John Simpson: The danger man

John Simpson has never played it safe - his beat has included Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq - and is certain of his views. But a near-fatal incident has given the veteran reporter a new perspective on life, as he tells Vincent Graff
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John Simpson does not much care for newspaper journalists. In his most recent volume of autobiography, he launches into a five-page attack on them - us, I suppose I should say, declaring an interest - and he reserves particular contempt for the interviewers who have been sent to see him over the years. Most "don't listen particularly carefully" to what is said; often we "don't get the basic facts right". Our research, if he can bring himself to call it that, consists merely of ferreting out half-truths from previously published pieces and regurgitating them. "In a newspaper," he complains, "everything - your words, your appearance, your manner, your mood - is filtered to the reader through the prejudices of the interviewer." Finally, he gripes: "When they quote you, they make you sound like a moron."

You'll understand why I am a little nervous about how our meeting will go. You can see also why he did not want me to read the cuttings. Some of them, particularly in the tabloids in the past couple of years, have painted him as a self-centred egotist - the man who reckons he liberated Kabul. "What a Burka!" cried the Daily Mirror after his now infamous off-the-cuff comment to Sue McGregor on the Today programme. ("Never make a joke," writes Simpson. "The British tabloid press has no discernible sense of humour.")

In fact, this John Simpson - the two-dimensional, me-me-me reporter - is nowhere to be seen. The Simpson here today is gentle, uncombative and modest; regretful and sad. Most disarmingly, away from the television cameras, there is the entirely unexpected peep of campness. As he contemplates his answers, he sometimes stretches words out beyond their natural length. Occasionally an amusing giggle sneaks into the conversation.

"Maybe I am an arrogant sod; I mean, everyone seems to think I am," he says. "I think" - giggle - "my problem in life, and it is not a very great problem as far as I am concerned, is that I look and probably sound arrogant. But I don't feel arrogant.

"To be honest, I am 58, and I have long since ceased to care what people say, unless it is manifestly true."

If this is a humbler, softer Simpson, perhaps some of the explanation for that lies in the events of 6 April this year. Simpson was travelling with a convoy carrying US special forces soldiers and Kurdish fighters, 20 miles from Mosul in northern Iraq. An American commander with them saw an Iraqi tank, and called in two F14 warplanes to take it out. But the missiles were fired not at the tank, but at the convoy. One of them hit the ground 10 metres from where the BBC man was standing. Three people were killed. One of them was Simpson's 25-year-old translator, Kamran, whom he had known for just three weeks.

Kamran's foot was blown off, and he died. Simpson sustained nasty shrapnel injuries. He still suffers a great amount of pain, is deaf in one ear and walks with a stick and a very noticeable limp.

But he knows he got off lightly. "I probably won't recover the hearing," he says, "and I have got a big lump of shrapnel in my left hip that managed to find its way into a knot of nerves, which is very painful. But it's getting better - and the ear I am getting used to. I am normally a bit of a complainer about these things, but I am so glad to be alive that I don't care, really. It seems a small price to pay for what might have been really, really nasty. I just think I am very, very lucky and I am happy to be around."

His injuries do not seem to have affected his work. This week he is returning to Iraq to see for himself how the country is faring, and he plans to travel to the Philippines and Congo.

When he got back to London after the missile attack, the BBC machine swung into action. Inevitably, he says, he was offered a course of counselling. "Oh yes, oh yes. Nowadays you have got to fight them off." He said "thanks but no thanks - but I don't mean with a curl of the lip. I can see it was genuinely meant, and genuinely meant to be nice." But "the fact is that I belong to a generation which isn't too enthusiastic about counselling - standing around, holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'."

Yet he has been thinking about what happened. His attitude is a curious mixture: sorrow, rage, perplexity at the seeming randomness of life and death. "It's amazing, you know. You just wonder what was the process that ensured that the largest piece of shrapnel hit my flak jacket and got embedded in the panel at the back, the second largest hit me in a place that can take bits of metal without noticing them too much, and then other [smaller] bits hit me up and down the back, in the arm, in the legs, in the head, all of which could have been fatal.

"And then next door stands a chap who only worked with me because he said he wanted to be my friend and wanted to have an adventurous time."

Kamran, a student, approached Simpson to offer his services after recognising the BBC's world affairs editor from the programme he presents on the BBC World television channel. Simpson is struggling with guilty feelings, even though he knows he is not to blame for the young man's death, and that it was a random killing. "I still feel so sorry that he should have volunteered to join me and that we should have led him into that. For a long time after it happened, for hours and hours, I didn't have any sort of reaction to it. And then I saw our report the following morning on the television and I just broke down in tears, I am afraid. I just found myself saying, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry' to him.

"I have kind of come to terms with it now because it wasn't really anybody's fault except the person who pressed the button on the missile, and even he wouldn't have done it if he had known what was going to happen. So I don't feel an enormous weight of guilt for having hired Kamran and taken him with us - because it could have been any of us. We didn't treat him any differently from how we treated ourselves, and we were taking proper precautions. We were with a group of Americans and a group of Kurdish special forces. We should have been safe.

"I haven't begun to get it out of my system, but I have come to terms with what happened. And a part of that is being glad to be alive, and I just wish that Kamran was around as well. I am just so sorry that just by a matter of standing two feet away from me, he was killed."

Had he gone to see Kamran's mother? "I did, yes. That was painful. I thought that she'd go for me, but she didn't, she was still utterly bewildered. All she could say was, 'But he told me he wasn't going anywhere near the front line' - which is, of course, what you tell your mother if you're doing that sort of thing."

Simpson has turned to his religion for comfort. "I am an Anglican, and an enthusiastic Anglican, because I find it helps to give me a sense of peace and coming to terms with things somehow."

Does he pray when he is in war zones? "Yeah, I do, I do," he says thoughtfully. Every day? "Well, it's like flossing your teeth, you mean to do it every morning. But I do, a lot." Religion provides him with "a picture of yourself in the scale of things - not terribly important. And in that sense it makes it easier to come to terms with these apparently purely random things and all the violence that is connected with them. I find it very, very calming, very useful."

Though he will talk religion, he shies away strongly from debating politics. It is not for him to pass judgement on the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and whether war was justified, he says. ("Well, we did go to war. I don't feel it is my role to have public opinions about that.")

In his autobiography, he is fiercely protective of the BBC and the impartiality he is so proud it embodies. He does not want to put that at risk today - but he fears he already has. A few days after the missile attack, Simpson wrote his regular weekly column for The Sunday Telegraph. He read it through one final time before filing it. "Was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein worth all the violence and chaos in Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad?" he had written. "Was it worth the death of my 25-year-old translator, the only support of his widowed mother? She doesn't think so."

On a whim, he added a final sentence: "At the moment I am finding it hard not to agree with her." Now he fears that he has compromised, to some extent at least, his outward lack of bias. It is a decision he regrets profoundly. He sounds genuinely remorseful when he says: "I think that was really, really wrong of me and I am not at all happy about it."

Disclosing an opinion like that was "a real betrayal of what my function is supposed to be. Because people who think that this war was absolutely right have got the perfect right to feel that I am not slanting my reporting against them, any more than I would slant it against the people who think it's wrong."

He will not exacerbate his crime by confirming that what he wrote demonstrates that he is against the war. "I didn't come out and say, 'This proves that this war was wrong'," he says. Nevertheless, "it could have been read as that, and that was what I didn't like. I was incautious. The thing is that the old BBC's reputation for impartiality was terribly hard to create and is terribly hard to maintain - and idiots like me who carelessly say these things can damage it."

But he adds: "I think if I really were absolutely honest, I don't like wars for a start. And I don't like the people who provoke wars. On the other hand, I am awfully glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein, who really was the nastiest dictator in modern times. I just feel that the better time to have got rid of him was in 1991, when his own people would have done it, and it is difficult to do it on behalf of other people."

'News from No Man's Land: Reporting the World', by John Simpson, is published in paperback by Pan, £7.99