An Interview with BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson

Image credit: Chris Williamson

I wondered, whilst waiting for John Simpson in the Union library, whether there was anything more daunting than interviewing the world’s most formidable interviewer. The current world-affairs editor of the BBC has interviewed no less than two hundred world-leaders, including eight Prime Ministers. He has spoken with dictators, from Assad to Mugabe, several war criminals, and has met with Putin on three occasions.

My nerves were not eased by Simpson’s arrival. He is a space-filling man, large in every sense, and he strode in dressed in velvet and tweed. But it was he who put out his hand first. Introducing himself in a soft-spoken voice, he told me to call him ‘John’, and we took a seat at a table by the window.

He never expected his career. He joined the BBC as a sub-editor without “the faintest idea of where [he] would go” but got lucky when he began reporting on the Troubles in Ireland in 1969. It was there that he “cut his teeth” in “some of the scariest” scenes of his life, and proved himself to be of reporter-material. But this promising start was nearly cut short the following year. It was 1970 and there were rumours of a general-election. Simpson was standing with a crowd of international press in Liverpool Street, waiting for the then-Prime minister, Harold Wilson, to make an appearance. When he did, Simpson alone stepped forward, but never got to ask his question; Wilson hit him in the stomach, winding him, and, walking on, promised to get him fired by the next day. For whatever reason, Wilson never made that phone call, and neither did the international press publish their pictures of the assault, and so Simpson’s career continued on upwards.

I knew he’d known, and been influenced by, Martha Gellhorn, and so I bring up her name. “Oh I absolutely adored her," he says, with unabashed nostalgia, "first thing I would do when I had been somewhere was go round to Martha’s flat in Chelsea and talk to her about it and hear her views.” And was she an influence? “Oh a huge influence for me yes. If only because I wanted her approbation.” We talk about her for some time, and although he says he was a mere “institutional animal” in comparison to her, Gehllhorn’s belief in reporting from within the action has clearly rubbed off; she snuck aboard a ship bound for Normandy in 1944 in order to cover the landings, Simpson snuck into Afghanistan dressed in Burka in 2001, and got uncomfortably close to the action in 2003 when he narrowly survived being bombed by a US fighter jet. Concluding, he describes her as “the finest journalist of the 20th century”, and, he tells me, he is currently organisng a commemorative plaque for her in London.

On the topic of style, I ask him whether there is a golden-rule to his reporting. “It’s one of those things that I think you can’t lay down the rules for, but you know when it’s happened.” Given the choice between extremes, between the hotel bar and the frontline, he would always advocate the latter. “Being stuck into a place. Staying there, talking to everybody, seeing what’s happened. When I’ve been able to do that I’ve always felt that I’ve been doing my job right.” But, he says, it’s difficult to maintain this ideal when money is so tight “and you’ve got people back in London” saying “it’s costing too much money”. For a good story, a reporter needs to be able to get a firm footing in the situation.

This brings up the question of regulation. How much control should the ‘people back in London’ have over the person in the field? He makes the point that the BBC has never forced a line upon him, and that, in fact, he has a freer rein now than in the past. But he laments the BBC’s attempts to keep him safe, once making him swear he wouldn’t go within five miles of the fighting in Syria. “It gets in the way of what reporting is”. Journalists should be “free agents”, and be permitted to, and be willing to take responsibility for, putting themselves into dangerous situations.

And what about the future of regulation, could you implement something like the BBC’s charter across all online news, or a platform like Facebook? Simpson laughs, “wouldn’t that be lovely!” but then reflects for a moment and recants “to be really honest, I’m not terribly in favour of regulating things. Especially in journalism, which ought really to be a kind of free-form, and where people have got to be able to do what they want.” It’s all too easy to see the “appalling stuff people pour out” and call ‘news’ and want to begin tightening the rules of what can and cannot be said. But it’s the return of sympathy, and a “personal” factor, which will ultimately solve the issue. “It’s like being in a traffic jam, and you scream from the safety of your car at the person in the car next door, and you feel kind of protected, whereas if you jumped out and talked to the driver, you wouldn’t have the same kind of animus at all.”

Simpson’s ultimate message is undoubtedly one of optimism. He admits that Putin seems bent on retuning the world to “the worst days of the Cold War”, that China seems to be slipping back into a form of Maoism, and that there is someone “weird” in the Whitehouse. “But all I can say to you is that when I became a journalist, the world was a far more dangerous place than it was now”. In fifty years of covering events across the globe, he has seen first-hand the number of wars decrease, the level of terrorism drop, the beginnings of a world-wide effort to tackle climate change, and, he points out, lest we forget, that he used to accept as inevitable the fact that he would one day die in a thermo-nuclear war. “We have to keep it in proportion”, he insists. All is certainly not rosy, but, from his experience as a reporter at least, “the world is a better and an easier place than it used to be.”






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