Interview: Just an ordinary TV star: John Simpson: He sees himself as a craftsman rather than as a jet-setting reporter. Fiammetta Rocco talks to a broadcaster whom audiences trust

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ON FRIDAY, while Kate Adie's armoured Land Rover was being attacked on the Sarajevo airport road, John Simpson, the BBC's foreign affairs editor, boarded a plane in London bound for Miami.

Simpson was following his nose to Peru, where a vital national election has been called for 22 November. Few British viewers will know why that's important. Television covers only a limited number of stories at a time, and our minds have been filled during these past weeks with suffering from elsewhere. Peru has passed us by. It is not yet a 'story'. But when Simpson is done with it, it will be.

'Peru is in a downward spiral from which it is clearly not going to pull out; where all the structures of the society have collapsed. You don't often get to see that. It's quite rare. I can't resist going there. It's a Heart of Darkness, and I think we ought to see here what the Heart of Darkness constitutes.'

He and Adie have both crossed the boundary that separates television journalists from public figures, but while the reasons for Adie's fame are obvious enough - she is a woman, she is brave, she stands before the camera in dangerous places - Simpson's rise to prominence is less easy to explain. It owes nothing to the safari suit and adjacent stutters of machine-gun fire. He is quite untelevisual: undramatic, unactorish, underplayed. And yet he has become a 'personality', a status enhanced by a CBE and confirmed by an appearance on Desert Island Discs.

The reason may be that the audience trusts and respects him. Television news does not overflow with wisdom; Simpson appears wise. Television does, on the other hand, often overflow with a spurious certainty; Simpson is the first to appear uncertain. He looks reflective, a thinker in a complicated world, and yet comfortable and ordinary. British broadcasting has achieved this quality in the past - Priestley in the war, Robert Kee and Charles Wheeler more recently - but it is rare in a reporter for the Nine O'Clock News.

SIMPSON is 48. His family were from Suffolk, but he grew up in London. 'Various parts of London, mostly poor parts,' he says. The family was upper middle-class but lost its money after the First World War, and still hadn't adjusted to its new financial status by the 1950s. The effects of genteel poverty he remembers vividly: 'Poverty. It rots you. It rots your soul. To be poor is one thing. But to be poor with pretensions. In Britain, that's serious hell.

'I love this country, but I feel so alienated by it. So much destruction has gone on of decent, honest, noble-minded people, ground down by this awful attitude of who you are, who your parents are, how much money they've got. It always comes down to that. It started in 1066; something to do with the rulers being a different tribe from the ruled.'

Simpson's mother left when he was seven. He still remembers how he was supposed to go with her, but chose on the doorstep to stay with his father instead. The elder Simpson was a genealogist who made his living tracing people's family histories, catering to the pretensions of others. 'He made absolutely no money out of it.'

One friend remembers him as a friendly, entertaining man. But Simpson says he died of being poor. 'The Inland Revenue hunted him down. It didn't contribute to his death; it caused it. He didn't want to hang around any more.'

John was his only child. When he was 16, they moved to a huge, empty house in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. The Simpsons, or the Fidler-Simpsons as they were then, were Christian Scientists. 'I used to pretend my mother lived with us because all the other kids had mothers. They had mothers, and money, and they went to doctors. And most of them drank, and they all smoked. We didn't do any of those things. It made me terribly isolated.'

Simpson went to St Paul's on a scholarship, and then to Cambridge, where he read English and edited Granta with Nicholas Snowman (artistic director of London's South Bank Centre). He married an American Christian Scientist during his last year there, and joined the BBC as a trainee radio reporter in 1966.

Until 1980, Simpson was climbing, steadily but not fast, up the BBC ladder. He worked in radio news, and served as a foreign correspondent in Ireland, Brussels and South Africa.

There followed two years as the BBC's political editor. It was an unusually powerful job; one of the few editorial posts then that covered both radio and television. And it made Simpson one of the principal conduits of information from Westminster to the highest levels of the corporation.

Then came a turning point, both professional and personal. His father died and he left his wife and two daughters and gave up his faith in Christian Science. Today he's a vegetarian with a taste for Laphroaig whisky. He lives in Kensington with the American freelance television producer, Tira Shubart, with whom he often works. 'For the first time in my life, I'm a completely happy man,' he says. 'I am free.'

The professional shift started during the Falklands war, when Simpson was one of two newsreaders on the Nine O'Clock News. Overnight, he was pulled off it by the then BBC director-general Alasdair Milne, and told he would never read the news again. Coventry for Simpson was a spell in Montevideo, where, as a British citizen, he could do no more than look at Argentina across the River Plate.

Even today, it is not clear why he was sacked from the news. Some say he was too grey and pompous, others that he got on the wrong side of Downing Street. His own view is that he just 'wasn't very good at reading the news'.

Whatever the reason, he did not resign as he might have from anywhere but the BBC. This was the making of him, for it enabled him to become what he really is - an outsider on the inside, a BBC lifer on a very long string.

When John Birt was appointed the BBC's deputy director-general in 1987, he encouraged Simpson to build his own small empire within the corporation. This has been the cause of some friction. Simpson's foreign affairs unit runs alongside the foreign desk. In theory, Simpson runs the foreign correspondents who are based in London, and the foreign desk runs the rest.

To an outsider the overlap seems absurd. It wouldn't be tolerated in a purely commercial corporation - but the BBC is not (yet at least) a purely commercial organisation: 'I don't give a stuff about the Tories or the ERM, but I am serious about the BBC. I do feel passionate about defending it as an independent public broadcasting service.'

OFF-SCREEN, Simpson isn't as ponderous as he appears on television. He laughs a lot and his voice seems fruitier. He reads 19th-century novelists, and quotes Milton at will. He views contemporary England as a little, unimportant country that has mistakenly opted to play second fiddle to great nations, the United States and Germany. He may be, in this sense, a romantic rather than a realist.

Cameramen say he can be charming, but also aggressive and capable of noisy tantrums. Editors say he is a mixture of arrogance and modesty. 'He's a temperamental prima donna,' says one of his bosses. 'He's resigned more often than you or I have had hot dinners.' Simpson confirms it, and laughs at himself. Face to face, he is confident enough to be self-deprecating.

Ian Hargreaves, a former colleague at BBC News and now deputy editor of the Financial Times, describes him as 'a man of very great talent. But he's a very deceptive figure. He'll stroll languidly into the newsroom carrying a book of T S Eliot essays. And he's not the type to be seen endlessly poring over newspapers. What he has is quite a formidable knowledge that exists in his mind in elegantly simplified terms. Just right for high-quality television.'

This comes out in his conversation. He talks in complete sentences, but he is a television man and there are no pauses. He listens to the question, marshalls his thoughts, then starts to talk, covering a vast range of opinions. Among these: that Britain's natural ally should be France, that history will come to see John Major and his 'classlessness' as a watershed, that the subtext of Michael Grade's attack on the BBC at the Edinburgh Festival is his fear that Channel 4's very existence would be threatened if the corporation started taking advertising. He also chides himself for accepting a CBE. 'I don't like the idea that the Establishment has handed me down something. I really wish I hadn't taken it.'

What he has seen first-hand makes you listen: Afghanistan where the mujahedin smuggled him into Soviet- controlled Kabul, every one of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Baghdad in the Gulf war, and the abortive Russian coup last summer.

He has written a great deal - for Granta on the Tiananmen Square massacre, several books (on Argentina, Iran, and Eastern Europe). Since the Gulf war he's been a regular contributor to the Spectator. There he does what he cannot do at the BBC, writing long, opinionated diatribes on anything from Shiism to the British election campaign. 'I don't want to be beholden to the BBC. I want to be able to say I'm my own man. I want to be able to say I've got an existence which has nothing to do with the BBC. The Spectator gives me that. I feel like a medieval craftsman. I give some of my work to some people, and some to others.'

(Photograph omitted)

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