BBC North America Editor Jon Sopel on the role Hampshire has played in his career
PUBLISHED: 10:07 03 January 2017
© Minna Waring
Jon Sopel has been working for the BBC for over 30 years. Currently based in Washington as the broadcaster’s North America Editor, Andy Greeves discovers the significant role Hampshire has played in his career to date
Born in London on May 22, 1959, Jon Sopel’s connection to Hampshire began as a teenager when he sought out a prospective institution to study for a degree. He would go on to enrol as an undergraduate on the BSc Politics and Sociology course at the University of Southampton in 1978, with the university, the city and the county all playing a major part in Sopel’s life and career thereafter.
Ironically, Sopel looks back on his decision to move to Southampton as an 18-year-old as one he made relatively lightly.
“I think it’s hard at 17 or 18 to really appreciate the significance of your choice of university,” he reflects. “I can remember it being a lovely day when I looked around Southampton and I thought the campus was really attractive. That probably swayed my decision to study there as much as anything else. I have a subliminal question in my mind, and I don’t know if this played a part too, but I was looking at universities in 1976 and 1977 when Southampton had just won the FA Cup. I wonder if I thought back then that there was a bit more glamour attached to Southampton as a result!”
Sopel “absolutely loved” his time in Southampton as a student, living on Northumberland Road during that period. Having obtained a 2:1 degree in 1981, he stayed on for another academic year as President of the Student Union, following in the footsteps of Sky News’ Jon Craig and Labour MPs John Denham and Dr Alan Whitehead. He recalls getting a “pile of rejection letters” as he began applying for jobs in the early 1980s, only to be inspired into his future vocation by a fellow student.
“A friend of mine had been at university at the same time as me, but he hadn’t stayed on that extra year like I did,” remembers Jon. “He went to work at what was then known as Radio Victory in Portsmouth. It was just before the Falklands War and the fleet was getting ready to set sail. I remember my friend telling all the stories relating to the fleet being assembled in Portsmouth. How you couldn’t find fresh fruit or vegetables in the city because it was all being loaded on to the ships, that kind of thing. I remember thinking ‘what an exciting job,’.”
He obtained a PGDip in Broadcast Journalism at the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication) before returning to Southampton as a reporter for BBC Radio Solent in 1983.
“I had the most wonderful four years at BBC Radio Solent,” he smiles. “I was reporter, then a producer and after that I was the news editor in charge of the coverage of the 1987 General Election. I arrived just before the 1983 general election. Gathering dust somewhere in the Solent archive are reel-to-reel constituency profiles that I did in the run-up to that election. I don’t think they had anyone at the time who was massively into politics in the way I was.
“Probably my biggest story while I was there was covering a kid who got trapped down a well at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. It became a huge national story as there was a question mark at the time about whether he was dead or alive. It (his coverage) was spotted (by the BBC) in London and they invited me up.”
It was while at BBC Radio Solent that Sopel met his wife Linda, who he married in 1988. Though work took him to London, the couple and their two children lived in the north Hampshire village of Cheriton between 1990 and 1999. His next move took the Sopels to Paris where Jon worked as the BBC’s France correspondent for four years before returning to the UK in 2003 as co-presenter on the BBC News Channel. He hosted The Politics Show between 2005 and 2011, amongst other broadcasting commitments, before becoming BBC North America Editor in August 2014.
“I love America but that’s not to say uncritically,” Sopel says. “America is a great country full of hope, optimism and possibility and the ‘American Dream’ still lives on. There are big problems though. The amount of people locked up in prison, the people that get left behind by society, the ones without health insurance etc. And the statistics on gun crime are staggering.
“In London, everyone thinks, ‘ah yes, we know America, they are just like us… they have the same history, they speak the same language and have the same interests’. It would be much easier to tell the story of America if Americans didn’t speak English. Then I think we’d sit up and treat it as a foreign country, which it is. The culture, the values system, the role of religion for example… all of these things are completely different in America compared to Britain.”
Sopel’s children are now grown up and live in London, and being apart from them is the hardest part of living in the US. But what else does he miss about ‘blighty’?!
“Good bacon, Marmite, the British sense of humour and probably irony and sarcasm,” he laughs. “I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the weather too. There is probably the month of April and the month of October when you can walk around comfortably. The rest of the time, it’s too cold or too hot. The weather extremes in Washington are extraordinary. We had two weeks two winters back when every day the temperatures were minus 14c, minus 15c. Then in the summer, it can be 35c with high humidity.”
Sopel has reported from the scene of events such as the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and Hurricane Katrina that devastated parts of the United States in 2005. He broke the story live on air for the Six 0’Clock News in 1990 that Margaret Thatcher had failed in her battle against Michael Heseltine for the Conservative Party leadership, while he was the BBC’s correspondent in Kuwait City during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“My career highlight to date came in 2015 when I got the chance to interview Barack Obama,” says Jon. “That seemed a long, long way from the council chamber at Southampton City Hall to be sitting in the Roosevelt room of the White House with the then-president of the United States.”
The majority of Sopel’s work in 2016 was devoted to the Presidential Election. “People always say ‘everything is bigger’ in America and that was my experience of the election,” reflects Sopel. “In Britain, you have a six-week election campaign, in America it feels like you never stop campaigning. It’s riveting.”
He took time out from election coverage in September when he was a guest lecturer on board the Cunard RMS Queen Mary 2, delivering a talk on the historic sailing route between Southampton and New York.
“A lot of that touched on my links to Southampton and it was very exciting and nostalgic for me. When I got my job at Radio Solent, we were in South Western House (between Terminus Terrace and Canute Road in Southampton). We used to watch the QE2 coming in or going out.”
Sopel’s Southampton and Hampshire links were cemented in 2011 when the University of Southampton awarded him an honorary doctorate for his contribution to politics and broadcasting. The former Political Journalist of the Year looks back on the day he was presented with the honour and says: “It was absolutely delightful. I was on the stage with the public orator, who had done his research and was making me sound so impressive that I kept thinking ‘it can’t be me he’s talking about’!”
With Donald Trump now heading for The White House, our man in North America is likely to be popping up on our screens a lot more in future.