Everything’s going to be alright. Sort of. This is the message of John Simpson’s new book, Not Quite World’s End. Bombs may be falling, the ice caps may be melting, but the human race is set to endure for a while yet. We may hardly exist in peace and harmony, but we’ll still muddle through. As Simpson himself puts it, “Although we’re stupid as a species, we’ve also kind of got a low, rat-like cunning which makes it possible for us to avoid the very traps that we’ve set for ourselves. That’s why I’ve got a certain kind of optimism that we’ll get through this.”
Perhaps this stoic optimism, if you can call it that, is hardly surprising in someone who’s survived the Cold War, the terrorist activities of the IRA and the current War on Terror, not to mention all he’s experienced in the line of duty for the BBC. If we can hobble this far, why shouldn’t we eventually make it over the finish line? Certainly Simpson admits we are struggling, but we’re also improving. As he sees it, “The world is objectively a better place than it was when I started as a journalist, it’s a damn sight better place than it was in the inter-war years and unthinkably better than in the Victorian period. Although we managed to smash and wreck everything along the way I think we are progressing as well.”
And he has a point. When Simpson started as a journalist for the BBC in 1966 the majority of countries were dictatorships of one form or another, now this number has dramatically fallen. Likewise, there are far fewer wars now than 40 years ago and, as Simpson writes, “There were some really nasty wars going on then.” This is no naive or rose-tinted statement. Certainly wars persist, nasty ones, and many of those countries which are no longer dictatorships in name remain ones in practice, but it is pleasant and relieving to be reminded that in general things have got better.
Of course, Simpson’s experiences have not all been of the type which would encourage this optimistic world view. He begins his new book with an account of a bombing he experienced in Iraq in which his translator was killed. The consummate professional, a bleeding Simpson broadcast the event moments later to BBC News 24 via a telephone. This is hardly his first near-death experience. He has served in 36 war zones, including Kosovo and Afghanistan, consistently putting his life on the line for the BBC. His adventures are countless and range from cowering in a gutter with bullets zipping over his head in Tiiananmen Square (which apparently doesn’t afford much cover) to dressing as a women to be smuggled into Khabul. It may make a good story, but the dangers Simpson face are very real.
Yet despite all the risk involved, he tells me he has only once ever thought of quitting. “The last time I thought that was when I was in a cemetery in Northern Ireland and I was mistaken because of my own stupidity by the IRA as a British army spy, and I was very lucky to escape being killed. That evening I sort of sat there and thought, I’m not this kind of person; I’m too sensitive for this sort of work.” So what convinced him to continue putting his life in danger? His reply is quick and simple. “My general insensitivity and brutality of nature, I ordered a steak on room service and had a nice glass of wine.”
But to assume that Simpson’s aptitude for concentrating in difficult situations comes from an ability to desensitize himself is to misunderstand him. He is passionate about his work and deeply affected by the things he has seen. He still has nightmares about being bombed in Iraq and agonizes over mistakes he has made, claiming to remember every single one. They are invariably the subject of his worst memories. He recalls one time when he named the wrong person as President of Lebanon. It is a black irony that the actual president was killed in an explosion two weeks later and the man Simpson originally named took his place.
So if his bravado is just that, why does Simpson really continue putting his life in danger? The answer is a deep commitment to inform. “That’s what people like me exist to do, it’s just to tell people. I don’t put it any higher than that – we’re not going to save civilization.” This is not to undermine the importance Simpson places on his work. He believes it very important to know what is going on in the world and is constantly disappointed by the fall in viewing figures the BBC has experienced in recent years.
For Simpson this symptomatic of a growing crisis, not just in the BBC but in news journalism in general. As more and more people become technologically literate, pictures taken by phone cameras are superceding those taken by professional cameramen merely because individuals with this kind of simple technology are more likely to be in the right place to get the footage. Think of the recordings of 9/11: the most poignant and gritty filming was missed by the professionals, who did not arrive until after the event. Similarly, people are turning in increasing numbers to blogs rather than broadsheets to get their news. Nowadays opinion matters more than fact. For Simpson this turn of events, which he sees as a regression, is a constant puzzle. “It amazes me actually.” He muses, “I would have thought that people would want to watch pictures. I’ve spent pretty much a lifetime trying to find and present the best most striking most interesting most valuable pictures and putting words to them. And it’s very strange to go back to an almost newspaper-like existence.”
Despite his bleak outlook, Simpson certainly still feels there is a place for his brand of film journalism, if only because a picture is so much better at transmitting the reality of a situation than words. He is very aware of the difficulties of explaining what the situation in a country is to an audience halfway round the globe. “If you live in a nice comfortable society, for instance, being in Baghdad in the height of summer, perhaps 54 degrees, 55 degrees, no water, certainly no electricity for air conditioning or anything like that, it’s quite hard to tell people what life must be like.” He himself often struggles when trying to relate to people appearing in his reports. The nature of his job often forces him to discuss delicate subjects and tragedies people have experienced. How is it possible to relate to someone who has just had their family killed? Simpson says he simply tries to be as sensitive as possible. “There are times when I lie awake at night groaning at the thoughtless and irreflective way I’ve talked to people”, he admits. “I just try and be polite, try and be pleasant, and not to treat people as an exhibit.”
There’s no denying that Simpson has lived through shocking times. He has seen a degree of tragedy and horror that the majority of us, sitting comfortably in our college rooms, can barely imagine. But he has also been privileged with amazing experiences, and it is this which motivates him to go back in front of the camera even after witnessing something horrific. When asked what his best moment has been, he tells me, “Seeing captive peoples win back their freedom is something that you’ll never forget, and I’ve seen this now several times. The best of the lot was seeing the end of apartheid. That was a wonderful, wonderful moment and I’ll never forget it.” When you listen to Simpson talk about this and other memories, it becomes clear how he maintains his optimistic world view despite all the anguish he has experienced. But for once in this journalist’s life, the sensation is difficult to express. He remains convinced that we’re going to make it, just don’t ask him how.