John Simpson: 'A war reporter's enemies are the military and Government'

Despatches from the front line are easily compromised, the veteran correspondent John Simpson tells Iain Millar
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The technology that now enables the broadcast media to file instant live reports from around the world has revolutionised TV and radio news journalism. But has it improved audiences' understanding of conflict? For John Simpson, the BBC's veteran World Affairs editor, that would be too simple a question.

"I have to confess," he says, "that I was one of those people who was really nervous about all this 24-hour stuff when it started: I made a bit of a fuss about it in an old-fogeyish sort of way - you know, death of decent reporting, etc. But I don't think the problems that we saw in this last war were necessarily related to the speed at which people had to report."

This Wednesday, one year on from the supposed end of hostilities in Iraq, Simpson will chair a symposium at the Imperial War Museum in London to examine how compromised war reporting has become when correspondents with camera phones can call in reports live from the heat of the battle, and rolling news channels voraciously consume all that a reporter can put out. It was, after all, during this war that Sky News reporter James Forlong took his own life after being fired for claiming that library film of a missile launch was actual battlefield footage.

Simpson recalls his time as a young television war reporter in the early 1970s: "The technology made it really hard to broadcast and you had to go through a hell of a lot of hoops to get your material on the air. You could only do it once a day outside western Europe and there was no chance of updating because the quality and speed of information was so slow. It was very difficult to know even what the news agencies were reporting from the place where you were. And in a war there was absolutely zero chance of explaining any wider connotations. You were down to reporting just what you saw that day."

So for Simpson it's not simply advances in communications technology that put added pressure on reporters.

"Rather, it's the old-fashioned relationship between journalist and source - the source in this case being the Government and the military. I think there ought to be a war between the reporter and the source - chumminess is not a very nice quality. We're each other's natural enemies, and we should regard ourselves as that and should be regarded as that. I don't think you should feel at ease."

And he saves his strongest feelings for one of the newer and more controversial players in the rolling news marketplace. "Fox News - its total surrender of independent judgement in the interests of supporting the US military - just disgusted me. One US journalist said: 'For me the American fighting man can do no wrong.' Well, just about everybody can do wrong and the idea that they can't is a rather disgraceful and disturbing one. And because there is a company like Fox News that is prepared to behave like that, then of course the demand from the military is: 'Why doesn't everybody do it, what's wrong with you?' I think it's a betrayal of everything, really."

John Simpson will chair 'On the Media Frontline: Are Modern Media Wars Just Too Fast?' (supported by the Media Society) on Wednesday 28 April, Imperial War Museum, London SE1 (020 7416 5439). His latest book, 'Wars against Saddam: Taking the Hard Road to Baghdad', is published by Macmillan