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For Jon Sopel, holidays mean breaking news

The BBC presenter and correspondent talks about his ‘luck’, politics, and the highlights and embarrassing moments that have marked his career

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Jon Sopel joined the BBC in 1983 — working in radio for some years and later moving on to television reporting
Gulf News

A senior journalist at the BBC, Jon Sopel is used to rubbing shoulders with world leaders and influential personalities. The day I interviewed him at the BBC New Broadcasting House in London, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was on his show talking about issues such as spying on the Indonesian president and the impact of the rise of China. By the time you read this, he will be in the UAE to interview His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, for his daily BBC World News programme Global.

Speaking ahead of the interview, the BBC presenter tells Weekend Review: “Global prides itself on speaking to the people who make things happen and who can impact the lives of others. Dubai was one of the places worst hit by the financial crisis in 2008, now it seems to be bouncing back, and will host Expo 2020. I am keen to hear Shaikh Mohammad’s views on how far the economy has recovered, and how much further it has to go.”

Trawling through his Twitter page before our meeting, I had come across some rather amusing material to use for interrogation during the interview. While some people in the public eye are very cautious about what they put out on social media, Sopel clearly isn’t one of them. Take a rather odd picture I found of respected journalist John Simpson sweeping the floor, which Sopel posted on Twitter, accompanied by the words: “World affairs ed John Simpson knows his place: sweeping rain from my feet at live point!”

I ask Sopel about it. “It was comedy the amount of rain that was falling,” he says. “And at one point we were taken off the air because the electrical equipment couldn’t cope with the amount of rainwater. And we were standing on this little narrow platform, steel floor, and it was the southern hemisphere summer, and the water was slowly rising. You are standing there broadcasting live, and your feet are under water, and so we had a broom that every now and then the engineer would try to sweep away the water with, and at one point John said ‘oh pass it to me I will start sweeping away’. My producer got a picture of John Simpson sweeping water away. It was just a lovely funny picture. John was so great about it. That was an amusing moment in a day of very serious stressful broadcasting.”

For a journalist who has been with the BBC for three decades, Sopel surely has a lot of exciting stories to share. But top of the agenda when I meet him appears to be the woes of his missed holidays.

“My boss texted me saying the lead indicator of a major news story about to break is you going on holiday,” he says. Indeed Sopel is no stranger to having holidays with his wife disrupted by breaking news events. Last year he had four holidays disrupted. “I was due to go skiing, and I was asked to do a BBC Special on the Pope’s enthronement which I presented,” he says. “I was going to a little island off the UK called the Isles of Scilly, and we got an exclusive interview with Chuck Hagel, the US Defence Secretary in Brunei. So I went to Brunei instead of going to that holiday. I was on holiday in Kenya which I abandoned so that I could go and report on the mall attack. I was due to go to Venice and I ended up going to South Africa.”

Sopel was out with friends in London when he got a call saying Nelson Mandela had died. He changed into a suit, got into a taxi, raced to the BBC studios and was on air from midnight to 3 in the morning. “I was meant to be going with my wife to Venice that weekend,” he says. Instead he went to South Africa. Was his wife upset? “She is used to it. If I said I am not going to Venice darling because I have got to go to football match, I think we might have had a big argument. I think when you say that Mandela has died it is the nature of what we do.” So when is he going to Venice? “In February now, hopefully.”

Sopel feels the South African state was not prepared for the flood of people arriving. Literally thousands of journalists from around the globe had turned up for Mandela’s funeral. “Journalists are very bad at queuing. I spent my first morning when I wanted to be on air in a queue for four and a half hours to get my pass. That was painful. We all saw on television what happened with the guy who was doing the sign language. What a shambles that was.”

He was in Pretoria where Mandela was lying in state. Waking up in the morning, he found people singing on the streets. Sopel decided to join them and do a series of lives as he waded into the crowds.

Was there something odd about people singing after someone’s death? “Different cultures deal with death differently,” he says. “Some people don’t like to say someone has died. They say he has passed away or he has gone to another place. In South Africa, and in a lot of other cultures, it was quite direct. Yes he had died. But it was interesting, I followed the emotion of the queue, and it starts off in the queue that people are singing.

“And as they are getting closer to his body it becomes quieter. Then you go into the kind of area where the coffin is in this glass-top casket. I wanted to go through it. I wanted to see what it felt like. You come out of the other side, and they would say you have got to take your caps off, so sunglasses on, no mobile phones. Amazingly in this 21st century, in this age of social media, I don’t think one photo has appeared of Mandela in his casket because the South African authorities said no, and the people respected it.”

Mandela’s death was just one of many major international stories covered by Sopel. He was born and brought up in London, and when he was 16 his girlfriend’s father was a Cabinet Minister in the UK government.

Sopel became fascinated by watching politics up close round the kitchen table. “Just seeing the life her father led was sort of eye-opening, it was awe-inspiring. Some of it was a bit disillusioning. But I saw how politics is practised and I felt that was interesting.”

At Southampton University he studied politics and became president of the students’ union. A lot of his friends wanted to become politicians. “But I kind of thought, actually, I can see the holes in everyone’s arguments. I never believed anything. I am not an ideologue about anything. I thought I have got a questioning mind, maybe a slightly sceptical mind.”

The year he was president of the union, one of his friends went to journalism college. “He came back to Southampton and it was when the fleet was about to sail to try and retake the Falklands Islands in the South Pacific in the battle with Argentina. It seemed such an exciting life to be interviewing the sailors as they set sail. You could see all the weapons being uploaded on to the ships, as well as the food and all the rest of it,” he says. “I thought it suited me. I thought I would enjoy this.”

He joined the BBC in 1983 working in radio, some years later moving on to television reporting.

He covered a lot of UK politics. “I would travel when the prime minister would travel and that was great. John Major, and then Tony Blair. So I travelled with John Major on his aircraft, and travelled with Tony Blair.”

Then in 1999 he was made the BBC’s Paris correspondent, a position he held for four years. “I thought, why didn’t I become a foreign correspondent earlier? I thought this is such a fantastic life. I loved it.”

In 2001, he went to Afghanistan, reporting from the last Taliban stronghold in the north which the Northern Alliance was trying to move them from. In 2003 he reported the invasion of Iraq. In 2004 he covered Sri Lanka after the tsunami, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

He covered the terrorist attack in Norway, perpetrated by the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, in July 2011. Sopel remembers it was a Friday evening and he had gone to see Cold Play in concert. When the news broke of the massacre, he offered to go to Norway. He spent the whole concert on his phone trying to book flights to Oslo but they were all full. So instead he got a flight to Gothenburg and then drove a car there.

“The producer I was with was a Scandinavian, and not a very confident driver,” he says. “She was the only one insured to drive and I said move over. If we are ever going to get there I am driving. And so I took over the wheel. I was reporting for everyone. And the Norwegian people were so decent, you know it was unspeakable. A lot of children who had died on the island of Utoya were the same age as my kids. I spoke to one woman, she didn’t do an interview on camera, and she told me how two of her friends had been killed. And she lay on the ground cold, their dead bodies on top of her so it looked like she was dead as well. Can you imagine that?”

He also interviewed then Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who knew several of the people killed in the massacre. He spoke from his official residence since the prime minister’s official office had been blown up.

“He was worried that his English wasn’t good enough. But it was perfect. There was a quiet dignity and a steely determination. But you could see that in Norway, that sort of thing did not happen in their country. And they weren’t prepared for it. Security at all these places is negligible. I bet it’s very different if you go back to Norway today. I felt there was a loss of innocence,” he said.

Another deadly massacre he reported from was the September 2013 Kenyan mall terrorist attack by Al Shabaab. Sopel was in Kenya on holiday with his family when it happened. His children had already flown back home. He was in Masai Mara, where all the animals are, and was going with his wife to the coast for three days when their aircraft ran into trouble. “The rains had come early and we went down to the end of the runway, ready to take off, and the aeroplane turned, and we sat there and nothing happened. And its engines were rubbing harder and harder. And one of the wheels had got stuck in the mud. First of all they said get everyone off the aircraft. It is a tiny little awful aeroplane. It was awful scary. Then we had to push the aircraft off the mud. I thought I have had to push-start a car before, never had to push an aircraft.”

Later, while on the flight, his son sent a text message. “It was saying I hope you are not in Nairobi because there has been some shooting incident in a mall. Initially people said it is a gunman, robbery or whatever. By that night there was the first mention there might have been a terrorist attack. And by the following morning it was clear that there were hostages as well. At which point I thought my holiday on the beach is over, I better ring in and say I am in Kenya. And they said go to Nairobi and so I did.” Sopel went to the site of the attack and stayed there for two or three days. The area had been cordoned off and he heard gunfire and watched troop movements. Sopel interviewed some of the survivors. He recalls that on the flight back from Kenya, the person sitting next to him started talking.

This man was repatriating the body of his business partner who had been killed in the mall attack. “He was a hugely wealthy Canadian businessman and he had been there with his business partner. They had gone because they had wanted to discuss philanthropy. They had wanted to discuss projects that they could support in Africa. They had a meeting with one of the NGOs or whatever, and his friend went to the mall and he went to the meeting. And his friend, he described him as a really big bloke, he had a huge hotel chain. And he said the next thing he had to do was go and identify him in the mortuary. He was sitting next to me on the plane and the body was in the hold.”

Politics is a particular forte of Sopel. In 2007, he was named political journalist of the year by the Public Affairs Industry. He has interviewed four British prime ministers.

Who was the most difficult to interview? “Each of them presented their own challenges,” he says. “David Cameron, John Major, Tony Blair could be extremely charming. Gordon Brown was more difficult.” Why? “Because I don’t think he was the easiest communicator. I think he mistrusted the press. And he would stick to certain messages, to the point where you felt, if you asked him what did you have for breakfast today, He would talk about the growth record under Labour government. Sometimes you felt he was just not listening to the questions, and wasn’t engaging in them. I felt it made him a very difficult person to interview.”

I find that interesting, I tell Sopel, because Blair and Cameron have a lot of negativity attached to them. However, Gordon Brown, although he didn’t have the election appeal, appears to have a good guy kind of image.

“This is difficult,” he says. “This is dangerous for me because I am not going to start saying I liked prime minister X more than prime minister Y. At BBC, we take very seriously the whole idea that we are impartial. And it is not for me to pass judgement on who was a good prime minister, and who was a bad prime minister. History will judge that. Our job is to question them, and question them hard. Gordon Brown’s period as prime minister was marked by the financial crises, which he got a lot of plaudits for handling very well. But there were an awful lot of other stuff that went very, very badly wrong. And the worse things went, the more prickly he became as a person to do business with as a journalist.”

And they don’t get along, Brown and Blair? “No, I don’t think there is a great friendship there. When I wrote my book in 1994, I wrote a whole chapter about the problems in their relationship. And that was years before he became prime minister, and before it became a source of such tension.”

I will have to check out his book. “Oh, no no. Very old. Don’t read it.” Why? “Waste of time. It’s old.” The book he doesn’t want me to read is an old biography of Blair called “Tony Blair: The Moderniser”, published before he came to power.

Yet it is not just prime ministers and international dignitaries whom Sopel interviews. “It is very important that occasionally we will have a laugh and a smile and occasionally we will have a weirdo.” Some of the stranger guests on Sopel’s show have included Christine Walton, who has the world’s longest fingernails. His picture with her can be found on Sopel’s Twitter page with the caption: “Been to war zones and stuff and this was scariest interviewee ever. Don’t ask for a back scratch.”

Was she scarier than interviewing the head of a big terrorist organisation? “No, but you know what, I have spent my life with heads of organisations where people have done bad things or got people who have got blood on their hands. I know how to navigate my way around certain types of interviews. I remember sitting with a Northern Alliance commander in this town called Talakan in Northern Afghanistan. I started asking him some tough questions and my translator said to me he had answered that question. I said no he hasn’t, he did not answer it. I am telling you, I am not translating that question again. He was so fearful for his own life that he was sitting with these warlords, all of whom were armed to the teeth. I thought I don’t give a gun whether he has got a gun, whereas someone who has got really long fingernails, that seemed to me pretty scary,” he says, adding: “I hope you are going to write that up as a joke rather than me being serious!”

He is involved in four different charities, including The Princes Trust. He has met Prince Charles who founded the charity, whom he describes as “passionate, committed and hard working”,

What was the news story which most moved him?

“It was covering the tsunami is Sri Lanka,” he says. “It was shocking what you saw. The devastation was total and the people so decent and surviving against the odds in the most terrible conditions.”

What about his most embarrassing moment? “When I was in Paris, it was some very senior business man we were interviewing, and my camera man noticed he had dandruff on his shoulders. So the camera man went, and brushed it off his shoulders. And then I noticed there was a piece of red fluff. I said also you have got a piece of red fluff there on your jacket, and in France that is not red fluff, that is your Légion d’honneur. It was your kind of major award that you have been acknowledged and I just thought that is so embarrassing. It was like his knighthood.”

Since he joined, what changes have happened at the BBC?

“Buildings have changed. People have changed. I think overridingly the values of what drives us and what keeps us all madly committed to this place remain the same.”

He talks about the phenomenal advancements in technology. However, not everyone is impressed. “When we started we didn’t have 24-hour news. There are some people, old school, who say it’s terrible. In my day I used to have three days to do a report and I only had one deadline. Well that is a luxury we don’t have, it is a competitive place out there, and the BBC has got to be sharp,” he says.

–Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London