Arts & Literature
John Simpson in Kabul
Interview: John Simpson
By Nicky Barnes
John Simpson is one of the most respected journalists in the world. On a visit to Norwich he talked about his book Not Quite World's End, whether he will ever think of retiring and how life looks now he is the father - at 63 - of a new baby.
John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, has earned a reputation as one of the world's most experienced and authoritative journalists.
In a BBC career spanning 40 years, John's first job with the BBC was as a trainee sub-editor in Radio News in 1966. Four decades later, he has reported from 120 countries across the globe, from 36 war zones and has interviewed more than 150 kings, presidents and prime ministers.
In October 2007, John was in Norwich to meet fans and sign copies of his latest book Not Quite World's End, which offers an upbeat look at the challenges and changes the world has gone through during his life and long career.
In an interview with Nicky Barnes, BBC Radio Norfolk's Morning Show presenter, he talked about the new book, whether he will ever think of retiring and how life looks now he is the father - at 63 - of a new baby.
NB: What's the reaction you get from people when you arrive at a story. Do they think 'This must be serious because the BBC have sent John Simpson?'
JS: I don't want to be part of the story. I want to be an anonymous, quiet onlooker who tries to work out what the hell is happening - its not easy - and then tells other people about it. I don't like being a figure in the thing.
Because I have been doing this job for 40 years I inevitably become a bit more noticeable but I try and keep a low profile. I try to keep quiet, look, and then come back and tell people what I think is happening.
NB: Do you feel that sometimes, in these times of the cult of personality, the messenger becomes bigger than the message with anyone who is a known figure in the media?
JS: I think that is a danger and for television in particular, much more than radio or newspapers. It's an egotistical activity.
It a very much a sort of 'look at me' activity and in a way you do want people to look at you or what you are saying. But I know the signs now, I can tell who is in it because they really want to tell people what is happening and who is in it because they want to be seen to be there. I'm not quite so fond of the second category.
I like the ones that are burned up really by a desire to tell people [the story]. I have a great affection for the people who grab you by the lapels because they want to tell you what's happening in their neck of the woods
NB: But surely simply because it is you, that gets you in to places?
JS: It becomes harder to do. Even in a place like Afghanistan now there are big BBC TV news audiences. I do a programme which has something like 350 million viewers. It's quite hard to stay completely anonymous.
If I wanted to go, for instance, under cover to Zimbabwe which I'd dearly love to do, I'd have some problems as I would be recognised. That's the big disadvantage of that kind of television news.
NB: You mention at length in your book your new baby son Rafe - an unexpected but longed for arrival. What did your wife say to you when you told her you were going to carry on flinging yourself back in to war zones?
JS: She was my producer and has worked with me in places like Afghanistan and in dangerous places South Africa during the troubles there. She knows what it is all about.
She knows I'm careful, I'm not stupid and I don't throw myself in the way of trouble. She also knows that I wouldn't want to do anything else really. I get back quickly after a trip because I want to see him [my son].
NB: Has it changed your outlook having a child so late in life?
JS: Oh yes, it really has. We had real problems having this kid. My wife had four miscarriages and a lot of unhappiness and pain and difficulties.
If I were honest I wouldn't have wanted another kid because my life was very pleasant, even and easy and I wouldn't have wanted to chuck it away to change a nappy at two o'clock in the morning - but if you marry somebody you marry their dreams and desires and hopes.
My wife wanted a baby and so that seemed to be a good thing I realise how important how life is - that perhaps sounds pompous - but I have learned how important life is and how [having a child] affects you.
NB: In your book you are quite critical of Tony Blair's government and the reasons the US went in to Iraq. You're even slightly miffed at the BBC for saying you had to resign from Amnesty International because of not being seen to ever have a bias - but can you ever go to war zones like you do and not take a side?
JS: I take a side very very strongly and determinedly on behalf of people who have been dragged into something they wouldn't want to be in. I take a side for civilians under attack. I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing for one human being to say about another group of human beings.
John Simpson escapes 'friendly fire'
I don't take a side against a government or against a country As far as I am concerned my job is to be honest and straight about those sorts of things. It may be that the facts as I set them out end up being critical of Tony Blair. That was not my intention, although I did have a crack at him about what he and his colleagues did to the BBC but that is something else.
As far as 'Was it a right thing, was it a bad thing to go in to Iraq?', it’s not my business to make judgements about that. My business was to go there and say, 'This is what happened, now it's up to you, the viewers, the listeners, the readers to make up your own mind. All I'm telling you is this is what is happening now'.
NB: One story that you told in your book is when you went to Iraq to the place where Saddam was arrested, his slippers were under the bed and you stole one!
JS: I stole a slipper, I know. There was a very very large US Marine who was guarding the place where Saddam had been arrested about two days earlier.
He explained to me that it was his job to shoot anyone who looted anything I found out that later they were going to set fire to the place. I felt something ought to have been retained so now it's framed on my bathroom wall. He didn't notice that I had picked it up.
NB: So what now, will you carry on until you say you have had enough - or until Rafe says he has had enough and wants to see Daddy?
JS: I think he probably sees more of me that if I went to an office and came back knackered and irritable.
I'm not saying I'm not irritable from time to time bit I'm less irritable than I was when I was a new father of two daughters in the 70s. There are advantages of being an older parent.
Yes, I will just carry on doing it because it's what I do for a living. Eventually the BBC will give me the boot or I will decide something has come up that I would like to do, but now I cant think of anything else that I would rather do than get on a plane and see these things for myself rather than have to make my mind up from the things I read in newspapers or see on television news.John Simpson: Not Quite World's End is published by MacMillian at £20.00
last updated: 12/10/07