| Simpson and his world
News From No Man’s Land By John Simpson, Macmillan, £ 7.50
Some forty years after Evelyn Waugh wrote his devastating satire on journalism in Scoop, American journalist Edward Behr created another famous caricature of the scribe in Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English'. To journalists like John Simpson, however, the job is not just a commitment but a badge of honour earned in grim professional battles. And, the toughest test is when the job has to be done in a no man’s land like taliban-ruled Afghanistan. A sense of pride, of fulfilment, which sometimes borders on the pompous, runs deep into this narrative.
Simpson and his BBC crew walked into Kabul one chilly November dawn last year to broadcast to an anxious world the fall of the taliban regime. Simpson’s “short walk” into Kabul brought the curtain down on the first phase of an international campaign that began two months earlier with the attacks on America on September 11, 2001. The book, his third volume of autobiography, tells the story of Simpson’s tortuous tryst with Afghanistan under the taliban that climaxed in that triumphant walk.
One gets to know, for instance, about his huge professional disappointment at not being in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened. He was in the country till September 9, when the taliban ordered him out. Given the country’s lawlessness, it was not very difficult to ignore the marching order and stay on. But how could he have foreseen that this godforsaken land would be the first theatre of what would look like the “clash of civilizations”'
That, in essence, is what journalism is all about — not just being at the right place at the right time but also getting the story right. But good luck and missed opportunities go hand in hand in a journalist’s search for stories. Since this book mostly covers Simpson’s work in Afghanistan before and after the fall of the taliban, it gives a vivid idea of what a journalist goes through in getting a story. Written after the dust of the chase has settled, a scribe’s autobiography also gives him an opportunity to reflect on his own work, warts and all, and tell the reader much more than the news story of the day did. The scribe’s trials and tribulations therefore become object lessons in the media craft.
Simpson does precisely that with the vividness and lucidity that mark his reporting for the BBC. Memories of news hunts take him not just to Afghanistan but practically to every place in the world where major stories have broken in the past 35 years — West Asia, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq and so on. The story of his personal encounters with news sources, colleagues and competitors speak of a degree of professional integrity and honesty that mark a good journalist.
The most satisfying thing about the narrative is its human face; even a seasoned scribe like Simpson feels sad if beaten on a story by a rival. No wonder he gloats in bravado when he beats Christiane Amanpour of CNN to a secret journey to Afghanistan, covered in a burqah, “I’m fond of Christiane and admire her reporting greatly, but there are times when she sounds like the head girl of an English public school. Which is probably what she is.”
The book suggests, however, that Simpson has much more than a personal rivalry with Amanpour and her compatriots among American television journalists. It is a passionate statement of his loyalty to the “BBC school of journalism” that supposedly places public interest and professional honesty above everything else. There is more than a hint that he attributes the “dumbing down” of the media to the American weakness for appearances rather than the reality. Simpson’s world is more real, he tells us, than that of “reality TV”. Not entirely a false claim, but the arrogance is typical of a journalist plea-sed with himself.