The gentleman of the press

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

Acceptance' is a word that plays heavily on the mind of John Simpson, the indefatigable BBC world affairs editor. His unconventional upbringing, which saw him choose to live with his bullying father over his mother at the age of seven, his regular attendance at church despite a disbelief in God ('I don't think many of the vicars and bishops ... really believe in God either. I go because I like the old church and the sense of peace it brings'), two marriages, parenting, getting old and countless experiences reporting the happenings of a complex, violent world - none of it seems to sit comfortably with him.

Anyone about to interview Simpson, however, must accept that compiling suitable questions is like conducting a duel against embarrassment. Just what do you ask one of the world's most recognised and authoritative roving reporters, who's been there, seen that and covered it all - once infamously dressed in a woman's burqa - and has the war wound and awards to prove it?

One way around the conundrum is to stick the South China Morning Post under his nose and ask him to 'discuss'. The globe-trotting, news-gathering machine has covered a wide range of topics during his long career as a foreign correspondent. Indeed, he briefly wrote a foreign-affairs column for the Post in the early 1990s, 'but it wasn't very popular', he says.

He travels with a walking stick these days because of the war wound - he's covered 37 conflicts and, as well as rupturing knee tendons, he has a piece of American shrapnel in his posterior, which, to the consternation of his bosses, he nicknamed George W. Bush; it was 'a pain in the arse' - and there's a slight limp as he walks over to receive his newspaper-bearing interviewer at the BBC offices in Wan Chai.

Approaching with a welcoming smile and eyes rimmed red from jet lag is a large - more than 180cm tall - barrel-chested, stocky, white-haired man with soft features who looks like an archetypal 'English gent on his hols', dressed as he is in blue-and-white-striped boating blazer, yellow cotton summer shirt, white chinos and brown, polished Oxford brogues.

The delivery is unmistakable. Low in tone, deliberate, amiable, confident and ever so gracious; small wonder he charms despots and desperados into candid exposes on camera. To a trained ear, the lilt might smack of the dusty rooms of Cambridge University, where Simpson read English literature. He has British public-school airs and graces that are almost, but not quite, fustian - more thespian perhaps.

'Hello. John Simpson. Lovely to meet you,' he says, sweeping a large arm towards a waiting chair. He's in Hong Kong for six days, he says, 'to meet people, have a look around, have a new suit made, eat dim sum, do some PR for the BBC.'

Hong Kong is a special place for him for several reasons. He fled here 18 years ago to ensure his reports from Tiananmen Square were aired to the world. And shortly after meeting his second wife, Dee (a South African who, until the birth of their son 15 months ago, produced popular television programme Simpson's World), the pair travelled to Hong Kong, where the relationship blossomed. 'Dee also lived here for while in the 1980s,' he says.

His main purpose for being in town this time is to regale diners at a British Chamber of Commerce black-tie dinner with his worldly tales. He has many to tell. There's the farting Colonel Gaddafi episode and the hallucinogenic experience from eating an Amazon plant with some locals; 'a giant, friendly goldfish in sunglasses and straw hat' wrapped a fin around Simpson's shoulders. Then there's the effeminate clan of cross-dressing Taleban guerillas who wore make-up and high-heeled gold sandals that clashed terribly with their Kalashnikovs.

But these comic yarns are a sideshow. From the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the snipers of Sarajevo and the restless townships of South Africa, from the IRA, the MPLA, MPs and PMs, presidents and dictators, kings and queens, fascism, communism and capitalism, to being mistakenly bombed by the Americans and flying long-haul with the Ayatollah Khomeini - Simpson has been there, right up to his neck in all of it.

But all that is old news. What about today's agenda? It's time for the news with John Simpson.

On the front page, is a story about Tiananmen Square, near to which, on Changan Avenue, Simpson lay in a gutter with exclusive film tapes stuffed into his socks as PLA bullets whizzed over his head and tanks mauled his new student friends during the 1989 crackdown.

On the international pages is a story about Iraq - a favourite topic of his. He was expelled from the country during the first Gulf war, has written a book about the fall of Saddam Hussein and tries to report on the current savage saga 'every six weeks'.

And then there's the headline: 'Afghan soldier shot dead by Americans.' Ah, yes ... Afghanistan. Prior to the 2001 invasion, it was in that parched land of anarchy, dope and rocket-launcher-toting clans of warrior Taleban that Simpson famously dressed in female Islamic attire to access a closed society. And it was there, just after that same invasion, that he strode triumphantly into Kabul, dressed this time in a blue flak jacket, to controversially 'liberate' the capital on behalf of the BBC and the estimated 330 million viewers worldwide who tuned in to watch.

Despite reporting on many of the events that defined the latter half of the 20th century and seven years of this, it was that Afghanistan assignment that jolted Simpson's hallowed world and defined him. On one hand, it was the scoop of the new century. Yet, on the other, it committed the cardinal sin of journalism in that the reporter became the story and the main event a mere backdrop. From it, Simpson gained fame and controversy - and admirers and detractors.

Focusing closer to home, he casts his eye over a report concerning RTHK. Simpson has worked for the BBC for four decades and is staunchly proud of it and other public broadcasting institutions. Obviously, he says, he does not know or understand enough about the broadcasting set-up in Hong Kong to start pontificating on the debate about whether the RTHK should remain an arm of the civil service or become commercially independent. But he concedes any change might have foreboding undertones.

'I think, overall, the RTHK/BBC [public broadcasting] model is, sadly, disappearing. The idea of an independent but publicly financed outfit has been attacked by politicians in many [British] Commonwealth countries to the extent that it does not exist as a principle any longer,' he says. He cites CBC in Canada and ABC in Australia as examples. 'Both are still excellent ... but because they've been attacked in the past, their standing has been weakened and their ability to compete properly on a level basis with commercial outfits has been damaged.'

These institutions have been reduced to a broadcasting ghetto for the educated, worldly public - the minority in most countries, he claims. And he fears that, even though the BBC has survived because of its 'special place' in British society, it too is being attacked by government, and the broadcast model that has been the envy of the world for so long will inevitably change.

'As to Hong Kong and RTHK, an independently governed and independently funded broadcaster is vital for democracy to flourish,' he says. To Simpson, independent journalism and democracy are one and the same. 'How can you be a democratic society if you cannot be properly informed about what's going on?'

There's nothing like a good segue between news items - so what's Simpson's take on Hong Kong and the political pantomime being staged around universal suffrage?

'I remember the past well - and 1989 especially,' he says, sitting back in his chair and tilting his head to look towards the verdant hills beyond the towers of Wan Chai. 'I came straight here from Tiananmen Square. The fear - terror, really - about what was going to happen to Hong Kong when it was to revert to Chinese rule was very real. And the same fear was evident in 1997, when I was here for the handover.

'It has to be said, none - or very few - of those fears have actually come to pass. I think if I'd known in 1989 what Hong Kong was going to be like in 2007, I'd have been an awful lot happier. That's clearly not to say everything is fine and there's no worries or anything. It's essential in a place like Hong Kong, which is in such a strange position historically and politically, for everybody to be nervous and on their toes all the time. That's the condition of it. If it weren't, it would deserve to be swallowed up and forgotten about. However, it does have a sense of nervousness and edge to it and that's part of its wonderful attraction. But it is necessary for people to always be worried, alert, sharp and aggressive whenever they think their rights are being attacked.'

He fears Hong Kong 'will throw itself away' as it changes. 'It's now less specifically Hong Kong and is becoming a more Chinese city, another Asia-Pacific city, as it loses its old architecture. These losses are not just by chance. You lose the specific nature of a place as you pull down the old.' He applauds the new emerging political class for that very reason: 'for trying to protect Hong Kong from the forces that want to clone their city into another Shenzhen or Shanghai.'

He's loved Beijing for decades but says 'it's harder to love now. You never know where you are because of the new buildings and the way it's structured. It's got nothing to do with its wealth. It's wonderful to see Beijing - and Shanghai - becoming wealthy cities again. This is a triumph of the human spirit.' But to allow the past to be trampled over as though it didn't exist is a way of simply reducing a city, and indeed a country, to 'a heterogeneous paste without a flavour, without a tone'.

Simpson was last in Beijing 18 months ago. Does he still believe, as he wrote in his second book, A Mad World, My Masters (2000) - in which he details being one of the last western journalists in Tiananmen Square during the crackdown - that 'the long-term stability of China under anything remotely connected with the communist system is doomed to failure'?

Or does he hold truck with those who argue the Communist government, with its peculiar blend of strict authoritarian rule and capitalism, which has lifted 400 million people peacefully out of poverty, is a strong argument against western liberal democracy?

'No. There was a great dichotomy between the old Marxist-Leninist autocracies as they changed from the early 1990s onwards. Russia, after a period of turmoil, is now reasonably wealthy and there are the elements of freedom of speech, although [President Vladimir] Putin is cutting into that very heavily. And China has maintained its strict control and also become wealthier. Both have come out OK. I don't think we can say that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. But I do think the best way is to let people think and talk. So I don't think there's a better society out there than a liberal democracy.'

While the masses are unlikely to be granted political freedom any time soon, he says, there is no doubt the central government is responding to a demand for that and becoming more willing to divulge information about itself - and 'we've got to give credit for that'.

Despite this tentative slap on the back for the inhabitants of the Zhongnanhai government headquarters, the events of May and June 1989 are never far from Simpson's mind. But it's not because it was the only time his life has been in danger. Simpson was nearly gassed during the Iran-Iraq war in 1990 and a Palestinian soldier once made him kneel at gunpoint in the middle of a road; the trigger issued an empty click.

'I had a nightmare the other night for the first time,' he says with a nervous but relieved laugh.

'It was about how we were bombed by American friendly fire during the Iraq invasion.' In April 2003, a Kurdish convoy in which Simpson was travelling was mistakenly bombed by US aircraft, killing several people. 'I've never dreamed like that before. And then the dream merged into Tiananmen Square and I was lying drenched [in rain] in the gutter of Changan Avenue with the bullets flying over my head. Somehow the bombing ... and Tiananmen Square weirdly fused. There I was, being bombed by the Americans and lying in Changan Avenue - I knew exactly where it was - just near the Beijing Hotel.'

His chuckle fades, leaving a silence. 'So, it's very close to me still,' he adds, turning serious. 'I lost friends in that massacre and you don't forget that very easily.'

Does he think it right, then, that Beijing should be holding the Olympic Games next year?

'Oh, yes,' he enthuses, 'China should stage the Olympics. It's a different Chinese government now - so different that it seems like a different ideological system to that era. I don't think you can go on whacking a government over something that its predecessor-but-one did at a time when things were different around the world, the fall of communism and so on.'

He thinks the Olympics will be 'a wonderful opportunity for China to show itself to the world - and for China to see the world. That's exactly what we need, not what we should stop.'

Simpson is still charging around the planet and reports regularly from Iraq. 'I sometimes think I qualify for Iraqi citizenship,' he jokes. He says it's impossible to be optimistic about Iraq but he believes such places, 'one day, quite suddenly', wake up and revert to their own version of normality - 'eventually'.

Simpson's first four autobiographical books are about his long and fascinating career. His most recent, Days from a Different World (2005), is a departure from those, presenting instead a deeply moving account of his unconventional upbringing in Britain just after the second world war. In it, he attempts to slay his demons: those feverish, haunting uncertainties and insecurities that, ironically, are the ingredients he believes are needed to be a good reporter and which drive him to the often violent corners of the Earth.

He admits he is the 'result of my past; screwed up by it', but it was that awful choice as a seven-year-old - Simpson decided to leave his mother because, otherwise, his father would have had no children - that 'strengthened' him and made him the success he is today. Simpson strongly believes journalists are damaged goods - and that's what makes them. 'I don't want to be regarded as safe nor conventional. I don't think safe journalists are good journalists - those who never do anything or say anything that alarms anybody or does anything out of the ordinary,' he says. You've got to have a certain unpredictable, faintly explosive quality. You need a certain edge. To me that's the absolute basic quality to being a good reporter.'

He ends Days from a Different World by stating his next book should be about love, forgiveness and acceptance - and he's just finished it. 'It's called Not Quite World's End, [and it's] to be published in the autumn,' he says - a signal to all he's not about to hang up his notebook.

But the new book is not about self-discovery and finding peace of mind and acceptance. Instead, it reverts to type - a riveting look at Simpson's luck and 'rat-like cunning', which ensures he is so often in the right place at the right time.

Though he describes his relationship with the BBC as a marriage, he is no longer on staff, having a yearly contract and freedom to roam. The 'world affairs editor' title is merely recognition that he exists at the top of the news-gathering and broadcasting pecking order. He has neither staff nor a budget.

He makes more money from writing books and columns in his London and Paris homes than from his main employer - though he says he loathes writing. 'All that getting up at five in the morning to get the 1,000 words a day done. Horrible.'

He now scribbles away in between assignments and helping to raise his son, Rafe - short for Ranulph. Has becoming a father in his early 60s changed him - will it prevent him from chasing ambulances and other sirens around the world?

Simpson's world momentarily halts on it axis. He almost says no, then 'not really', then, finally, with a deep confessional huff: 'Yes, it has changed me. But something else tells me not to get too heavy about it all otherwise I'll be dressing up as Father Christmas. I'm still a journalist. It's my job to do the major stories of the day and I hope to continue. But yes. It's lovely being a father, just lovely.'

He feels guilty about the two grown-up daughters from his first marriage, Julia and Eleanor. 'I was not a good father to them because I was younger and married to the job. I now realise what's important and I realise that my new kid is the most important thing and that getting ahead in a career and getting the stories are all very fine, but there are more important things. I wish I had known that when I was in my late 20s and early 30s.'

He says late fatherhood has sensitised him. 'My wife had four miscarriages before our son was born. This sounds terribly like a Reader's Digest article, but the value of life is something I never quite understood until now. So when I go to Baghdad and see people blasted and murdered and tortured - you see the bodies every day - I no longer think, 'Oh that's just another Iraqi.' I now think, 'That could be my child.''

He tuts, annoyed at the new, soft him. 'I don't think it's a good thing to think like that.' Anyway, as he has a new mouth to feed, he says he must continue to work and is planning an assignment to what most people would consider Dante's Hell: the Afghan-Pakistani border.

As we say our goodbyes, he asks: 'Where are your lot from?' We share the same family name and industry but there all similarities end. His Simpson clan hails from East Anglia, England, and mine are Scottish Protestants.

'Son of Simon in its original form, I think. Do you like the name?' he asks.

'It's slightly better - less common - than Smith, although the Smiths never had a long-running satirical cartoon made about them, nor were they called Homer, Bart or OJ,' I reply, eliciting snorts of mirth.

'I hate it,' he says as the laughter falls away, and one is left wondering whether he will discover the acceptance he has long sought on his next assignment, out there in the badlands of the mad world he inhabits.