Bob Simpson

BBC foreign correspondent
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The Independent Online

Robert Anthony Simpson, broadcast journalist: born Woodford, Essex 29 November 1944; radio reporter, BBC 1972-92, Foreign Affairs Correspondent (radio and television) 1992-98; twice married (one son, one daughter); died London 25 July 2006.

Bob Simpson's talents as a reporter were well known and recognised by everyone but himself. He believed wars were best reported from under the bombs, and not from behind the guns that were firing them. This approach took him to most of the top foreign news stories of his day, filing reports that were broadcast across the BBC. I knew him best when we worked together in Baghdad during the first Gulf War, and in Bosnia. But by then he had already distinguished himself in the Falklands War, Lebanon and Romania.

He was born in 1944 in Woodford, Essex, and went to Brentwood Grammar school, where one of his classmates was the future Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He took a job as a trainee banker, hated it and left to join a local newspaper in Walthamstow, north London, as a reporter.

When the BBC launched its chain of local radio stations in the 1960s, Simpson joined Radio Brighton and then Radio Sheffield, where he found his feet as a confident broadcaster. In 1972 he landed a job as a sub-editor in the national radio newsroom in Broadcasting House before resuming his on-air career. By the 1980s he was one of the best-known and most energetic figures in BBC Radio News.

Simpson had a natural gift on the radio - fluent, literate, concise, quick-witted, unambiguous, clear as day. His gravelly, resonant voice gave his reporting that mixture of authority and urgency that was his hallmark.

His friends remember him for his quiet, unshowy kindness. In Baghdad, while waiting for the Allied attack, one young and penniless freelancer turned up, as Simpson put it, "with a bag of wet washing and some useless travellers' cheques". While grander BBC colleagues sneered in derision at the ingénue, Simpson quietly slipped $2,000 in cash into her bag - enough to see her through her assignment and safely home. He made no fuss. Discretion really was the better part of his valour.

When I first met him, he was one of a group of highly accomplished and experienced radio correspondents who seemed to me to be of the old school: they worked hard, took risks, and played even harder. They were fast and loud, loyal to each other and - to a young beginner - rather exclusive. Bob Simpson was the one who liked and made time for newcomers.

But he was not undiscriminating in his generosity. You had to earn it. He hid his great heart behind a façade of gruff bravado. One colleague remembers being greeted in Bosnia by Simpson with the words: "Good God. Who the bloody hell sent you?" He was a master of the affectionate insult. One well-known television reporter was trying to persuade Bob to buy a particular pair of shoes for his foreign jaunts, on the grounds that they were "perfect - lightweight but watertight". "Sounds like one of your reports," said Simpson.

The banalities of BBC bureaucracy and the strictures of its management he saw as sources of amusement. This did not endear him to his bosses. He and I once applied for the same job in foreign news. Still waiting to hear who would be appointed, we all woke the next day to the news that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The foreign editor rang Simpson at dawn with the words "Two things, Bob. You didn't get the job, but we need you to get to the Gulf today." In a crisis Simpson was the one to send for.

He was once was asked to take part in a BBC "hazard assessment survey". "Have you ever been subjected to hazard in your work for the BBC?" the form said. "Yes," wrote Bob. "Two thousand-pound penetration bomb propelled by Tomahawk missile."

Simpson's favourite souvenir was the return half of a ticket to Baghdad on Iraqi Airways. He said he would try to use it one day. On the eve of war, in January 1991, his namesake John Simpson had decided to defy a BBC instruction to leave the city before the bombing began. He went around the room at the BBC's Baghdad office in the Al-Rashid Hotel and asked each of his colleagues in turn whether they would stay too. One by one they elected to leave. Bob Simpson was the first to break ranks. "I might as well stay," he said, with a casual shrug. I spoke to him from my base in neighbouring Jordan. "Don't worry, old chap," he said, "the Russians have got a peace plan" - and roared with laughter.

Simpson didn't much like celebrity journalism (though he was fond of some celebrity journalists) and could be contemptuous of what he called the "song and dance" demands of television, in which, he'd sometimes say, what you wear is more important than what you say.

My last assignment with him was in the Gulf in 1998. Television, and "rolling news", were making more and more demands and his heart was no longer in it.

He had a charm that men envied and women fell for. He fell for them too. If I had been asked, 12 years ago, which of my friends would marry a beautiful, talented and funny woman 20 years younger than him, I would have said, without hesitation, Bob Simpson. And that's what happened. In 1996 he married the ITN correspondent Juliet Bremner shortly before realising that life with her was infinitely better than staying on the road. Quietly, he walked away from a lifetime of living out of a suitcase in the bad places of the world. Juliet seemed to take years off his age. He simply couldn't believe his luck that she had walked into his life.

Simpson had two children, Jack and Kate, from a previous marriage. Once, when his son was about to leave school and begin an internship with a London architect's firm, he told me the only thing he was proud of in his life was the way his kids were turning out. It was a rare glimpse of the private romantic behind that fast-living, cavalier front.

Allan Little

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