What a burka!

News From No Man's Land

John Simpson <em>Macmillan, 471pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0333905741

Why do so many people in media-land detest John Simpson? The gloating when he made the sole big miscalculation of his career - declaring that the BBC had liberated Kabul - was embarrassing. The Mirror headline "A prize burka" was by no means the most vicious. True, his job title (BBC world affairs editor) is intolerably pompous, but Simpson has had the decency to cringe at that, both in print and on screen.

If we are to understand the media hostility, we are more likely to find it in this, his third volume of memoirs, than anywhere else. It is by far the most dangerous of the trilogy. The first, Strange Places, Questionable People, was a straightforward autobiography, and the second, A Mad World, My Masters, was a collection of terrific anecdotes about his further travels. News From No Man's Land mixes the anecdotage of the earlier books with a much more explicit and opinionated analysis of the state of television news.

Does Simpson have a secret political bias, known only to insiders? Well, because he is forbidden by the BBC ever to state personal views, one of the fascinations of this book is trying to figure out what he was really thinking all along. Perhaps because he is now virtually unsackable, he does not exactly strain to hide his own opinions here.

For example, he comments explicitly on the war in Kosovo - or, as he pointedly refers to it, "the Nato bombing of Serbia and Kosovo". Simpson does have an important case to make when he criticises the tactics used in that conflict. Bombing from 15,000 feet is not so manifestly just that anybody who questions it is "pro-Serb", as Alastair Campbell so offensively said of Simpson's reports. Yet, in this book at least, the BBC journalist fails to address the uncomfortable possibility that this may have been the only military strategy that Bill Clinton could get past a pre-11 September American public sceptical of military engagement in general. Wasn't aerial bombardment better than nothing? Would he rather Slobodan Milosevic had been left in place?

Simpson however allows his plain (and, in the light of Campbell's comments, understandable) hostility to the British government to push him over the line of legitimate comment when he claims he is "morally certain" (what does that mean?) that the British government has been tapping in to BBC computers. His paltry evidence is to claim that government figures have telephoned BBC reporters to complain about their broadcasts before they go out on air. Yet, rather than assume that Downing Street has the energy or lack of judgement to hack into the systems of independent broadcasters, would it not be more reasonable to assume that there was a BBC mole at work? Simpson does not even mention this rather obvious possibility. It is the only moment, in an otherwise admirably candid and self-deprecating work, when the writing does not ring true.

Elsewhere, he bravely dismisses attempts to talk up a cold war-style conflict between Islamic countries and the west as "a wrong-headed and shallow paranoia"; and he points out that, when Afghanistan was attacked, many news reports fell back on a racist cliche that is "as old as the Crusaders: the ferocious armies of Islam, whose faith is stronger than their fear of death".

Simpson is admirably conscious of the intellectual currents (often anti-Muslim) that define the western world-view. He even acknowledges openly, by reminiscing about the stirring Victorian penny dreadfuls set in Afghanistan that he read as a child ("all unutterably crap, of course"), that a British reporter inevitably carries imperial baggage as he or she enters any former colony. Perhaps his pro-Muslim perspective aggravates many, just as his refusal to apply the term "terrorist" to suicide bombers provokes hysterical condemnations from hyper-Zionists. But still, it does not seem adequate as an explanation for the hostility towards him.

The only conclusion I can reach is that his enemies are guilty of envy. It is hard to read of his extraordinary adventures without feeling a touch envious: he seems, like Zelig, to have been present at every exciting or important world event of the past 20 years. But with time, the resentment from competitors will fade, and we will be left with an indisputably great body of reporting. At one point, Simpson lists "the most extraordinary journalists of the century . . . George Orwell, Richard Dimbleby, Ed Murrow, Martha Gellhorn, Bill Deedes".

Who but the most resentful can seriously doubt that he, too, belongs on that list?

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