Occupying the biggest stage of all
Even by our industry's standards, BBC News World Affairs Editor John Simpson has spent an obscene amount of his life in and out of airports. In half a century of reporting for Auntie, the journalist has been the corporation's go-to man for coverage of conflict ranging from Northern Ireland to the Middle East and Africa.
Working for the a broadcaster as revered as the BBC gives him greater access today than it did 50 years ago. In 1966 the BBC was a national broadcaster with a strong reputation built on the back of its coverage of the Second World War, he explains. Today it is one of the biggest international broadcasters in the world, watched by a global audience of hundreds of millions.
But not everyone falls for the charms of Auntie. “Interviewing Margaret Thatcher was a trial because she always had some grouse about the BBC and would unload it on you,” says Simpson, a circumstance he learned to combat by telling the Iron Lady her point was exactly what the Iranians/Russians/Chinese had been saying about the BBC. “It used to shut her up quickly.”
Thatcher was of course one of lesser tyrants Simpson had cause to occupy a room with. He has, after all, reported from 30 war zones. Which raises the question: is there one he would have happily switched the camera off for, just to give them a piece of his mind?
“I’ve seen some fairly nasty things over the years, but they just reinforce the feeling that someone has to tell the world about them.”
- John Simpson
“Possibly Robert Mugabe,” he responds. “Though you’d have to run the gauntlet of his thugs afterwards. For most of the others, the camera has always been my armour-plating, protecting me and my team. I think I’d rather keep it turning over.”
A chilling thought that prompts me to ask what advice would Simpson give himself if he could hop back 50 years and accost himself before he set out on his first international assignment.
“My advice to my 22-year-old self would be to follow a list of rules,” he explains. Never be tempted to exaggerate or play up a story, because that always gets you into trouble in the long run. Get as close as you possibly can to the action; talk to as many people as you can and try not to be too scared; things are rarely as dangerous as they look.”
There are of course times when Simpson may wish he'd been out of the picture a little earlier. One of his most harrowing close shaves was very early in his career, at a Belfast cemetery in 1970 where he was held at gunpoint in the mistaken belief he was acting as a spy for the British government. Did this and the many help him arrive at a definition of reasonable risk in the pursuit of a story?
“Nothing is worth getting killed for, naturally, but it’s extremely hard to get any really accurate idea how close that point might be,” he explains. “Better to shut your eyes, grit your teeth and get stuck in, than stand around on the edges waiting for a safe moment. ‘Leap Before You Look’, by W. H. Auden, is one of my favourite poems: ‘Look if you like, but you will have to leap’. Quite so.”
Reeve-Crook with Simpson, Gina Nelthorpe Cowne and David Cameron's former communications chief Craig Oliver
It's this enduring dedication to the cause – 50 years of it – that has long made Simpson a household name and roving reporter archetype. Despite the emotional hardship that must result from reporting on the front line, he has never thought of calling it quits.
“I’ve seen some fairly nasty things over the years, but they just reinforce the feeling that someone has to tell the world about them. On my first outing in Belfast in 1970 [the incident referred to earlier], I was lucky to escape with my life and certainly thought then that maybe this kind of thing wasn’t for me. After that, back at my hotel, I ordered a steak and a half-bottle of red on room service and watched a film, and the feeling went away. It’s never come back.”
It's not all doom and gloom though. Simpson recalls a time in Rwanda during the 1994 massacres, for instance, when a Tutsi woman told him how her Hutu neighbour, at the ultimate risk of her life, had hidden her from a Hutu mob by helping her into the ditch which separated their houses, feeding her for days.
“Why? I suppose because she wasn’t prepared to let the mob destroy her innate decency,” he says. “I could give you half a dozen other examples of people who risked their lives to help others for no reason other than common humanity.”
And this, perhaps, is why so many have taken Simspon to their heart. As Desmond Tutu famously said, “Hope is being able to see there is light despite all of the darkness.”
- This article was originally published in Conference News magazine in October 2016