News John Simpson's memoirs

John Simpson's memoirs

No international crisis - a war, an uprising, a famine - now seems real until we have heard the mellifluous tones of the BBC's grandly titled world affairs editor. So measured and authoritative is John Simpson's style that it seems presumptuous to form any opinions before he delivers his verdict to microphone. His presence has become as essential to great world events as a Dimbleby is to great domestic occasions. There's something comforting and reassuring about grey hair, a corpulent figure and a fleshy face on the BBC. Despite dodgy behaviour with the Blue Peter cats and offence to the Queen, it's still the same old Auntie, sober, reliable and thoughtful. And, yes, ever so slightly pompous. Simpson observes that only politicians and redtop journalists use the word "evil" nowadays; only a man who has spent almost his entire working life with the Beeb would add "I don't vote for politicians like that, and I don't buy that kind of newspaper".

So this book is all the more startling for the passion and anger it reveals. Much of it is a jumble - or, as the author puts it, "a kind of mosaic of our strange world in recent years" - which includes Simpson's thoughts on everything from global warming through the translation of Chinese poetry to the future of humanity (always helpful to know what one should think about these things), plus a variety of traveller's tales, some of them very good, others less so.

There is, too, an embarrassingly treacly account of the joys of late fatherhood ("I stroked his perfect little ear"). But in the succeeding chapters, you begin to understand why Simpson tells us so much about his infant son, Rafe. Fatherhood - and we perhaps shouldn't inquire too closely into why two daughters from an earlier marriage didn't have this effect - has "utterly" changed his view of the world, and particularly of war and death. He has finally learnt that "the lives of the poor, the stupid, the old, the ugly, the failed, are no less precious to them and to the people around them, than Rafe's life is precious to me".

This teeters on the edge of banality and Simpson admits it sounds a bit like a homily at the end of a Reader's Digest essay. But most war correspondents feel the need to say something like this eventually, once the ageing body stops producing the adrenaline that makes it so exciting to report violent conflict. War is vile, and there is hardly ever any excuse for it. To those who see nobility in violence and death, whether they are terrorists or governments, Simpson says: "Bullshit. Stupid, bigoted, irreflective, ignorant, blind, wicked bullshit." He doesn't quite, John Pilger-style, call the leaders of Britain and America war criminals, but that is the logic of what he writes.

"Treating the innocent as a target, in order to strike at the people who govern them" was what western leaders did in Yugoslavia as well as in Iraq, and it was no more morally defensible than an al-Qaida suicide attack or a Bosnian Serb siege. "One day, I am certain, the world will decide that the act of deliberately setting out to bomb towns and cities, knowing that civilians will die, constitutes a crime too."

As for the Andrew Gilligan affair, "I wish I had waded in", Simpson confesses. In his 40 years' experience, he had "never known anything quite so disgraceful" as the government's outing of David Kelly as Gilligan's source. Gilligan's basic charge - that Tony Blair deliberately misled parliament and the public on the threat posed by Saddam - was true. The trouble was that "his source wasn't really strong enough or senior enough" for the report to be waterproof. But it was later confirmed by Lord Butler, who told the House of Lords in 2007 (using language stronger than any in his report) that Blair had been "disingenuous". That, according to Simpson, is civil service-speak for lying. The Gilligan claim was also later confirmed by "a very senior figure in Whitehall who has told me privately it was one of the great regrets of his career ... that he didn't challenge how the intelligence was used".

For a BBC correspondent who, as Andrew Marr has put it, is "employed to be studiously neutral, expressing little emotion and certainly no opinion", this is strong stuff. It won't please his critics on either side. Those who accuse him - along with most other BBC reporters - of being an establishment patsy will ask why he has left all his anger until near retirement. Those who, recalling his coverage during the bombings of Libya and Belgrade, have always seen him as a smooth-tongued traitor, will argue he should save his anger for murderous tyrants and fanatical terrorists.

And, though Simpson doesn't stint on the detail of Saddam's atrocities, there are strangely sympathetic moments during his account of the fallen dictator's trial, when he looks into Saddam's eyes and wonders if he detects "a kind of fellow feeling, as though he might think we were both prisoners of something much greater than a mere prison or a mere superpower".

To the BBC correspondent's usual faults of pomposity and self-importance, Simpson's book adds an irritating amount of mystical philosophising on the meaning of life. But like the best BBC coverage, it combines meticulous reporting with attitude. Much of it can be read as an epitaph to the foreign adventures of the Blair era and, as such, it is fair, forensic and utterly devastating.


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