We Chose to Speak of War and Strife
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th October, 2016
Few people would call John Simpson, the septuagenarian BBC World Affairs Editor, a shrinking violet. For several years there was even a BBC programme called Simpson’s World and fellow broadcasters like to rib him about the time he “liberated” Kabul in front of the camera. But the ribbing comes mainly from admiration for the solid body of work that Simpson has carried out, not least in dangerous war situations, such as in Baghdad or Sarajevo. He is very much the go-to face to explain conflicts to the viewer, in a way that Kate Adie used to be. His exploits and associated reflections have moreover been covered in a series of books recounting what it is like on the frontline of international news. However, his latest volume (We Chose to Speak of War and Strife, Bloomsbury, £25) is somewhat different, as it is essentially a celebration of the world of foreign correspondents past and present, from Henry Crabb Robinson onwards. Scores of names — many who will be familiar to avid TV viewers and newspaper readers — fill the book’s pages, moving not so much chronologically or geographically but thematically. Chapters have such headings as Journeys, Scoops, Taking Risks and Getting Involved. Some foreign correspondents, such as Martha Gelhorn and Marie Colvin, showed incredible ingenuity as well as bravery, the latter paying for it with her life.
Rather a lot of Simpson’s subjects perish in the later chapters, which is partly a reflection of the way that attitudes to correspondents have changed. When I was a cub reporter stringing for the Manchester Evening News during the Vietnam War it never entered my head to wear camouflage or a flak-jacket. Both sides in the conflict wanted their story told and were eager to help. But these days, all too often journalists are themselves targets, either for hostage-taking or gruesome execution, not least by fanatical Islamist groups, if not just ending up as collateral damage on the battlefield. Simpson being Simpson, of course he interjects his own experiences into that of others, sometimes as colleagues, but often in a more editorial fashion. He betrays a certain competitiveness which has indeed characterises much of the relationship between foreign correspondents working for different organisations, but there is also compassion. He has his favourites among colleagues, including Lyse Doucet and Frank Gardner, as well as some by whom he has been less impressed. He rightly laments the fact that even as news outlets and platforms have multiplied in the digital age the resources that are devoted to employing and dispatching foreign correspondents has shrunk substantially. So in a sense one is left with a feeling at the end of this book that it something of a swan-song, not just for John Simpson but also for the profession. That would be a shame, to put it mildly, as there is so much out there in the big bad world that we need to know about. .