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John Simpson
BBC Breakfast With Frost Interview: John Simpson

May 11th, 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now John Simpson, the legendary John Simpson who's been reporting wars around the globe for more than 20 years, in 1991 he was the BBC's man in Baghdad as the Cruise missiles fell and during this conflict he was stationed in Northern Iraq the Kurdish controlled semi-autonomous part of the country. The front-line fighting was primarily in the south but in one horrific incident the convoy that John was in came under rocket attack, an attack it transpired was from an American plane.


DAVID FROST: Just one of those things, an under-statement, John we're delighted you're, we're delighted you're back and that you're here. I mean how did that mistake happen exactly?

JOHN SIMPSON: Oh it was just one of those really stupid things, the American Special Forces officer said there's an Iraqi tank, it's a mile away, it's position is, 123456 whatever, our position is 45678, please you know we request an attack and they always see the pilot and his, and his navigator obviously got the numbers mixed up so they attacked us instead of the tank.

DAVID FROST: And who ...

JOHN SIMPSON: Gung-ho behaviour, it makes me quite angry even now, it's a month ago now and it still makes me angry to think about that.

DAVID FROST: Of course it does and at what point did you realise that you were in danger, I mean as the rocket or whatever was unleashed or ...

JOHN SIMPSON: Well the extraordinary thing is David, I, I mean I don't know that anybody believes me when I say this because it does sound so unlikely but we were watching these planes, they were only about 500 feet above us, of course no, no threat to them either, there wasn't any Iraqi air force to fight them, nobody there to shoot them down so I mean they had perfect, they should have been in perfect control of the situation and I actually saw the missile leave the second plane but because it was a missile and not a bomb it didn't drop directly towards us it went in a, you know described as a sort of arc in the sky. And to be honest I assumed that it was going to hit this, this tank which had been firing at us and I didn't worry too much about it and then about two seconds later, well I think I said it there, I actually saw out of the corner of my eye this thing coming down like this, I even saw what colour it was, it's like seeing the Loch Ness monster, it doesn't sound very likely but I promise you it's true, I saw the red nose cone and I thought it was white, in fact it turned out to be silver. We were able to identify what type of missile it was because of those colours.

DAVID FROST: And did you think in those last seconds, or half a second, that you were a gonna?

JOHN SIMPSON: Yes I did because we were too close to it, we were only about ten yards away from it. I mean really, really close, well a bit further away than we are from the camera, but I mean it was that close. If it had been a bomb, I would have been in bits, they'd have been, they'd have been picking up the bits for ages. Because it was a missile directed precisely at a target and all the force of it just went into the, into hitting, well it just hit the ground but all the force went into ... I got a lump of shrapnel in my hip from it ...

DAVID FROST: It's still there?


DAVID FROST: They can't get it out?

JOHN SIMPSON: Don't want to actually, apparently, that's what they do know, they just leave it in there. But there was a bit of a worry because then we were told there was a 20 per cent chance it might have a depleted uranium warhead and I knew, because I'd got loads of other bits of shrapnel in me, about 12 other bits I think, that it was all from the warhead, I mean you could tell. It's, you know I'd scratch my head and a little bit of metal would, would come out, none of those hurt at all but, so I knew that all the bits were from the warhead and the thought that I was carrying around a bit of depleted uranium in me for a month was a bit worrying. But on Friday night I managed to get, to get somebody to make certain that it wasn't, wasn't depleted uranium, the Americans weren't, weren't firing those missiles that day.

DAVID FROST: And what damage did it do to your eardrums?

JOHN SIMPSON: Well I'm not sure yet, I mean I can't hear at all out of, out of this ear, I lost the drum, almost all the drum, some of it has, has kind of come back a bit apparently, so I'll, I'll, I'll always be, I mean I'm getting like my father of courseżI can't believe that it's happening.

DAVID FROST: Well this, this sofa is fortuitously placed, placed at this end. Well that's, Martin Bell said that you've now used up eight of your nine lives and you should be careful, are you going to carry on doing this?

JOHN SIMPSON: Oh you bet, I mean it's better than anything, it's better than working. It's more fun, I feel, I feel I've got more energy now that any time in my life and it's, it's, it's just so interesting and you know there are different types of journalists and somewhere, it's an honourable, if any journalist is honourable it's a perfectly honourable profession to sit and listen to people's briefings and make up your mind what you want to do. But there are other types of journalists, Martin Bell is a prime example of it, who want to go out and see the things for themselves, they don't want to be told they want to, they want to see it.

DAVID FROST: And of course quite apart from your injuries, your interpreter, your translator in fact died in this incident?

JOHN SIMPSON: Well that's the thing that makes me most angry, he said to, I said to him very early on, a young man, 25, I said to him, look you do realise it's going to be dangerous working for you, for us and he said to me, I find it difficult not to get upset about it, he said, he said I want to be your friend, I want to come because, with you because I want to be your friend. And then we said to him, look you know it is, it is dangerous. And he said well I've always wanted to have an adventurous life and this is an adventurous thing to do. Poor little man and to be killed because some stupid pilot mixed up one set of figures from another, killed not only him but 22, 21 other people, there are only 40 I think or 50 of us there maybe, 48, 49, almost half of all the people there were killed by this one missile including this poor man that deserved to live for 60 more years and have a happy life. I, I, it's something I'm going to have to work that one through because I still feel a lot of anger about that.

DAVID FROST: You feel a lot of anger probably for quite a, quite a long time and it brings into focus the whole cost of war, the human cost of war but in general would you say this has been a successful war?

JOHN SIMPSON: Successful for whom?


JOHN SIMPSON: No but for whom David, I mean?

DAVID FROST: Well for, for the coalition and for the people of Iraq?

JOHN SIMPSON: I'm afraid I don't think it, I don't think it will necessarily be as successful for the people of Iraq as it ought to be given that they've lost the nastiest dictator on earth. That should have been a great moment for them the trouble is I don't think you can take other people's nasty dictators away, I think it, it's up to a country to get rid of its own dictators. That moment came back in 1991 when people rose up against Saddam and the Americans refused to help them, that was the moment at which Saddam Hussein should have been overthrown. I think to do it this way simply adds to the problems but in terms of the war itself, well it was relatively quick, it was a, it was a well-fought campaign, intelligently fought campaign, I just wish that some of the soldiers, particularly I'm afraid on the American side had been better trained and more in control of themselves because they really weren't always.

DAVID FROST: John thank you very much for being with us, much appreciated and good luck with the ear drums too. John Simpson there.

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