What is the point, really, in 2021, of a British journalist in the United States? With no language barrier to straddle, and all the cultural cross-pollination of the internet – including easy access to the work of the US’s own, better-funded and more knowledgeable journalists – what can these interlopers add to the picture? Perhaps they are simply there to ask some narrowly UK-focused questions. When Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014, was called on for the first time by the Biden administration’s press secretary, he challenged her on the whereabouts of the White House’s bust of Winston Churchill.
As a reporter-at-large, however, a foreign correspondent might have some advantages. In theory, he observes with “fresh” and more impartial eyes. There is also something more tangible (and a little less clichéd), which is that foreign reporters can wear the mantle of their presumed neutrality in the information-gathering process itself, in a way that domestic journalists, in a country mired in hyper-partisanship and paranoia, no longer can. No news organization enjoys broader credibility inside the US, and especially its hinterland, than the BBC. This constitutes an opportunity to make an original contribution, however marginal, to the host society’s understanding of itself – to the benefit of audiences everywhere.
On the evidence of his latest book, Unpresidented: Politics, pandemics and the race that Trumped all others, Sopel has missed that opportunity…