London, April 6: To even write about the injuries sustained by an individual reporter when hundreds of Iraqis are being killed might seem like an indulgence but to British television audiences, John Simpson has simply been the country’s most famous foreign correspondent. It’s a well-known face in India, too.
The BBC’s 58-year-old world affairs editor lost his customary cool when he was injured today in the latest example of “friendly fire”. This happened when an American plane bombed a Kurdish convoy in northern Iraq, which included members of the US special forces.
Despite bleeding from his ears and shrapnel wounds to his legs, Simpson was immediately on the satellite phone to the BBC in London to describe the area, littered with the dead and injured and burning vehicles, as a “scene from hell”.
Clearly livid with what had happened, he observed: “This is a really bad own goal by the Americans.”
In a second report, Simpson revealed that an American special forces officer had “confessed” to him that he had been responsible for calling in the American aircraft because he feared the Iraqi enemy was nearby.
Simpson also revealed the BBC’s local translator had one leg blown off and died from blood loss.
Shrapnel had pierced Simpson’s upper thigh and a large piece had hit his spine but luckily had been unable to penetrate his flak jacket.
Simpson began his report today by saying: “Well, it’s a bit of a disaster. I was in a convoy of eight or 10 cars in northern Iraq coming up to a place that has just recently been captured. American special forces in a truck — two trucks I think — beside them, plus a very senior figure.”
When an American soldier tried to intervene, Simpson shouted: “Shut up. I’m broadcasting! Oh yes, I’m fine — am I bleeding'”
The soldier was merely being solicitous when he told Simpson: “Yes, you’ve got a cut.”
Simpson responded: “I thought you were going to stop me. I think I’ve just got a bit of shrapnel in the leg, that’s all.”
Instead of seeking medical help, he carried on: “That was one of the American special forces medics — I thought he was going to try to stop me reporting. I’ve counted 10 or 12 bodies around us. So there are Americans dead. It was an American plane that dropped the bomb right beside us — I saw it land about 10 feet, 12 feet away I think. We were so close to the damage and — it didn’t damage us (the BBC team) badly at any rate. This is just a scene from hell here. All the vehicles are on fire. There are bodies burning around me, there are bodies lying around, there are bits of bodies on the ground.”
He added: “We don’t really know how many Americans are dead. There is ammunition exploding in fact from some of these cars. A very senior member of the Kurdish Republic’s government who also may have been injured.”
He apologised to viewers: “I am sorry to be so excitable. I am bleeding through the ear and everything but that is absolutely the case. I saw this American convoy, and they bombed it. They hit their own people — they may have hit this Kurdish figure — very senior, and they’ve killed a lot of ordinary characters, and I am just looking at the bodies now.
“It is not a very pretty sight.”
In a 30-year career with the BBC, Simpson has reported from most of the world’s trouble spots. His urbane manner has won him a wide following and his reporting many awards.
But he has been ribbed by the journalistic fraternity for claiming he had “liberated” Kabul during the Afghanistan war. He was one of the first TV correspondents to enter Kabul after the fall of the Taliban but his colleagues from BBC World Service radio had been reporting from the capital for many weeks.
Only last week, a media watcher, Kim Fletcher, poked fun at Simpson for not being in the thick of the action this time.
Fletcher wrote: “The first name up in any media discussion of this war is John Simpson… Each night, Huw Edwards has turned obediently to the BBC’s biggest name, but Mr Simpson, stuck in Kurdistan, has managed to do little more than point glumly south, where the action is.”
Today, the BBC spokesman stressed that war reporting is not for the weak-hearted. “Sometimes you don’t have to look for the action,” he remarked laconically. “The action finds you.”