is entitled “If Only They Didn’t Speak English”. According to a Sunday Times Bestseller entitled ‘My Grammar and I’; “in 1755 Samuel Johnson published his dictionary of the English language and in 1828 Noah Webster published an American Dictionary of the English language. Webster was single handedly responsible for most of the differences between English and American spelling that survive to this day.” American English and English language have many differences other than spelling, so it’s possibly debatable as to whether Americans do really speak English ….. ? 

By Carol Whittaker

See www.wimbledonbookfest.org for complete programme details.

October 10, 2017

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