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14 November 2018

John Simpson’s Diary: The BBC boss who tried to sack me, and David Attenborough’s defection to Netflix

Now I was going to stay at the BBC, I had to do an intensive and radical rewrite of my novel, sharpish. 

By John Simpson

An entire section in my bookshelves is dedicated to authors who have been driven crazy by writing. It contains several of my favourites, from Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy), Christopher Smart and John Clare to Virginia Woolf and beyond. In pride of place there is a book by Benjamin Disraeli’s dad Isaac called, wonderfully, Calamities and Quarrels of Authors. It contains a chapter on “Literary disappointments disordering the intellect”. Whenever I have a book out, I start acting weirdly, making detours to avoid bookshops so I won’t see how poorly it’s displayed, and refusing to read the literary magazines in case of a bad review. Or indeed any review.

Other writers behave differently. A bookseller friend told me she dreaded the publication of a new Jeffrey Archer novel – not on literary grounds, as you might think, but because he’d always come round and rearrange her displays, putting his book in front of all the others. I’d never dare do that: one thing that explains the gross disparity in our sales.

Novel form of resistance

The reason writing novels is bad for your mental stability is that it turns you temporarily into God. You decide which of your creations lives and dies, who suffers and who is made to look like an idiot. I started writing my current book at a time when the then head of BBC News was trying to force me out. I wasn’t the only one: he did the same to several eminent broadcasters, on the grounds that the news department was clogged at the top by the aged. I was unsighted by being assured regularly how wonderful my contribution to the BBC was. “I’d be distraught if you left,” he said.

Maybe I should have made a public fuss and shouted about ageism, much as some women were complaining (rightly) that he paid them less than they deserved. Instead I wrote a novel about how a venerable broadcasting organisation covered an outbreak of assassinations by Russian spies.

This boss appeared unflatteringly in it, of course. Fine – but just as I was about to send the manuscript to the publishers I spotted a quarter-inch in the newspaper that said he was leaving to spend more time with his family or something. His successor was a BBC lifer who promptly rescued me and the other greybeards under pressure. Now I was going to stay, I had to do an intensive and radical rewrite of my novel, sharpish. As published, it isn’t about the BBC at all – it’s about a small, lively television news outfit with a domineering and wrinkled octogenarian owner; suggestions on a postcard, please. But the boss who tried to get rid of me still features, not entirely favourably.

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Lure of the Netflix shilling

Speaking of elderly broadcasters, I was depressed to see that David Attenborough had decided to leave the BBC and take the Netflix shilling for his next series. It’ll apparently be directed and edited by former BBC people, and the title will be almost indistinguishable from those of his past shows. Netflix will be siphoning off a sizeable proportion of the BBC’s reputation – something that has made people admire the corporation for decades. I was taken to task some years ago for forecasting the death of the BBC as the world’s leading public service broadcaster, but I realise now that it won’t happen as the result of government meddling, as I assumed: it’ll come because far richer outfits will dangle very large wads of money in front of its stars, and strip it of its finest assets.

Good riddance to all that

Thank God we’ve finished celebrating the end of the First World War: a horrible business that destroyed many of the best people across four continents. My own family was ruined by it, financially and emotionally. Three of my close relatives suffered horribly for the rest of their lives from the injuries they received; six marriages were wrecked, with consequences that last to this day. Let it rest in peace.

Not seeing red over poppies

One thing in our national life seems to have changed for the better. I tweeted the other day in support of an excellent ITV news presenter, Charlene White, who revealed the scale of the abuse she’d received on social media for deciding not to wear a poppy on screen, even though she came from a service family and gave generously to the British Legion. I employed the accurate if rather smarmy argument that the people who were commemorated by the poppy had suffered and died so future generations could make their own decisions about what to wear and whom to support. Then I sat back and waited for bucketloads of ordure to be poured over me by, in particular, the Daily Mail: “BBC man betrays our fallen heroes” – that kind of thing. Not a bit of it. They reported my support for Charlene White with accuracy and an absence of hostile adjectives. The jury’s still out, but maybe Geordie Greig has quietened the Mail’s traditional angry spluttering for good.

Animal, vegetable, venerable

Speaking of adjectives, when you get to my age – 74 – you become extra-sensitive to the ones people attach to you: “enthusiastic’’ (meaning you’re less gloomy than people expect), “active” (meaning you still manage to get around without a Zimmer frame), or “lively-minded” (meaning you only forget one name in three). I once did a guest turn on that charming afternoon television programme for the archetypically retired, Countdown. During a discussion of adjectives, I said I’d noticed that newspapers that had once described me as “veteran” were now starting to use the word “venerable”. Whatever next, I asked. One of the competitors on the programme, a particularly sharp and amusing chap, wrote something on a piece of paper, folded it, and passed it over to me. “Vegetable,” it said.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His new novel, “Moscow, Midnight”, is published by John Murray

This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history