Reflections with John Simpson: An escape from sub-editing


By Merryn Johnson

As Vin Ray introduced BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson to an audience at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 15 January, he joked that the evening would be a cross between ‘This Is Your Life’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’.

The first clip that Simpson chose to illustrate his influences was from the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which made a strong impression on him as a boy.

“The really frightening thing seemed to me at the age of 14–15 was that the state could destroy the memory of what had happened, that it could change history and make it impossible for anybody else to check it out. And this of course happened in both the Soviet Union under Stalin and in China under Mao.”

Before Simpson became the foreign correspondent we all recognise and to cover those states threatening individuals’ memory and voice, he started his career with the BBC in 1966 as a trainee sub-editor, mostly subbing the weather forecasts. He spoke with a passionate loathing about his months of servitude, and the ‘slave driving’ masters in charge.

“I was absolutely crap at it and I hated it. . . . I escaped from there after 15 months and it was like digging a tunnel out of Stalag Luft 7.”

And what an escape.

On his first day as a reporter, Simpson was punched by then prime minister, Harold Wilson, for asking him if he was going to call a general election, but soon found himself covering the apartheid in South Africa and learning lessons in objectivity from Sir Hugh Greene, director-general of the BBC.

“He said that of course objectivity is the central quality about reporting, but that’s not the same thing as balancing two opposites and regarding them as having equal validity . . . we are not unbiased as between apartheid and it’s effects. I’ve never forgotten that . . . If governments shoot their citizens down, if governments stamp on their faces, as it were, with a boot, if they lock up large numbers of people for merely saying the things they say, then I think you have a duty to tell people about that.”

In South Africa, he also learnt from fellow reporters Charles Wheeler and Brian Barron, and back in the UK from the ever-beautiful Martha Gellhorn.

“She was able to turn what she saw into words in a way that not many of us are able to do. And always there, somehow or other, there’s a fire burning, just as there is, or was, with Charles Wheeler—the sense that the world is a wicked place and it’s her function to tell people about it, to describe it to people. . . . I do feel that my career has been spent in the shallows—she was in the deep.”

As his career has escalated, Simpson has become a generalists, a big name flown in to cover major events all over the world. Yet he is still capable of pulling off the biggest exclusive he, and possibly the BBC, has ever had. In 2001, Simpson led the first foreign cameras into Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in what Martin Bell and Jeremy Bowen described as the best bit of TV news they had ever seen.

Asked whether he had his expectations shattered along his career by the personalities he had met, Simpson admitted that he had found Gaddafi to be “a weirdo airhead who no one ever brought to heel”, Saddam to be “mensch, a tough man with a real sense of humour” and Mugabe to be “highly intelligent”. “But,” he added, “the ‘arsehole quality’ always comes through.”

Ray put a final question to him about fatherhood:

“I don’t want to get killed and I want [my young son] to remember me, but I’ve done this for decades and I don’t want to give up doing it. I feel that if he has any liking or respect for me, it will be partly because of what I do for a living and I don’t want to stop doing it.”

Watch the highlights below and the full event here.

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