John Simpson’s tales of assault at Wigtown Book Festival

GLANCING around a heaving Baillie Gifford marquee on Saturday afternoon at the hundreds of people who had turned out to hear tales from the BBC’s long-serving John Simpson, it would be fair to assume the Wigtown Book Festival could have sold twice the number of tickets that it did for this event.

And the crowd were in for a treat as the corporation’s 68-year-old world affairs editor – a title he claims bears no resemblance to what he actually does – told stories from his first day in the job right up to last week’s visit to Middle East war zones.

BBC Scotland’s Claire English introduced him and chatted to him about his life in the Beeb, querying the differences between the world of journalism in the 1970s and today.

Amusing anecdotes followed which painted a clear picture of a male-dominated, “leather-patched-elbow” industry which frowned upon the introduction of women who were often laughed out the door.

But over time, John said, women became an integral part of reporting and have even bettered him in the live broadcast stakes. He said he wasn’t a supporter of emotional, overly-descriptive reports from highly-charged situations but 
often he appreciates how this can have the effect of conveying a clear picture of the plight facing the people of that country.

Having dodged bullets at Tiananmen Square, John spoke of the shock he felt knowing many of the people he had come to know during the lead-up to the massacre had been killed but said it didn’t put him off reporting in conflict areas.

Instead, he was spurred on to do so – even after losing a colleague during a bomb explosion just 30 feet from him in northern Iraq in 2003 which left himself deaf in one ear. Lightening an otherwise sombre tale, he explained that he still has shrapnel embedded in his thigh: “My doctor insists on calling it my buttock, but I prefer thigh.”

Going back to his first day as a reporter with the BBC, John evoked an image which had many of the audience wiping away tears of laughter.

He explained that by 11.40am on his inaugural morning, he had – in front of the world’s media assembled for a press call at Euston Station – grossly insulted (and been physically assaulted by) Prime Minister Harold Wilson after asking him a question, albeit banal, that the PM hadn’t known about in advance. It was a big faux pas known by every reporter in the politician’s presence except him (owing to the Prime Minister’s realisation that Alzheimer’s was taking hold, he refused to answer questions he hadn’t previously prepared for).

Mr Wilson was so angered by the audacity of this cocky young reporter that he punched him in the stomach and shouted he would be complaining to the BBC’s director general.

Believing his career to be over, John’s future couldn’t actually have been more different. Often thanks to a partly-false passport (using his Irish heritage and middle name – another laugh-inducing story), John has reported from 120 countries, 30 war zones and is still going strong.

When asked if his wife, his former producer, ever asks him to curb the dangerous job, John said: “Not at all. She knows this is what I do and has reported with me from some of these places, so she understands why we do it.

“If I ever wake up filled with dread over what lies before me for the day, that’s when I know it’s time to stop.”