There has never been a more demanding time to be a journalist. I say this as someone who has reported a bit from war zones where bombs are falling; I have also found myself in the middle of riots where Molotov cocktails are being hurled, a water cannon has been deployed and the air hangs heavy with tear gas; and I have reported from the most appalling natural disasters where there is hunger and a high risk of disease. And yet I would say – and I can’t quite believe I am saying it – reporting from leafy, affluent Washington during this extraordinary presidency is like nothing else. Because politics is being played by not just new rules but sometimes no rules.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been in the press area of a Donald Trump rally at the back of a hall, on a raised platform so we can get good pictures of him speaking, with all the other film crews. A propos of nothing, the President will point a finger at us and accuse us of being liars, and fake news, and the most dishonest people you have ever met. The other week in Phoenix, Arizona he accused us of turning off the live cameras because he was making disobliging comments. No network had. He said the media wouldn’t show the size of the crowds. They all did.
When this happens, the crowd will turn their back on the 45th President of the United States to face us, and boo and jeer – and sometimes far worse. At the end of the presidential election campaign, the police posted officers at our cordoned-off area to stop us being physically attacked by Trump supporters. Frankly, even being spat at is not very nice.
If you’re attacked you want to defend yourself. I went to the White House for, perhaps, the most extraordinary news conference that’s ever been held there. The President was in a feisty, belligerent mood. I got to ask a question, but barely had I spoken the first word than the President growled at me, “Where are you from?” “BBC,” I replied. “Another beauty,” he said sarcastically. And in the split second that you have to decide these things, I thought, I am going to be scrupulously polite, but stand my ground. I said we were free (from government interference), fair and impartial. He sneered, “Like CNN”, and I replied that we could banter back and forth, but then asked my question.
I am still (after 30-plus years) immensely proud to work for the BBC, and unless you’ve worked for this sometimes utterly infuriating organisation, you would never know how much thought and care go into issues like fairness and impartiality – and the fretting about getting the tone right.
Do we sometimes get things wrong? Are you kidding me, of course we do. But some news organisations in the US, I think, have made the huge mistake of thinking they are the opposition to Donald Trump. Maybe it’s born of pique at being attacked; maybe it’s a hard-headed commercial decision – there’s money to be made in filling the gap in the market, which means being the out-and-out opponent to the President is the path to greater profitability.
May we never go down that path. Yes, of course, our job is to “speak truth to power”, but let those who want to oppose the President – or politicians anywhere, for that matter – stand for office, and take their chances at the ballot box. Like many partisans down the ages, Donald Trump’s acolytes would love to delegitimise what we do. Politicians would find it a lot easier if they didn’t have pesky journalists holding them to account. But let us do so fairly and calmly. If Donald Trump wants to attack us, that’s his prerogative – but we must judge what he says on the facts and the evidence. If untruths are told, we must point them out. But it’s not our job just to hurl stones back at him.
Otherwise in a social media age awash with falsehood and fake news, and dodgy characters with highly dubious motives, no one will trust us either. Our job, as free, fair and impartial journalists, has never been more important, in an environment that’s never been more challenging.
By Jon Sopel
Jon Sopel’s book, If Only They Didn’t Speak English — Notes from Trump’s America, is out now