Jon Sopel has spoken out about “bullshit” at the BBC, but dismissed fears of a “brain drain” at the corporation, after leaving for its commercial rival Global alongside Emily Maitlis.
Both ex-North America editor Sopel and Newsnight presenter Maitlis also spoke of their frustrations over the BBC’s pursuit of “false equivalence” at a conference in London on Thursday.
Sopel and Maitlis announced in February that they were leaving the BBC, after 40 and 20 years respectively, to launch a daily news podcast with LBC owner Global – which has also poached Andrew Marr in the past six months.
They joined their former Americast podcast editor Dino Sofos, who himself had departed after 14 years to launch his own production company Persephonica with the aim of creating “habit-forming podcasts fronted by big talent”.
Sopel said he felt Global’s executives have an “intellectual self-confidence that maybe sometimes the BBC, because it is such a political organisation, doesn’t have, and I think that will be immensely refreshing for the three of us”.
Their Global podcast is still in development and hiring staff, including a senior producer, but will begin piloting in July and launch in September, the pair revealed at The Podcast Show in London on Thursday.
Maitlis said impartiality would be “really, really important and really key to us” despite Global having less strict rules on impartiality than the BBC, which has higher standards than Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.
She added: “By impartiality, I mean approaching stories without fear or favour. And for me the worst mistake we can make is to not do things, not ask things, confront things, not call things out if people are sitting there telling you lies, if people are not answering your question, if people are trying to divert away from the stuff that you want answered by telling you that somehow this isn’t what the country’s interested in, or you’re following your own agenda. I’m done with that now.
“I think it’s really important that we get to be able to ask the questions straight and not have that sense of shadows in the background saying you shouldn’t be doing this and you shouldn’t be doing your job. I want to make sure we are properly delivering something that’s journalistically fit for purpose.”
‘I thought this is bullshit’
Both Sopel and Maitlis accused the BBC of pursuing “false equivalence”, and Sopel cited two examples in particular.
One was at the start of February when they wanted to use a clip on Americast of Boris Johnson in the House of Commons falsely claiming Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was responsible for the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile – but were told they could not play it by higher-ups. Sopel hated the idea of “censoring” the Prime Minister.
He said: “You have absolute privilege in the Commons to say what the hell you like… I thought, this is bullshit.”
At the time, Sopel and Maitlis were in advanced negotiations to leave for Global so they let it slide, he said.
Previously, when Sopel was US editor, he flew with Barack Obama on Air Force One from Saudi Arabia to London and filed from the plane. He was then told, he said, it was a “very nice piece… but it hasn’t got any Nigel Farage in it”.
“I said ‘I couldn’t get to the front of the plane but I’m pretty certain Nigel Farage wasn’t on the plane and I’m travelling with Barack Obama, not with Nigel Farage’. ‘Oh, yeah, every piece has got to be internally balanced,’” he said he was told. “I don’t call that impartiality.”
Maitlis added: “After the 2020 election there was this narrative, which was completely true, that some people in America thought that Joe Biden won the election, some people in America thought that Trump won the election.
“And as a statement that was 100% true and remains true to this very day. But by the repetition of something like that you are doing an enormous and dangerous damage to the fabric of democracy by not then having the little coda that goes ‘by the way, one of them did win, and one of them didn’t’.
“And I just don’t want us to be in the place where we’re sitting there trying to be sort of – yeah, false equivalence is the [phrase] – trying to explain a balance that does not exist in the actual world of truth and honesty.”
Ofcom said in a review of the BBC’s news and current affairs output in 2019 that some members of the public had criticised “false equivalence” in its reporting and that: “Broadcasting rules do not require the BBC or other broadcasters to be absolutely neutral on every issue within news and current affairs, but they must be duly impartial.”
Jon Sopel was BBC political editor frontrunner
Addressing fears of a “brain drain” at the BBC following the departures of top talent, including themselves and Marr, Sopel said it was a “fantastic opportunity for the BBC” to recruit and promote new talent. “It’s an opportunity for some young talent at the BBC to take the places of old farts – not that I’m calling Maitlis an old fart.”
He said: “It just became an opportunity that was too good to turn down. And although I’d spent my whole life at the BBC, I’d never resigned from a job. I have never owned a mobile phone myself. I have always had a BBC one. I’ve always had a BBC laptop. My daughter pointed out to me she had resigned more than I have. And so it seemed an opportunity.”
Jonathan Wall, the controller of BBC Sounds, separately told The Podcast Show the narrative about the BBC “haemorrhaging” talent “irritates” him, pointing in particular to Maitlis’s return and the signing of other big names including sports presenter Chris Kamara, Good Morning Britain’s Ben Shephard and pop star Sam Smith. He said “we want to work with the best companies with the best talent and the best ideas”.
Sopel acknowledged that before he left, he was considered the frontrunner to succeed Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s next political editor. Since his departure from the BBC, the role has been filled by Any Questions? host Chris Mason.
Sopel said: “I wanted to be political editor. It was flattering, I was glad to be asked. And then I thought do I really want to be political editor with all that comes with it?”
He added that this decision had not just been about avoiding the vitriol of social media, but that Americast, which launched in 2020, had been “undoubtedly the most professionally satisfying thing” he did while in the US and showed him “this podcast space is so interesting and engaging”.
Maitlis said she had assumed she would have to pursue her podcast idea without her Americast co-host Sopel because he was “being lined up” as the next political editor and was a “BBC lifer”. She even contacted Hugh Grant, who agreed to be a potential co-host before Sopel signed on after all.
After they made their first pitch to Global head of broadcasting James Rea, he asked Maitlis how it would work with the BBC. She replied “I’ll leave” and Rea’s “jaw hit the floor”, according to Sofos. Sopel also recounted being asked if he was serious about leaving the BBC on a Zoom call.
Maitlis said the BBC “is brilliant at so many things, but it wouldn’t have let us do this obviously, it wouldn’t have let us come up with a massive original plan and take it somewhere else and experiment”.
She added: “We really wanted to carry on working together, we really missed Dino being in the centre of our sort of podcasting life and so it wasn’t like we were running out the door of the BBC.
“I would never want to hang on to something by my fingernails thinking this is the only place for me,” Maitlis went on. “I’ve been fantastically lucky and I’m incredibly grateful for an astonishing sort of number of years and colleagues and friends there but actually the pull was to do the next thing and if the next thing is in the next place, you have to go towards the next place.”
Explaining why she loved podcasting, Maitlis said she felt “straitjacketed” and “tense” in a serious nightly TV news setting like Newsnight but that her shoulders would “relax” when she went to record an episode of Americast afterwards.
Podcast to avoid SW1 ‘coughs and splutters’
Maitlis said the ambition with the new podcast at Global, which will probably be released in the early evenings, would be to “make it a habit” for people who think “I just want to get their take on what’s happened today. It’s been unbelievable.”
Sopel added: “While we’re a daily news podcast, we’re not breaking news. There’s plenty of that around. It’s not going to be ‘let me shout at you for 15 minutes on my views on abortion’, or whatever it happens to be. It’s just going to be, hopefully, a take on two, three, maybe one of the big stories of the day – stand back, tell me something interesting about this that I haven’t thought about or why it matters, or why I should be listening to it.”
Sofos, the creator of Brexitcast and Newscast as well as Americast, also said that visualisation and social media tie-ins to their podcasts at the BBC “were always an afterthought” but that “we’re going into this thinking about Tiktok, thinking about visualisation, thinking about how the audio content and the video content marries up, and how we reach those younger audiences… because I think there are so many podcasts out there that are rooted in SW1, covering Westminster, the ins and outs and coughs and splutters and select committees, etc. We want this to be a lot broader than that.”
Picture: Press Gazette
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