John Simpson Reddit AMA
- 23 May 2014
- From the section Have Your Say
The BBC's World Affairs Editor John Simpson did an 'Ask Me Anything' (AMA) Q&A session on the Reddit website on 22 May.
Here are 19 things he shared:
1. If you could go back in time and meet your young self on his first assignment - what would you say to him?
Don't give up too soon, don't back away before you have to, grit your teeth and keep on going even when things get dodgy. They're never as dodgy as you think.
2. What is the most precarious situation you have found yourself in whilst reporting in the field?
Being in a Belgrade hospital with a badly damaged leg while American bombers flew over and often hit the hospital by mistake was certainly one of them.
3. On a scale of 1-10 how much does being called David Attenborough annoy you?
About 9.75. The only thing is, he's a magnificent old boy. Imagine if people mistook me for... no, don't think I'm going to finish this post!
4. Was there ever an incident which made you consider giving up your job due to the danger you faced?
Only very very early on. In 1970 I was rescued at the last moment from being shot in a Belfast cemetery when the IRA thought I was a British army spy. But after an hour or so the story was so interesting I decided to stay on and keep reporting. I've had a lot of close shaves since, but I always think I should be more careful - not give up the job.
5. Do you feel that more direct involvement with the audience, such as this AMA, will become more of a requirement to help engage them?
Well I'm sure this kind of thing really helps (though I don't even know what AMA stands for!) and it's lovely to speak to people this directly anyway. It does seem to be true that people are less interested nowadays in the world around them, but in my experience whenever that happens to a society something comes along and gives them a nasty shock (think US in September 2001). So we just keep plugging away and try to reach as many people as broadly as possible. I've now been told what AMA stands for, btw.
6. How noticeable was the "Tank Man" image back in 1989 (in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China)? We've all seen it now 25 years later but did it only really come to light after the event had happened?
Well, my cameraman shot the video pics of the Tank Man from our hotel balcony overlooking him. I smuggled out the pics in my sock! It was the strongest image that day, after all the bloodshed of the night.
7. What story do you wish you could have personally covered but you were unable to?
I wish I'd covered the Vietnam War! I could have, but I was married with a small daughter at the time and decided not to go. Never made the same mistake again!
8. What's your favourite pie flavour?
Oh, apple every time!
9. Have your extensive travels given you any surprising insight into a commonality amongst all humans? Are there obvious and not-so-obvious traits you have seen that transcend faith, language and culture?
Yes, I genuinely feel there is a commonality among people that transcends everything. Just one example: in Rwanda in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of people were murdered for being of the wrong tribe, and sometimes the wrong faith, I met a woman who had been saved by a rampaging mob by her neighbour, who was both of another tribe and another faith, and who had never actually spoken to her before. She helped her to hide in the water of a ditch, provided her with a straw to breathe through, sang a song when there was danger so the woman could dip under the water, and gave her clothes to escape in afterwards. She'd have been chopped to pieces herself if anyone had caught her hiding the woman. What makes a human being do this? Only a real basic sense of decency and humanity, I suppose.
10. Would you say the state of the world currently is worse, better, or about the same?
Well, there are about a fifth of the number of wars there were in 1966, when I started with the Beeb, and far fewer people were educated. Fewer could feed themselves. Countries didn't co-operate nearly so much. So things are actively better nowadays. But it's hard to persuade anyone of that!
11. Of all the unpleasant people you've been called upon to interview in your delightfully mild mannered yet probing style, who is the one that you most wanted to just drop the technique and shout at for all the horrible things they had done?
Colonel Gaddafi was certainly one of them. Mad, and kind of absurd. It infuriated me to see that. But after interviewing him a couple of times I was attacked by a leading newspaper whose owner was doing some dodgy deal with Libya, and later by Downing Street (this was several years ago) for not taking an international statesmen of Gaddafi's standing seriously enough. Britain at the time was trying to cosy up to Gaddafi. That sort of thing really upsets me. Still, I don't find many people praising Gaddafi for his statesmanship nowadays.
12. I am amazed at your Afghan front line reports just after 9/11. Somehow you keep your cool or stiff upper lip even if bullets are whizzing by and still conducting a long interview. I guess since you went through "a lot of close shaves" but how did you deal with those first few close shaves?
I was incredibly chicken, and grovelled on the ground till I realised everyone was looking at me. Now I think I don't notice because I'm dopey. Getting old does have its advantages (not many of them though, alas!)
13. I read somewhere in the thread that you have covered 48 wars. I understand they were all dangerous but which one did you feel the least safe in?
I suppose I felt least safe during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American armed forces are pretty awesome when they get going, and they don't worry too much about people who get in their way. Before my team and I headed out into no man's land I lectured them to make their wills and ensure their families, etc were OK. Within a day or so we were with a group of American special forces, clearly marked, when an American plane, after circling overhead for 15 minutes, dropped a 1000lb bomb into the middle of us. Eighteen people killed, including my translator. No real investigation, and the pilots were apparently flying again a day or so later.
14. Is there a country you have not visited that you would like to one day?
Actually - I'm embarrassed by this - I've never been to Australia. Nothing horrible happens there, except the defeat of the English cricket team.
15. What is the most heart-warming event you've witnessed in your career?
Maybe the most far-reaching event of this case was in South Africa in 1994, when it looked as though things were descending into civil war. The Zulu Inkatha leader, Butelezi, stormed out of a meeting in Johannesburg after being threatened and insulted and took off in his plane for his heartland in KwaZulu Natal. The he decided he'd been wrong - that this would lead to open civil war, and he told his pilot to turn round. He swallowed his pride, walked back into the meeting, and they reached agreement. Not bad, eh?
16. Out of all the places you have been to, what had the best food? Why did it [have that made it] so nice?
China takes a lot of beating. So does Iran. But some of my best meals were in Peru and Brazil....
17. When you travel for a non-work assignment, do you find it easy to relax or do you find yourself always looking for the next story [and do you have] any favourite non-work travel locations?
I find it amazingly easy to relax nowadays - something about being ancient, but also something about having an eight-year-old son, who isn't the slightest bit interested in Boko Haram or the EU. I read a huge amount, and watch a hell of a lot of films. So I sleep well and hang out with friends of mine.
18. How often do you need to 'grease the wheels' to pass a roadblock or bring crucial material through an inspection or whatnot?
I don't think I've paid anyone a bribe since I arrived at Kinshasa International Airport in 1975, when you couldn't land without putting a $20 note in your passport. Bribes are bad for business, really. I've got a pathetic (but so far pretty reliable) faith in my ability to talk my way through road-blocks etc. Didn't work recently in Ukraine, though.
19. Do you allow yourself to become emotionally involved with idealism or causes, or do you deliberately keep your distance and try to stay impartial?
I don't want to support particular causes, but I do think we have to be loyal to and supportive of ordinary decent people and their concerns. And the one thing after all these years that I do feel passionately about still - human rights. Being free to speak your mind and say what you think is the most important right we have, I think. And I'm sure, if you saw as much good and heart-warming things as I have, you wouldn't be at all depressed - quite the opposite.