x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

John Simpson: Still deep in enemy lines

For three decades, John Simpson has covered some of the biggest news stories of our time, drawing fire from critics on several fronts. Talking about his new book Unreliable Sources, the BBC veteran takes aim at lazy reporting and the dangers of Twitter.

James Ellerker
James Ellerker

For three decades, John Simpson has covered some of the biggest news stories of our time, drawing fire from critics on several fronts. Talking to Alan Philps about his new book Unreliable Sources, the BBC veteran takes aim at lazy reporting and the dangers of Twitter. John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, has an enviable record of having set foot in just about every global trouble spot of the past 30 years. A big man with a big voice, he is used to being at the centre of events. But from time to time, when he is walking near his home in Chelsea, west London, he just wants to shrink into the background. One of his near neighbours is an Iranian gentleman, who, whenever they meet, shouts, "You filthy fat swine," and other similar abuse.

"People on the pavement stare at me, wondering what I have done to this poor old man," Simpson says. "I just try to pretend I'm not there." The Iranian, a royalist refugee who fled the Islamic Revolution of 31 years ago, has not forgiven Simpson for his reporting on the Shah in the 1970s. The royalists still hold him - and the BBC in general - responsible for the fall of the old imperial regime. Today Simpson is not just persona non grata with the royalists. He is blacklisted by the clerical regime in Iran, and does not expect the ban to be lifted until president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves office in four years' time. The BBC, and its most famous on-screen face, are blamed for encouraging the "green" opposition movement that burst into life after last year's disputed election.

The pleasing symmetry of Simpson's enemies gives him rare authority for a foreign correspondent. When he spoke at the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai in March, the Iranians in the audience hung on his every word. He had a typically thoughtful and original take on the political situation. Even as the world's news wires buzz with talk of war to stop Tehran becoming a nuclear power, he is quietly optimistic.

"I am absolutely a believer in Iranian democracy," he says. He thinks the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 was a "mistake", the clerical leadership having supported him not because of his hard-line views but simply to keep out the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was angling to return to the post. Now that Ahmadinejad has won a second term, Simpson says: "I cannot believe that Iranians will vote next time for someone who takes the same line as Ahmadinejad. There will be ups and downs. It will not be like Britain or France, but I'm more than convinced that Iran is capable of functioning as a two- or three-party democracy."

Such views are balm to the ears of a certain type of Iranian exile and are spoken with the assurance of someone who has been at his job longer than just about anyone. Aged 65, he hopes to continue until 2016 when he will have completed 50 years at the BBC. In a previous generation, he could have been a servant of the British Empire, one of those types who spent years learning to pen Persian ghazals or mastering the tribal politics of the Pashtuns. But the Empire was already winding down when he began to look for a job in 1966. He opted for the BBC, then a rather timid and cringing organisation. Now it bestrides the globe like a colossus, a sort of British Empire of the airwaves, and has more employees than at any time in its past.

When a crisis erupts in a foreign land and journalists pack into an aircraft, most of them can be seen feverishly reading printouts from Wikipedia so they can learn five facts about the place they are going to. Simpson exudes a Buddha-like calm, as often as not quietly enjoying a 19th-century novel. He has been everywhere and knows the intricacies of Zimbabwean politics or the world's multiple betrayals of the Kurds. Indeed, he has a piece of shrapnel in his backside from when he was bombed in northern Iraq in a friendly fire incident at the start of the US invasion in 2003. He does not need to bone up.

I was delighted to see, when he arrived for an interview at a west London cafe, that he was clutching a suitably dated tome - a copy of The Antiquary, an 1816 novel by the now neglected novelist Walter Scott, which could have been chosen to cast him as a polymath at home in three centuries. (Simpson says he had never read any of the Scottish writer's works before, and chose this novel as it seemed the least daunting.)

So famous is his face that he often becomes the story. When, in 2009, the BBC aired a comedy-drama, Taking The Flak, featuring a self-regarding, silver-haired foreign correspondent who exuded an effortless air of authority, it was taken as a gentle poke at Simpson. Perhaps not so gentle, since it was written and produced by an ex-girlfriend. When I was reporting from Afghanistan in 2001, I came across a depressed colleague from a British Sunday newspaper who each week would file a well-researched, copiously illustrated article on the progress of the war. Not a word saw the light of day. The popular press was not interested - until Simpson walked into the Afghan capital as the Taliban were fleeing, and announced, tongue in cheek: "The BBC has liberated Kabul."

The quip came across as an example of imperious arrogance that the British like to puncture. All over Britain tongues wagged. My hitherto ill-starred colleague jumped on the Simpson bandwagon, and was rewarded with a two-page spread in The Mail on Sunday, opening in mock-heroic tone: "Thank God for John Simpson and the BBC. Together they helped us make sense of the fall of Kabul." There is a dose of truth in those lines. Few people in Britain recall that war, or when it was, or why it was important. But the ill-judged quip is seared on their minds, as is the footage of Simpson's imperial figure striding to liberate Kabul, accoutred in BBC body armour like a latter-day Alexander the Great.

Today Simpson is back in the frame, this time with a book, Unreliable Sources, a 580-page history of how the British media reported, or more often, misreported, the 20th century. For anyone who cares about the craft of journalism, it is painful reading. With the benefit of hindsight, reporters appear mostly as lazy and obtuse careerists. British political reporters - whose number he briefly and unhappily joined - are described as "lazy, un-inquisitive, craven and obedient to authority", while their work is "sloppy and imitative". Wartime reporting emerges not as "the first draft of history" but "the sum of what some not very well-informed people thought was happening at the time". Ouch.

Actually, these quotations - in the best tradition of British journalism - are taken out of context. His tone is avuncular, rather than condemning. He understands the pressures and is at pains to explain them to the reader, having been under them himself. "I didn't want this book to be a manifesto against media manipulation. There have been many such books on that topic, and very good ones. I just wanted to look at the coverage day to day and see how it happened. I found out that many of the things I thought were true, or are often alleged, are not true."

Those looking for the grand old man of the BBC to give the profession a good kicking - and there are many, following the British media's swallowing of government propaganda in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war - will be disappointed. "I've made all kinds of compromises. I've shut up when I ought to have been noisy," he says. "So it's difficult for me, with a background of having kept quiet when I ought to have yelled and screamed, to say these people let down the noble craft of journalism."

An example of pressure from the BBC came in 1971, when, as a young reporter in Northern Ireland, he interviewed Republican detainees who had been released from a British army detention centre. They told of being subjected to white noise, having buckets put over their heads, and the buckets violently beaten. This story was dynamite. But the BBC was unwilling to run it, until it had seen that everyone else was using it. "Nowadays, I would not accept that kind of ruling, but I did then. I'm not proud of myself. When you are in this business, you have to tell people what you know."

The Simpson history of the press is not a simple one of the authorities using ever more sophisticated means to bully the media. He wants to highlight those rare individuals with the toughness to overcome the obstacles - physical, mental and logistical - in their way.This requires the diligence and imagination to understand what is happening, the courage to go to the scene, and the determination to go against the grain of the employer and, by sheer force of unimpeachable reporting, to ensure the story reaches the world.

Among his heroes is Wilfred Burchett, correspondent for the British newspaper The Daily Express, who defied US army orders to visit Hiroshima in the wake of the atomic bombing in 1945. At that time no one knew of radiation sickness. Indeed, the US military was vehemently denying that any such hazard existed. But he was able to file the last scoop of the war with these words that still ring down the ages: "In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly - people who were uninjured in the cataclysm - from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague?"

I asked Simpson to nominate his finest hour. I expected it to be the time when Nato bombers were blasting the Serbs and he was in Belgrade for the BBC. His reporting of the bombings irritated the British and American governments. "No - not then. It has to be the 1994 elections in South Africa. I didn't fall into the trap of assuming that civil war would break out. There is always pressure to say what everyone else is saying. Whoever was at the end of the telephone line would assume that civil war was coming. I would say not. I could hear them losing interest and thinking 'bloody wimp'. But I felt justified at the outcome.

"I loved the moment when I heard a well-known journalist slamming out of the office and heading for the airport with the words, 'I came here to cover a civil war, not an effing election'." Simpson dates the start of the British public's scepticism about the press to the First World War. It was then that the troops saw for themselves the star reporters writing up military disasters as great victories and claiming to share the dangers of the front line when, in fact, they were far behind in safety. Some of the most honest reporting at that time came from soldiers' letters to their families, which captured the reality of their lives and deaths far better than the prose of the professionals.

Should we conclude that the era of the foreign correspondent has lasted too long, and welcome the citizen journalist, offering 140-character insights on Twitter? Simpson is unsettled at the prospect. "I'm very nervous about the citizen journalism that we see today. If structured reporting is as vague and inaccurate as it clearly is, then what can you say about unstructured reporting? "Iran is often produced as a wonderful example of citizen journalism, but what it actually is, is raw material provided by very brave people on the ground. But it takes highly trained people in the BBC Persian service to winnow out the stuff that is clearly tendentious or false. That's an entire area that does not apply to most web reporting."

In a word, Twitter feeds are just as rackety as the hotel-bar gossip that formed the building blocks of journalism in an earlier age. You could, of course, argue the opposite: the burden of Simpson's research is that professional reporters have failed as often as they have succeeded. Why not let the audience decide what is true and what is not? Why shouldn't there be a free market in news, particularly as it seems to be happening anyway?

But Simpson is not going to surrender even if, behind his charming smile, he risks looking like a grumpy old man. His biggest fear is that global news reporting is fated to descend to the level of the shouty commentators who dominate US airwaves. He still believes in the ideal of news that comes with a guarantee that all reasonable effort has been made to check it. Unless people stand up for good quality journalism, he believes it will die, to be replaced by an angry stream of ill-informed comment where the sins he has chronicled in 20th-century reporters go unpunished, and indeed are actively encouraged.

Will this nightmare turn into reality? It is too early to say. But one thing is certain: no reporter of the future is likely to have such a long, varied and interesting career as the man who is cursed by two Iranian regimes. Alan Philps was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Moscow for more than 20 years and now writes a weekly column for The National. Unreliable Sources by John Simpson (Pan MacMillan), Dh70, Magrudy's.