Welcome to ElectionLine’s A View From Abroad series, in which we speak to media figures who don’t live in America, but keep a close eye on its politics. Every couple of weeks, these smart observers will provide a unique perspective on what promises to be a fraught and unpredictable campaign for the White House. This week, our interview is with Justin Webb, a BBC journalist who spent the best part of a decade reporting on North America. He is now one of the BBC’s top presenters and hosts the UK broadcaster’s Americast podcast.
Justin Webb is an old hand at covering U.S. elections, but he admits that the nature of the 2024 campaign feels alien. On his Americast podcast last week, the BBC presenter repeatedly returned to the idea of it being a “strange” presidential race. Broadcasting from Iowa, you could almost hear him craning his neck to absorb the new reality surrounding him.
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As BBC News’ former North America editor, Webb documented the White House runs of George Bush and Barack Obama. Although from different sides of the political aisle, he says their pitch to voters shared a message of hope. Webb thinks that in 2024, the motivation to inspire the American people has given way to a desire to “instill fear” in those heading to the ballot box.
“It’s slightly depressing, to be honest,” Webb says ruefully. “On the Trump side, there is this sense of an entire group of people who are being persecuted unfairly by the state. On the Democratic side, you have a mirror of that vibe, that this is all about the end of America potentially, if Trump gets in. There’s not a lot of room for hope and change in the Obama lexicon.”
Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s battle is a re-run of 2020 when election turnout was higher than any other U.S. vote in the 21st century. Webb is not convinced, however, that Americans are buying what the presidential candidates are selling this time around, arguing that there is a sense of apathy about the polarization that has come to define U.S. politics and media.
Where there was once a so-called “Trump bump” for U.S. networks and websites, ratings are now in decline. Viewing to the Iowa caucus plummeted 17% compared with 2016, according to news site Semafor. Fox News’ audience of 2.8M was down 36% when compared with the 2020 caucus. It remains to be seen if a closer fight between Trump and Nikki Haley in New Hampshire will yield bigger audiences.
A BBC man of 40 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that Webb thinks dissonance in America could be advantageous for the British broadcaster. Under the codename BBC X, the corporation relaunched its North American website late last year in a bid to tap into what it sees as an increased appetite for impartial news.
“There is a segment of American society that is very tired of it [polarization], there’s no doubt about that. They just want to get out of this funk,” Webb tells Deadline. “A lot of Americans find their own media depressing and partisan and if we can be an alternative to that, then we’re going to pick up unhappy people.”
Having said this, Webb is not blind to the BBC’s unfavorable perception among Trump supporters. An irritated Trump compared the BBC to CNN in 2017, memorably scolding then-North America editor Jon Sopel at a press conference with the line: “Here’s another beauty.” Trump eschews the BBC when giving interviews to British media, preferring to be questioned by his friend Nigel Farage on the conservative-leaning GB News.
Webb thinks that the BBC’s global and “liberal with a small L” outlook pushes away “America first” Trump supporters, but he says the MAGA crowd were welcoming in Iowa. He recalls a conversation with Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor who is running for Senate in Arizona. “She genuinely thinks that the BBC is the enemy and is not properly reporting the Trump phenomenon, but she was still willing to talk to me,” he says. “It’s important that those corridors of contact remain open.”
Webb says Trump’s rhetoric is often “spine-chilling and blood-curdling,” but he still thinks that he gets a fairer hearing on the BBC than he does on many major U.S. news networks. “We do try very hard to be fair to Trump and his people. A lot of the American media have really given up on that. It’s interesting watching CNN being hostile to him,” he says. “I can understand the American media’s difficulties with Trump, but we can stay separate from it.”
Webb was struck by CNN pulling away from Trump’s Iowa victory speech amid concerns about disinformation. He acknowledges that networks are under pressure not to give Trump the unfettered, unfiltered access to audiences that turbo-charged his 2016 campaign. Equally, Webb thinks this raises questions about censorship. “Isn’t the audience well enough aware now of Donald Trump and the way he operates … to be able to make out for themselves the extent to which they are being sold stuff that isn’t right,” Webb pondered on the most recent edition of Americast.
The BBC is wrestling with similar questions. On the same edition of Americast, a listener challenged Webb’s co-presenter Sarah Smith on why she had not called out the lies of Eric Trump during an off-the-cuff interview in Iowa. Smith told listeners that she agonized over the exchange and wanted to tread a line between having a “row” and providing a window on Trump’s campaign messaging. She acknowledged that the show could have signposted his inaccuracies more clearly.
Webb has been presenting Americast since August 2022 and is reveling in the space and nuance of podcasting. The 63-year-old is perhaps best known to UK audiences as a lead presenter on Today, the BBC Radio 4 daily news show that is famed for its combative interviews and clinical approach to storytelling.
“The podcast, because it explores rather than directly attacks, people are more willing to do it,” he explains. “I prefer the explorative. There’s an absolute place for combat. I very much support and applaud combative interviews. It’s really important that the BBC, and other major organizations, don’t just become these soft-soaping places where people feel they can get away with saying any old nonsense. With a podcast, you’re able to allow people more space.”
Webb says he is always keen to speak to “thoughtful” Trump supporters — those on the right of the Republican party who are not seen as a “rabble.” Asked if he would platform a more extreme voice, such as Tucker Carlson, Webb is thoughtful for a moment. Eventually, he says that he would be willing to interview Carlson, so long as the former Fox host was not allowed to “destroy or defame” others.
“I would have no problem about talking to Tucker Carlson provided we recorded it. He’s a bright and interesting person, whatever you think of his politics and indeed him as a person,” he adds.
Americast was again among the BBC’s most podcasts last year, underlining a continued appetite for American politics in the UK. Webb says that Brits watch Trump with “considerable horror,” but there is also “genuine interest” in the former president — even if his message is predicated on fear rather than hope.
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