A life of dodging bullets and bombs

16 May
John Simpson

John Simpson

“My life isn’t all dodging bullets and bombs,” says veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson, before telling tales of derring-do, which include dodging bombs, bullets, and Afghan border control (dressed in a burqa, hijab and niqab face veil).

For someone who grew up wanting to be a journalist (and eventually becoming one) John Simpson was something of an inspiration, so I was delighted that he was as affable and interesting as I hoped he might be.

The subject of his talk was How the Biggest News Stories are Reported, and the irony wasn’t lost on me that I would be tweeting throughout his presentation, and following it up with a blog, which I would be writing well into the night… just like being a jobbing reporter again.

He started with a tale of heroism – how he staggered out of hospital this morning following an operation to remove kidney stones, and was determined to get to Swindon and address the Festival of Literature.

He says people remember him for the wars, but less for the politics. One of his happiest memories was the removal of the communist regime from Czechoslovakia, which took place without a shot being fired.

Meanwhile I’m feeling proud of my own journalistic prowess, having tweeted Czechoslovakia without making a spelling mistake. Yay me.

He was also in South Africa for the end of apartheid. This is his job – important stuff happens, he jumps on a plane, gets there within 24 hours and reports on it.

That said, he’s travelling less than he used to. He’s 67 and has a six-year-old son, with whom he wants to spent as much time as possible before the boy grows up into a miserable teenager.

Again, I find myself full of admiration for a man who enjoys being the father of a six-year-old at the age of 67. I, too, have a six-year-old son. I’m 40 and he wears me out (although I love him dearly).

Back to Simpson. The other reason he doesn’t travel so much is that he has become an ‘expensive luxury’ to the BBC, because he insists on travelling everywhere Business Class. It’s not, he insists, because of some inflated ego, but because of ‘George W Bush’.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, A US Navy jet pilot decided to welcome Simpson and his party to the desert by dropping a 1,000lb bomb on them. Eighteen people were killed, including his interpreter. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my interpreter,” says Simpson.

Then immediately lightening the mood, he reveals: “As a result, I have a piece of shrapnel in my buttock, which I call George W Bush, because it’s a pain in the ass.”

 “I have a piece of shrapnel in my buttock, which I call George W Bush, because it’s a pain in the ass.”

If he thinks little of George W Bush, he thinks less of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, whom he describes as weird. Apart from her, no-one else in the country is that bothered about the Falklands, he insists. Kirchner’s stock in trade is to shout at the British about the Falklands.

He then launches into another hilarious anecdote, which has the capacity audience in stitches: he was reporting from a presidential event on the southern tip of Argentina, to which the world’s leaders had been invited but none, nor their ambassadors, had bothered to attend.

The event went on regardless, and Simpson and his crew decided to film from the sea front. A violent storm was lashing the coast, and the hotel’s only umbrella was being used to shield the expensive camera equipment. After begging for an umbrella, Simpson’s cameraman admits he has one, but says Simpson won’t want it.

Getting soaked, the journalist pleads for it, and is handed a Union Jack umbrella, which almost causes a riot. A small mob is finally dispersed by Argentine police, who are called to the scene of ‘a pro-British protest’, and find the whole thing hilarious once they discover it’s just a BBC news crew.

Simpson is here to promote his new-ish book, Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century was Reported. It was first published in 2010 and came out in paperback at the start of last year, so it’s been knocking around for a while.

In it, Simpson looks at the sharp practices that have mired journalism since the Boer War. Of course, he wasn’t the first – Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News blew the lid on ‘churnalism’, phone hacking and collusion with politicians in return for favours way back in 2008, and we’re living through the consequences this week (if you’re reading an archive version of this article, former Sun and NoW editor Rebekah Brooks has just been charged with hiding evidence from detectives investigating phone hacking and police corruption).

So, Simpson will have something to say about the state of British journalism, right? Oh yes. Here are the headlines, delivered (for reasons that feel right at half-past-midnight) in the style of News At Ten’s Trevor McDonald:

(BONG!) “Journalism isn’t a science. Sometimes we get things wrong and you have to trust your sources.”

(BONG!) “Channel 4 News is the best TV news service we have, but the BBC keeps the whole industry honest.”

(BONG!) “Rupert Murdoch has debased the journalism of our country remarkably and disturbingly. But without Murdoch we would have lost two of our best newspapers, the Sunday Times and The Times, which loses millions of pounds a year. Murdoch loves newspapers and is willing to pour money into The Times. We can’t just see Murdoch as the devil incarnate.”

(BONG!) “ I read The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph every day, with the understanding that each of them has a political view. I even read The Daily Mail when I feel my heart should be beating a bit faster. The BBC is not allowed to have a view, by law, and I get very upset when people say the BBC is leftwing.”

(BONG!) “The British press is second to none when it comes to reporting the facts.”

And that seems a good place to leave this write-up. I was tweeting during the event, so if you’d like more of the same, find our @FestChronicler Twitter feed and look for the 16 May 2012 posts. You can insert your own bongs.

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