A few weeks ago, BBC Foreign Correspondent John Simpson give the Ascension Day sermon in Oriel Chapel. The Poor Print’s political correspondent, William McDonald, caught up with Mr Simpson before the service.
Comfortably ensconced in an armchair, John Simpson looks rather like most other septuagenarians. But his kind smile and rugged features disguise a steely resolve that has enabled him to return time and again to some of the most dangerous places on earth. Fifty years of working at the BBC has seen him visit more than one hundred and twenty countries including over thirty war zones.
Educated at Magdalen College, Cambridge (where he edited the magazine Granta), Simpson afterwards got a training contract with the BBC. He would later learn that his tutor had written to the BBC claiming he was confident Simpson would get a Double First. ‘The stupid buggers never asked me. In fact, I got a really crap 2.2.’
On his first day as a reporter in 1970, Simpson was sent to follow the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as he boarded a train at Euston Station. ‘Nobody was doing anything or saying anything, they were just smiling ingratiatingly, so I thought, ‘Well bugger that!’ A terrible mistake. He punched me really quite hard in the stomach with one fist and tried to pull the microphone out with another. In those days you didn’t speak to Prime Ministers; you didn’t ask them questions. Nobody told me that. By 10.50am on my first day as a reporter I’d been assaulted by the PM and lost my job.’ However, Wilson’s threatened complaint never materialised.
It was this same bold spirit which enabled Simpson to get into Afghanistan in 2001. Taken across the border by smugglers, Simpson and his crew managed to avoid detection by disguising themselves in burqas. ‘Me and my cameraman were sat dressed as women in the back of a pickup truck, so they couldn’t see that if we stood up we were the two biggest women in Afghanistan.’
It’s…difficult to encompass the notion of your own death.
When challenged about the risks he is prepared to take to get a news story, Simpson muses. ‘I don’t think I’d ever see it in that light. It’s quite difficult to encompass the notion of your own death. I’m prepared to take risks, if only because nothing is quite as bad close up as you think it is.’
However, these risks have very nearly seen Simpson killed. When travelling with US Special Forces in Iraq, their convoy was hit in a blue on blue airstrike by a US warplane, killing eighteen people. ‘That was a nasty experience. The US commander called in an airstrike on an Iraqi tank and something got mixed up: instead of dropping the bomb on the Iraqi tank, they dropped it right where we were. My whole team had injuries, but it was a narrow escape.’
Not everyone was so lucky though. ‘My poor translator was killed from shock and blood loss. Most of us had shrapnel in us. I’ve still got quite a big lump in me, and most of us are deaf in one ear. But I’m alive.’
Simpson believes that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen an end to similar Western interventions in the future. ‘I suspect we’re moving away altogether from the era where we intervene in any given conflict. It’s going to become much more difficult than that.’
Before Simpson became a foreign correspondent, he worked as the BBC’s political editor, and before that covered the 1975 EU Referendum. He describes the difference between the two as ‘depressing’. ‘People then seemed to be absolutely obsessed with the issue, in a rather charming, impressive way. As if everyone felt that it came down to them, as if their own personal choice could influence the whole thing. I travelled around a lot in Great Britain, and most of the people I met took it really seriously and were aware of the issues in a way which now I just don’t think has happened. People don’t seem to care so much. And worse still they’re bored with it.’
Simpson acknowledges that this is in part due to changes in political campaigning strategies. ‘It’s been a dirty, nasty, personal, ad hominem campaign and I don’t think that people like that at all. I’m not quite sure why politicians do it; they must realise that it’s not popular.’
As to the future of the EU, he says, ‘I think [its] unstable, quite unstable. I do think that the grand old idea of the Atlantic to the Urals is probably gone now. Its hard think that Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia are really up to the speed of the others, and that’s what’s caused some of the problems.’