“I’ve been close to death nine times”: John Simpson on life as a foreign correspondent

The role of the foreign correspondent has become more dangerous than ever amid conflicts in Iraq and Syria, distinguished BBC journalist John Simpson has said

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In a podcast interview with History Extra discussing his new book on the history of foreign correspondents, the award-winning BBC world affairs editor spoke of the grave dangers faced by journalists tasked with bringing home news of the troubled world beyond our shores.

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“I think it’s become more dangerous in the last few years, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” Simpson said. “More journalists died then than I think just about any other time in the past (although I’m not sure about the Second World War). But in a short space of time more journalists were, I think, killed than at any other time than in history. They included my translator. And since then of course we’ve had the rise of Isis and the shocking murders on camera of various journalists, which makes things really difficult.”

Looking back at his own career, which spans more than 50 years and has seen him report on events including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolution in Iran and the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, Simpson said: “If you want to do a decent job, you’ve got to get in close. And if you get in close, well, sometimes you can get into trouble.

“I counted out in a rather ‘trainspotting’-type way the fact that I’ve been close to death nine times: from bombs and bullets, and once from a knife. Every time I’ve survived, I’ve got away with it. I think you just have to keep pressing on and being professional.”

Discussing the research for his new book, We Chose to Speak of War and Strife, Simpson said he was interested to learn that the role of the foreign correspondent has remained surprisingly unchanged in the past 400 years.

“I’d never before really studied what I call the ‘palaeojournalism’ – the distant past of it – but what is extraordinary to me is that even the very first newspapers in the early 1620s in England were recognisably like today’s,” he said. “They had headlines and illustrations and corrections, even. The early newspapers were invented by a man named Nathaniel Butter in 1620 and they are recognisably newspapers in the sense that we have them now. And television and radio are recognisably part of that industry. So there we are, nearly 400 years ago, the business [of foreign correspondence] was actually set up then.”

Simpson continued: “The instincts and the approach tend to remain the same. That balance between interesting people and perhaps entertaining them, and informing them about serious things, that’s a balance which Nathaniel Butter felt and found in 1620, and it’s still with us today. For instance, do you put Kim Kardashian’s robbery high up on your front page or in your news bulletin or do you put it down towards the end as almost entertainment? These are questions which journalists all still face, just like Nathaniel Butter faced.

“And when you come a little bit closer to modern times, William Howard Russell, the first real war correspondent, who worked for the Times famously in the Crimean War, he did the job exactly as people like me would recognise it. After the charge of the light brigade, for instance, which was perhaps his greatest story, he spent the rest of the day going round the tents of people who had been involved in the charge; he’d watched it from the heights and then he found out the details of what the individual experiences had been – of ordinary troopers and of the officers.

“He was an Irishman and that made it easier, I think, for him to just be open and jolly with everybody; everybody loved Billy Russell. He used to carry around a bottle of Irish whiskey and slosh it out for the troops. You can bet that after they’d been through an experience like that they were very glad of the whiskey and very glad to talk.

“I don’t actually carry Irish whiskey myself but I do try to talk to people and I try to be jolly and open with as many people as possible. I think that’s the way in which journalism then and journalism now really operates.”

Simpson went on to discuss the changing obstacles faced by foreign correspondents through history – from bureaucratic visa requirements to the restrictions of being micromanaged by newsdesks at home. He also noted the vastly improved technology that has transformed the relaying of the news, and how the style of reporting has changed.

“The tone has changed constantly, every two or three decades,” he said. “‘Our gallant lads gave a cheer and charged over the parapet’ – we don’t report like that anymore and they didn’t actually report like that in the Second World War, that was much more First World War reporting. But after the First World War there was such a reaction against all of that kind of stuff. The disgraceful way in which some British war correspondents covered up what had happened [during the conflict] caused a savage reaction against the newspapers and against reporting, so the newspapers changed their manner of reporting.

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“By the Second World War they didn’t want ‘our brave lads’, they wanted factual reporting. The ‘stiff upper lip response’ was very much there with the journalists as well as with the soldiers”.

To listen to the podcast interview in full, click here.