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Saturday, 17 November, 2001, 10:50 GMT
John Simpson: Action Addict
Afghan antics: John Simpson

Whenever conflict breaks out around the world, the BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson, seems to be there to describe the decisive moment. Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit reports on the style supremo of television despatches.

If John Simpson were a Premiership footballer, he would be Michael Owen. Natural goalscorers always seem to be in the right place, an instinct which cannot be taught. In the equally competitive world of journalism, there is an acceptance that Simpson's nose can usually detect the right place and the right time.

John Simpson walking into Kabul
Marching into Kabul
Even so, the boldness of the man was startling, as he strode confidently into Kabul through a cheering throng, declaring: "It was only BBC people who liberated this city. We got in ahead of Northern Alliance troops."

The BBC said later that "John was being ironic", but his words, coupled with the possibly premature pronouncement that "the Taliban are finished in Afghanistan", raised a few eyebrows back home.

In fact, a BBC team, including correspondents Rageh Omaar and William Reeve, was already in Kabul before him. The Independent commented: "So much for teamwork" and asked: "But who will get the medal?"

It was almost inevitable, however, that the veteran of 30 conflicts, would steal the show.

Yet he was not exactly pre-destined for success. After a rather lonely childhood, being brought up by his father in London and Suffolk after his parents had separated, he found his feet at Cambridge, where he edited Granta magazine.

But when at 25, he embarked on his BBC career as a sub-editor in the Radio Newsroom, it was decided by mutual agreement that he was temperamentally unsuited to its routine.

Nevertheless, he made rapid progress. Despite incurring the wrath of Harold Wilson, who apparently punched him in the stomach when he interrupted a photo-opportunity, Simpson was appointed political editor before the 1970s were out. "But the job nearly drove me mad," he recalled.

John Simpson being disguised as a woman before entering Afghanistan
He disguised himself as a woman to enter Afghanistan
It was, ironically, only as a foreign affairs correspondent that he felt at home, despite its dangers. He has no doubts that his life was never in greater peril than when he followed publicity-shy British and American mercenaries who were fighting in Angola in the 1970s.

"I came close to being killed several times by them at the Kinshasa Intercontinental," he says. "I've never been so terrified; one day I just laid on my bed, unable to do anything because of sheer fear."

Not that the BBC asks him to risk his neck in the cause of a good story. In 1991, it ordered him to leave Baghdad before the Gulf War bombing of the city began. He refused, and a Corporation compromise was found, whereby he and two BBC colleagues were assured they would not be punished if they disregarded orders.

And so Simpson found himself telephoning a dispatch to London as a cruise missile swept past his hotel window and turned left at the traffic lights.

Since he became the editor of the BBC's World Affairs Unit 13 years ago, he has tried to remain objective about such historic moments as the fall of Ceaucescu and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

He watched the release of Nelson Mandela with "tears flooding down my face" and while journalists are supposed to be observers not players, Simpson has sometimes been unable to restrain himself.

John Simpson
Bookish: John Simpson is a committed bibliophile
After seeing two soldiers killed by an angry crowd in Tiananmen Square, he stepped in to help prevent a third being murdered. "There's something inside me that wells up and says 'stop it'," he says.

Simpson believes the demands of his job ended his first marriage, but says his second wife, Dee, a television producer, has done more perilous things for the BBC in the townships of her native Johannesburg than anything with which he has been confronted.

It was in the Bosnian conflict that some heavy flak came Simpson's way from the government, who objected strongly to a newspaper article he had written, Why This War Isn't Working.

"When things go wrong British governments tend to lose their nerve", he countered. "They get frightened at the thought of people getting independent, objective information so they start whispering about the personal abilities of the broadcasters."

Sometimes, journalistic rivals don't confine their criticism of Simpson to whispers, but generally, they admit their admiration. "His style shouldn't blind people to the fact that he's very widely read, one of the cleverest people around," says BBC colleague Malcolm Downing.

John Simpson collecting a British Academy award
Collecting a British Academy award for the BBC's coverage of Kosovo
Indeed, despite deploying the full panoply of media technology to broadcast his reports, Simpson still regards books as the most valuable medium. He has written three about his own experiences, and says life would be intolerable without literature; he chose Proust on Desert Island Discs.

Of course, although John Simpson is now a veteran of 57, he has no thoughts of retiring to island solitude and hanging up his videophone. "It's a way of life," he says.

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