John Simpson: ‘I’m on the side of the memories, not of people trying to stop them’

Veteran British journalist John Simpson. (Photo: Chatham House, London/Flickr)
Updated 21 May 2018

John Simpson: ‘I’m on the side of the memories, not of people trying to stop them’

LONDON: John Simpson began working for the BBC as a reporter in 1970, and has risen to become one of the UK’s most respected and best- known war and diplomatic correspondents.
In addition to interviewing many of the most world’s most prominent leaders, he is known for his reporting from 47 conflict zones including Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an recent interview he discussed what it feels like to come close to death, his favorite interview subjects, and his advice for young journalists starting their careers.

How do you feel about being seen as one of the UK’s most prominent war correspondents?
I don’t regard myself as a war reporter. I am really more of a diplomatic correspondent who strays into wars. I have covered around 47 wars all together, but it is not how I see myself. I see myself as somebody who is really interested in politics. Of course, wars are a nasty form of politics, so that is really why I have strayed into that.

How many times have you been close to death?
In 2016, by pure chance, I had kidney failure and was lucky to survive. That was the tenth time. I know very well now what it feels like to be on the point of death and I have to say, it is not that disturbing.
It’s far worse (when members of my crew have died). When my translator was killed in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq, I could not see any reason to be still alive while he was dead. He was standing quite close to me and he had his legs cut off by a piece of shrapnel, and I just had a piece of shrapnel in my leg. It just seemed to me to be unfair that he died and I lived.

You say journalism is more of a calling than a profession. Why did you become a journalist?
When I was about 15, I read George Orwell’s “1984” and it was wonderful. That idea that you could destroy the reality of the past by destroying documents, newspapers and memories was such a concept to me. So I thought, whatever I do, I will be on the side of the memories, not on the side of people trying to stop them. I still think that if you can get things out on the public record that is what counts.

You mention in your book that the kindest person you interviewed was Nelson Mandela. What was it like to interview him?
He was the greatest person I ever interviewed. You really could ask him anything and he would not have been offended by it. I asked him about corruption in South Africa for instance and he just talked through it. He was so honest and accepted that some of his ministers were corrupt. That is something you do not often see.
I have interviewed various Arab leaders over the years, among them Bashar Assad (in 2006). At that stage he seemed to me to be more like a north London ophthalmologist than a Syrian president. I asked him quite a lot of difficult questions and he answered them all.
Now if you interviewed Assad you would sadly be talking about the most appalling violations of the rules of war and some of the worst examples of attacks on civilians in modern history, and he is responsible. He carries the burden of guilt for that.

Which other interviews with Arab leaders resonated with you?
I interviewed Muammar Qaddafi several times, and I thought that he was probably insane. I have never to this day quite been able to understand how he managed to survive (for so long) because he was really off the wall and a very nasty character.
I also interviewed the late king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz. He was very charming, and very sharp. He was absolutely delightful, and walking away from the interview I felt much better to having met this person. Not many politicians give you that feeling. He was a very thoughtful man.

What did you think of Khomeini when you interviewed him?
He was absolutely firmly lodged in the past. All his concerns were related to the Shah’s father and to the Shah himself and to the role the Western countries played in helping the Shah. He was also concerned about fighting Saddam Hussein, and I do not think there was anything more in his life except that.

What makes you so active on Twitter and online platforms?
I rather enjoy Twitter (but) am still not very good at Facebook. The technology is terribly important, particularly in television, and you have to keep up. When you get to my age its quite easy to stop, but I feel the need to keep on pushing myself.

What is the most essential advice you can give young journalists?
We are living in a different kind of world, where newspapers and television and radio news are much less popular than they were. People do not want to know about things. They want to be in their little echo chamber where they just hear the views that they like to hear, which is disturbing.
I feel that young journalists in particular have to be aware of that and have to fight against it. It is the death of real journalism if we just simply write and broadcast about things that will please people.
You have to challenge the other person’s views of things, and keep on forcing it through. You do not get rich by being a journalist, and you should not ever want to. You absolutely have to be true to the kind of voice inside you and not be somebody else’s employee.

Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat. Image licence here. It was reviewed on 24 April 2015 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Qatari network Al Jazeera slammed over ‘Holocaust denial’ film

Updated 19 May 2019

Qatari network Al Jazeera slammed over ‘Holocaust denial’ film

  • Video on AJ+ Arabic channel claimed Israel was the genocide’s ‘greatest beneficiary’
  • Network suspends two journalists over ‘violation of editorial guidelines’

LONDON: Al Jazeera’s youth channel AJ+ Arabic has drawn widespread condemnation over a video that was branded “Holocaust denial” for claiming the Jews exaggerated the scale of the genocide to help establish Israel.
After widespread public anger, the Qatar-owned network was forced to delete the video, suspending two of its journalists over its broadcast.
The video in question, while not disputing the Holocaust took place, suggested the Jews had skewed facts about the genocide, and that Israel was the “biggest winner” from it.

“Denouncing the Holocaust is a moral obligation, but Israel is the biggest winner from the Holocaust,” the presenter said.
“And it uses the same Nazi justifications as a launching pad for the racial cleansing and annihilation of the Palestinians.”
Many took to Twitter in outrage about the video, with one commentator pointing out the difference between AJ+ in Arabic, and its English output.
Al Jazeera has long been accused of broadcasting extreme material in Arabic, but churning out seemingly more balanced material in English, aimed at a Western audience.

In a statement on Sunday, the network said it had suspended two journalists over “violation of its editorial guidelines.”
“The video content and accompanying posts were swiftly deleted by AJ+ senior management from all AJ+ pages and accounts on social media, as it contravened the Network’s editorial standards,” it said.
The network has also said a “mandatory bias training and awareness program” was required for its staff.