One of the most eminent and respected broadcast journalists Britain has ever produced; the legendary John Simpson has been presiding over some of the most defining world events for over half a century. Among an elite group of broadcasters to remain loyal to the BBC for the entirety of their career, he remains unique to still be at the very cutting edge of international cultural affairs despite his advanced years and can still be found reporting from some of the most dangerous warzones. To him, if a journalist isn’t willing to accept the life threatening aspect of the role then they should rethink their career options. Through his career, John has been shot at, been on a wanted list and has been injured by friendly fire during the 2003 Iraq conflict. Yet he maintains that this is just a byproduct of his profession and is a sacrifice which he’s willing to take to get to the very heart of a story. This ethic has been an instrumental factor in his longevity and making him one of the most respected broadcasters of his generation.
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Joining the corporation as a junior correspondent for radio news just as Britain was in the throws of a Labour government, John charted the social and political turmoil of the decade which for a period seemed very bleak. Despite a subsequent boom in popular culture, there was nothing “swinging” about the seventies with mass unemployment, strike action and political unrest which each had an impact on the gloom which surrounded this bleak decade. As an unbiased, unglamourous broadcaster, the BBC has forever had a turbulent relationship with governments as the ever-present dormant subject of the charter review still hangs over the corporation like the dark shadow of uncertainty. Therefore, despite the aim to present a neutral analysis of the government’s behaviour, the corporation remains ever-mindful of their fragile position within the eyes of the government. This is a very difficult relationship which is often tested to the absolute extreme.
John further increased his understanding of this complex relationship between the government and the BBC in 1980 when he became the corporation’s political editor just a year into Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister. With a notorious hatred of the media, Thatcher could be difficult, abserbic at times totally dismissive of John and the whole of the corporation. Again, the lingering contentious issue of the BBC’s charter was something that she was never afraid to use as conceptual bate when interacting. In his relatively brief tenure as political editor, he followed Britain’s first female Prime Minister all over the world on a whole host of state visits, summits and political assemblies but never quite got to know the real Margaret Thatcher.
On one specific occasion when attending the annual G7 conference, after hearing her usual bashing of the BBC, John pulled her to one side and asked her for a reason as to her overtly vocal tirade against the corporation. Just as she was reluctantly providing him with an insightful explanation, a political aid distracted her attention, meaning that she didn’t manage to finish her sentence. Yet over the years, John has reflected on what she could have been going on to say and has concluded that she was about to reveal that it was all a game. If this was indeed her confession, it could explain her frequently contrary attitude towards the press as she believed that she had the power and intelligence to play them at a very psychological game. This gave him a unique insight into one of the most formidable figures of the twentieth century and although his tenure as political editor was a brief one, he remains grateful that he was able to oversee one of the most eventful periods in British politics.
Despite being fascinated by the dictatorial behaviour of Thatcher, John has always preferred covering international events and affairs rather than the domestication of party politics. In 1988 he was made the BBC’s World Affairs editor; a role which he continues to uphold to the present day which requires him to report on international conflict. In doing this, he’s been able to chart the ongoing fractious relationship between Israel and Palestine which has been an extremely turbulent situation for generations. Sadly, this is a conflict which there doesn’t seem to be a resolution to in the near future and John believes that the two countries won’t reach peace during his lifetime. It may not be a story which will always dominate mainstream television news, yet the everlasting and devastating consequences of the war on both sides added fuel to what was already a heightened situation. It’s for this reason that John has resigned himself to the hard reality that there might never be a solution to this conflict.
Having been world affairs editor for over thirty years, John was able to chart the rise and fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain. Here was a man who had ordered the killings of millions of people and had himself murdered over twenty with his bear hands. Regularly compared to the heinous acts of human atrocities as Adolf Hitler, Hussain may have been the closest thing modern civilisation has come to pure evil. Yet on charting the conflict for over a decade, John was able to observe the many sides of this controversial figure and even saw a vulnerability in him which was bizarrely relatable. Over the years, he was able to witness Hussain’s eloquent intelligence up close and reached a level of rapport where both men reverted to first name terms. There were so many complexities to this notorious dictator that for a journalist it was hard not to become attached with fascination to such a dominant figure in international politics.
Charting his rise and fall over two decades, John was there for every pivotal moment of Saddam’s political career. He was there on 13 December 2003 when American forces discovered the former Iraqi dictator in a hole in the ground in the small agricultural town of Ad-Dawr, north of Baghdad. Having followed his plight, John disagreed with the inhumane nature in which US troops dealt with Hussain in the immediate aftermath of his capture. To John, everyone has the right to be treated respectfully irrespective of the horrific crimes which they have committed and not allowing him the dignity of personal space. This was a feeling that carried forward to his execution and hanging. Far from being a war sympathiser, John maintains that the torture which the US troops subjected him to was abhorrent and unnecessary. Indeed witnessing his execution was a traumatic experience for the journalist who has seen his fair share of bloodshed. Yet there was something about the public shaming of him which John saw as innately wrong and such a feeling shall remain with him for the rest of his life.
In what remains a frequently bleak role as world affairs editor, it’s difficult to encounter any positive stories from the events which he has presided over, yet the conflict in Ireland seems to have reached a promising level. While there’s no doubt that Protestant and catholic extremists will forever be in a delicate conflict, the war is no longer of national concern. For over forty years, John has been speaking with figures from either side of the civil war and for a while it seemed that there was no end to the conflict but with both sides signing the momentous Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there was added positivity surrounding a possible solution to generations of unrest. Today John remains extremely hopeful about the future of Ireland and believes that the progress which has been made throughout the past two decades will offer the country the best opportunity for a brighter future with religious harmony restored. As a journalist, it’s frequently easy to become bogged down with the negativity surrounding war and conflict. However, out of all the news events John has been involved with, the situation in Ireland remains the most positive in living memory and for that John is extremely hopeful.
In 2022 at the age of 78, John embarked upon a new challenge when he created, devised and fronted the analytical current affairs programme Unspun World which aims to delve deeper into the stories which hit the news. Scheduled immediately after Newsnight, the show has developed a loyal audience of intelligent freethinkers on late night BBC2. This is definitely a passion project for the man who has spent a lifetime reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous war zones and indulges his enthusiasm for getting right to the heart of a story. Over half a century on from joining the corporation, John is still one of the leading and respected journalists in Britain and in a world of increasing media spin, his informed, recognisable tone is one of the most trusted in Britain. It was a real privilege to speak with the legendary John Simpson and may he forever reign over the airwaves.