John Simpson on twice breaking the first rule of journalism

“I whacked a US marine with my walking stick – and enjoyed it”

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There’s a tremendous din in the Chelsea restaurant that John Simpson has picked for our interview. He turns up bang on time and is concerned that I’ve been waiting for him. We’re sitting in a booth and as a former rugby player and boxer – which he tells me later in the context of his dramatic interventions to stop people murdering one another – he doesn’t look quite right, pincered into a snug banquette. His clothes appear soft and expensive and you imagine that he must smell nice. Close up, his eyes are an unusual shade of pale denim blue.

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We both struggle to cope with the percussive background – a timpani set of dropped cutlery and stacking plates. Across from us, two groups of young Americans are conducting a loud conversation with one another: “Do we have to have these people shouting from table to table?” Simpson asks me in a put-upon way.

He tries to talk above the “Awesome!”s but finally the BBC’s world affairs editor can stand it no longer: “EXCUSE ME! HI… WE ARE JUST DOING A RECORDING HERE… I’m sorry, if you don’t mind, is it a nuisance to ask you to just..?” The Americans look bewildered and instantly shut up. “OK, thank you so much,” Simpson says and we continue.

We’re here to discuss The Editors, the monthly news programme he presents on BBC1. (The next edition is due in late June.) It comprises short films by a selection of the BBC’s on-camera specialists: Stephanie Flanders, Nick Robinson, Robert Peston et al. The questions are intended to be strong – such as: “Is Russia a rogue state?”, “Has America ceased to be a superpower?” or “What’s wrong with English football?”

This is Simpson’s attempt to remind the critics of the BBC – particularly in the wake of the Savile disaster – of what the corporation can boast: world-class journalists with a rigorous approach to their subjects. His idea was to get specialist editors to use their knowledge to tackle tough questions and not be wishy-washy in answering them.

“What I wanted was to make the equivalent of perhaps being in a bar or café and somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Look, I watch you on television and I want to know what you really think. Do you really think that the Israelis are going to bomb Iran?’ And instead of saying, ‘On the one hand, it’s perfectly possible… on the other hand, it may not happen,’ which doesn’t satisfy anybody, you want them to be able to say, ‘Well, I’ve looked at this for a long time and my feeling is that…’ whichever way it goes. It’s not enough to do the old sort of balance thing.”

Simpson was outspoken in the wake of the Savile scandal – “Of course I was, I can’t keep my mouth shut” – saying it was the lowest point in the BBC’s history, but he’s confident that Tony Hall, whom he knows from the new DG’s old BBC days as Head of News, will be terrific: “Tony Hall will take us back to that moral level once again – and we won’t have that sense that there is something dirty going on below the surface and no one quite knows what it is. He’s a very wise, wily man who behaves really sensibly and rationally. He’ll see a mantrap on the ground, which is carefully covered, and he’ll know what it is.”

The BBC’s eminence grise of foreign correspondents is 68 now – and is feeling more of the grise than the eminence. It can’t be all that long before he will have worked for the BBC for 50 years. Does he think he’ll still be with the corporation then? “I bloody hope so, yes, that’s only three years away.”

He has witnessed terrible things – massacres, executions, murder, mayhem. Has he ever intervened? “I have, actually. I’m not terribly proud of it and I don’t really like to talk about it,” he says. One incident occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when he and the cameraman and sound recordist were close to an armoured personnel carrier that was under attack. Chinese soldiers were being dragged out “and the crowd was a very rough lot, not nice students, and they wanted blood. They smashed the head of one of the soldiers in, and then they started to smash another one in and I thought, ‘I can’t stand by and just let this happen,’ and so I waded in. I used to be a rugby player and a boxer and I’m quite big and so on… and so I whacked them to one side.”

On another occasion, he thwacked an American marine. This was in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, in 2003 – the Americans had just captured it and were in a jittery state: “I had this injury so I had a walking stick. There was a house with a flat roof, just on the other side of the road, and some poor old boy was hanging up a carpet to dry and one of the US marines I was with swung his rifle round and shouted out ‘Sniperrr! Sniperrrr!’ and I whacked him in the back with my stick.”

You enjoyed the whacking? “I did enjoy the whacking, yes. They were nervous and were given the impression by their officers that if they did kill somebody and it was done in self-defence, so be it. And that was really why my team and I got bombed and they killed 18 people, including my translators – and how I got my shrapnel [which is still embedded in his bottom].

“I don’t go interfering in things by and large. But I do think if you see somebody doing some- thing really, really awful and you could stop it, you’ve got a duty to step in. I don’t think you can say, ‘I’m a journalist,’ and do nothing.”

Far from being vain, he says that he doesn’t like “listening to my own stuff or watching my own stuff. What’s the point? I’ll just get depressed. I can’t really bear seeing myself on television.” Don’t you like the way you look? “No, no, no,” he groans, as though he’s in genuine pain. “Now, I see myself sometimes in shop windows as I’m walking down the street with my wife and kid and I just think ‘Who is that old man?’ because in my mind I don’t have white hair and so on.”

The longer I talk to him, the more interesting and complex Simpson appears. He has an outwardly confident and urbane sheen that one associates with someone from a privileged background but below the surface, he is not at all what he seems. He’s a famously older father, with a seven-year-old son, Rafe, from his second marriage to a younger South African woman, Dee Kruger, who was his producer (and has a producer credit on The Editors). When he talks about Rafe, his wide, somewhat stern face becomes suffused with tenderness.

He has insecurities and vulnerabilities, like most of us, but it’s unusual for someone in his position to share them. I’m astonished, for instance, when we are talking about people he admires and he says that he wishes he could be like Jon Snow. Why? “He’s so thin and cool and iconic,” he says, as though he has no idea that he’s a bit of an icon himself.

He owns a flat in Paris and a house in Chelsea but is renting at the moment in a place overlooked by office workers, which he hates: “We bought the house, off the King’s Road, when I wrote two bestsellers which did really well and I thought, as one does, ‘That’s it – I’m set for life. I think I may give up the day job.’ But some sense of self-preservation locked in and I thought I’d better wait until I tried another book, and the third one was a flop. I haven’t had a success since.

“So we’ve never been able to afford to look after the house properly, which was falling apart – there are builders in it now and what the future holds, I don’t know. These are not easy times.”

It is a surprise to hear him say several times that he would have liked to have given up his day job since I assumed, like David Attenborough – whom he is often mistaken for, which irks him since Simpson is two decades younger – that he adored his work. (His contract covers 46 weeks each year, many of them spent abroad and he is always on call – “Quite rightly,” he says.)

“It would have been nice if I could have given up the job. I could be freelance – I would love to do that. Don’t print this,” he jokes, “otherwise the b*****ds will say, ‘OK, we’ll give you your dearest wish!’ Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”

When I ask if he went to the memorial service of the great Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in a rocket attack during the siege of Homs last year, he says he couldn’t bring himself to go, as he knew he would have just sat there sobbing. Does he weep easily, then? “I do, nowadays,” he says. “It does tend to happen to you in old age, it’s a condition called…” he tries to remember the term. “Senile? No, emotional lability,” he scribbles it down on a sheet of paper.

“I read about it somewhere. Winston Churchill had it – he used to get it if people talked about honour or glory or generosity.

“I had it, of course, when my son was born but it isn’t always about wonderful or, indeed, terrible moments. What sets me off is generosity, too, and people’s kindness.”

Would he describe himself as emotional? “No, I don’t think so,” he says. “You don’t want a lot of emotionality in my line of work. But I do have a lot of empathy – perhaps too much. It would have been better if I had been a colder fish, I would have done better in my profession.” When I exclaim that this sounds a bit preposterous, he says: “I’d be a rich man, if I was colder.”

He was born John Cody Fidler-Simpson. The Cody is from his great-grandfather on his moth- er’s side – whom he describes as an American cowboy who came over to Britain at the turn of the 20th century. He made the first sustained manned flight in 1908 – “I’m terribly proud of the old boy!” Fidler was his grandfather’s family name on his father’s side, which his father decided to perpetuate: “I dropped the double-barrel – can you imagine if I hadn’t? The roars of laughter across the country.”

When he was seven, his parents separated and he chose to stay with his father rather than his mother, Joy, and she never recovered. “She lived down in Taunton and that was a long way away. I think it broke her heart. I don’t like to think about it too much because now all I can think of is my own relationship with my little boy and how it would be if – arghhh,” he sighs deeply. “It’s those sort of areas that are so painful. But I long ago decided I am not going to torture myself…”

He believes in God and is a churchgoer. When I say that after witnessing the atrocities in Rwanda, to take one example, he could have gone the other way, he says: “I don’t feel that God is a kind of football manager arranging the figures on the field. I don’t think he spends much time bother- ing about my affairs and the affairs of others…”

So where is the comfort in his faith? “It’s not so much the God support but more that when I go into my church – where Sir Thomas More used to be churchwarden;

Princess Elizabeth sat next to Princess Mary and Catherine Parr stopped them fighting; John Donne gave funeral speeches there – I might have a lot of problems but I think, ‘Wait a moment, for a thousand-odd years people have been coming into this place, sitting down and thinking about their worries.’ It puts your own fears into perspective and you think, ‘Perhaps it’s not all so absolutely dreadful and terminal as it might be.’

“I listen to the sermon and I sing the hymns – I can’t help thinking that I mostly go there for the hymns, really – belting them out, and my little boy tends to go with me, and I think: ‘Well, life could be worse, and probably will be quite soon, but at this very moment, I feel a real sense of peace and calmness.’”

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You can watch the latest episode of BBC News: The Editors on BBC iPlayer until 27 May. The next edition airs at the end of June.