John Simpson on the world of a foreign correspondent

Thursday 13 October 2016

As someone who spends his working life travelling around the world’s conflict zones, John Simpson clearly finds it hard to choose somewhere to take a proper holiday.

Admitting that he was bored stiff in the south of France, the BBC’s world affairs editor settled on South Africa as the ideal holiday destination – it has everything you want and is also “incredibly dangerous”.

He cited South Africa as the place that provided some of his most memorable stories throughout his long career as a foreign correspondent. Based there during the height of apartheid, he subsequently reported on the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the first democratic election in 1994.

John was speaking at The Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL), as part of the 2016 Ilkley Literature Festival. In conversation with writer and broadcaster Colin Philpott, John spoke about his latest book We Chose to Speak of War and Strife: The World of the Foreign Correspondent.

Describing the book as “…not a book about me, rather about being a foreign correspondent” John said: “The main heroes and heroines are the extraordinarily famous correspondents whose names still resound. The profession started in 1620, and while the details, places and way we report are different, the actual business of being a foreign correspondent is just the same.”

The Q&A session ranged from how he became a foreign correspondent, to difficult editorial decisions about what it’s appropriate to show, colleagues he most admires, the most dangerous place visited and most difficult person ever interviewed.

John also addressed the impact of the foreign correspondent and whether their work can change some of the appalling situations on which they report. He said: “I like to break a news story but I don’t think it’s our job to pressurise for policy changes. One questions one’s motives all the time but the important thing is that ordinary people know what’s going on.”

After 50 years with the BBC John shows no sign of scaling back his work and flies to Iraq on Sunday, to film for a Panorama programme about his career in the corporation. He said: “The work is complicated, dangerous and difficult but is so interesting, with Brexit and the future of the EU, Syria; I have absolutely no desire to stop at such an exciting time.”

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