On June 9, we published a Media Alert: ‘An Exchange With BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson.’
This alert generated some of the most interesting and insightful letters we’ve ever received from readers. On June 13, we received the following response from John Simpson:
Dear David and David,
First, an apology. I’ve been pretty semi-detached from the BBC for a long time, and don’t use their email system; so if you’ve been sending me great lengthy complaints during the last few years, I’m afraid they’ve vanished into the ether. I only got your latest message because one of the other addressees sent on to me.
In future, please email me at this address. I promise I’ll look carefully at what you say, and if you convince me that what you say is right, I’ll make any changes that are necessary.
But don’t bother to sound off to me about the BBC in general. The days when I was a senior manager as well as a broadcaster are now mercifully long past. I’ve only been responsible for my own reporting for a good fourteen years now.
In your email you tell me how important you are, how people take you seriously, and how nice and polite you are, too.
Glad to hear it, but my experience is different. You’ve lied about me, and tried to cover up any information which undermined your accusations.
Back in November 2002, not long before the invasion of Iraq, I did a report for ‘Panorama’ about Saddam Hussein. You decided that merely to examine Saddam’s record at a time like that was pro-war propaganda. Well, that’s your prerogative. But you also wrote this about me:
The truth is that you don’t get very far in the mainstream media if you offend powerful interests. The BBC’s John Simpson “was promoted with spectacular rapidity”, Oliver Burkeman notes in the Guardian. The ascent came to a swift end when Simpson compiled a report on the Falkland’s war which appeared to suggest that UK foreign policy had invited the invasion:
“Downing Street made calls; three days later he was taken off the air. It was 1988 before he returned from the wilderness to a role as a foreign affairs specialist.” (Oliver Burkeman, ‘Simpson of Kabul,’ the Guardian, November 14, 2001)…….
Instead of turning his back on an organisation that had so severely punished him for offending the powerful, John Simpson stuck to the task of rebuilding his career within the BBC. As the BBC’s current world affairs editor, Simpson narrated and starred in the recent Panorama production: ‘Saddam: A Warning from History’, (BBC1, November 3, 2002).
What a nasty little mixture of innuendo and character assassination that is. You’re trying to make your readers believe that I never dared to offend ‘the powerful’ again, and that I grovelled my way back into favour by performing whatever my masters demanded of me.
The prosaic reality was that I was axed in 1982 because I was the victim of some pretty nasty BBC politics, which are at least as bad as anything that happens at Westminster. And I hadn’t been that good at reading the news anyway.
Less than four years later, far from trying slavishly to keep in with ‘the powerful’, I took a leading part, both publicly and inside the BBC, in defending our coverage of the bombing of Libya against the accusations of the Thatcher government. In fact we wiped the floor with them. It was easy, because they were mostly composed of insinuations and insubstantial half-truths. Sound familiar?
Yet although this is all in the public domain, you didn’t think to mention it. Funny, that.
Nor did you trouble to remind your readers about my coverage of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. I did a story from Belgrade which demonstrated that the bombing was creating more, rather than less, support for Milosevic. Tony Blair was so upset that he attacked me personally in the Commons.
In reporting like this, he announced, I was simply doing the Serbs’ bidding. He went on, “My view of democracy is he is entirely able to present whatever reports he likes and we are perfectly entitled to say that those reports are provided for under the instruction and guidance of the Serbian authorities.”
Afterwards I said that if Blair repeated this outside the privilege of Parliament I would sue him; and as a result I won a sort of apology from Alistair Campbell (who of course had been behind the whole attack).
No mention of any of this in your attack on me. Just like the tabloids, you don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Remember what you wrote at the start of that piece of yours? ‘The truth is that you don’t get very far in the mainstream media if you offend powerful interests.’ Well, over the years my reporting has offended every single government since 1970, and so far the BBC has always backed me up. And at the age of 61 I still seem to be around.
So maybe you should rethink what you mean by ‘the truth’. And if you don’t tell the truth yourselves, whatever right have you got to complain about other people?
Above all, I’d like you to answer my main question: did you just forget to mention these things, or did you hide them from your readers on purpose?
All the best,
We have replied (June 14):
Many thanks for your further response. There seems to be some confusion surrounding your “main question“. Our initial email to Andrew North, Helen Boaden and yourself criticised a specific BBC report for failing to mention ’coalition’ responsibility for the mass killing of Iraqis. Our subsequent Media Alert was a response to your claim that the BBC +had+ afforded substantial coverage to US-UK killings, and to your claim that we believe “the BBC is in some way the mouthpiece of the British government“.
We explained that this is not what we are arguing and we explained why. We also cited studies, quotes and sources that contradict your claim that the BBC has provided fair and impartial coverage of ’coalition’ killings.
In other words, neither the original email nor the alert were specifically focused on your performance. We did cite one example from your reporting on Iraq, but only as an example of standard BBC practice.
So the answer to your “main question” is that we were not hiding evidence that you have “offended every single government since 1970“ for the simple reason that your reporting was not the focus of our alert. Your latest email completely ignores the important points we raised. Instead, you appear to have written a belated response to our November 2002 Media Alert: ‘Our Pravda – The BBC, Panorama and Iraq.’ (November 8, 2002)
You write: “Nor did you trouble to remind your readers about my coverage of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. I did a story from Belgrade which demonstrated that the bombing was creating more, rather than less, support for Milosevic.”
Again, BBC reporting on Iraq, not your reporting on Serbia, was the focus of our Media Alert – why would we mention your reporting on Serbia?
But anyway, you surely cannot imagine we are suggesting you never subject the powerful to criticism. The fact is that we +have+ recognised, and even praised, your challenges to power. Like our other emails, these mentions doubtless “vanished into the ether”. In a February 2002 Media Alert, we wrote:
“Simpson famously irritated government spin doctors with his reports from Belgrade…” (Media Alert Update – ‘Director of BBC News Responds‘)
In a November 2002 Media Alert, we even described your reporting from Belgrade as “admirable”. (Media Alert Update: ‘Bill Hayton of the BBC’s World Service Responds Again‘)
But that certainly does not mean your performance in reporting the bombing of Serbia is beyond criticism. The basic flaw in your argument is that government flak often says more about the totalitarian mindset of the government – about its refusal to tolerate even the mildest dissent – than it does about the quality of media reporting. Why, then, would we seek to cover up evidence indicating that you have offended governments?
The fate suffered by Andrew Gilligan, Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies is a case in point. The BBC’s reporting ahead of the 2003 invasion was atrocious (see our book, Guardians Of Power, for details), but the government was happy to use one honest statement made by Gilligan as an excuse for launching a ferocious attack on the BBC. The clear motivation was to direct public attention away from the political catastrophe in Iraq – namely, the failure to find +any+ WMD – and towards a media scapegoat. In other words, we learned precisely nothing about the honesty of BBC reporting from the fact that it was attacked by the government.
In 1999, former ABC correspondent Charles Glass described the Blair government‘s attack on journalists reporting the bombing of Serbia:
“The journalists are fighting back by insisting that their reporting was plus royalist que le roi. Channel Four correspondent Alex Thomson wrote, ‘So, if you want to know why the public supported the war, thank a journalist, not the present government’s propagandist-in-chief.’ Well, thanks. The Guardian’s Maggie O’Kane, a brave Irish journalist who has covered all of Yugoslavia’s wars, made the same point: ‘But Campbell should acknowledge that it was the press reporting of the Bosnian war and the Kosovar refugee crisis that gave his boss the public support and sympathy he needed to fight the good fight against Milosevic.’
“John Simpson of the BBC joined the battle. An excellent reporter, he had already forced the government’s spin-doctors to withdraw their criticisms of his reporting from Belgrade when he considered suing for libel. Yet he too believes that journalists, rather than exposing the war as illegal or immoral, were vital to its prosecution: ‘Why did British, American, German, and French public opinion stay rock-solid for the bombing, in spite of Nato’s mistakes? Because they knew the war was right. Who gave them the information? The media.’” (Glass, ‘Hacks versus flacks – tales from the depths,‘ ZNet Commentary, August 1, 1999; http://www.zmag.org/ZSustainers/ZDaily/1999
As Glass commented:
“It was left to a few individual voices, notably Australian journalist John Pilger and novelist Andrew Wilson, to question the legitimacy and legality of an undeclared NATO war.”
You delivered some fine, professional and, by mainstream standards, quite challenging reports from Belgrade. You were right to point out that “the bombing was creating more, rather than less, support for Milosevic”. But dissident voices outside the mainstream media went much further. They pointed out that the assault on Serbia was an example of the supreme war crime – the waging of a war of aggression. They strongly emphasised that these crimes were based on a series of spectacular lies and audacious truth-reversals. Our argument is that the kind of points made by Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Philip Hammond, Diana Johnstone, John Pilger and others were almost never seen in the mainstream media, the BBC included.
You mention that in our November 2002 alert we quoted Oliver Burkeman’s article in the Guardian (Burkeman, ‘Simpson of Kabul,’ The Guardian, November 14, 2001; http://www.guardian.co.uk/afghanistan
/story/0,,593049,00.html) and then write:
“You’re trying to make your readers believe that I never dared to offend ‘the powerful’ again, and that I grovelled my way back into favour by performing whatever my masters demanded of me.”
That is not at all what we were trying to do. We know you have offended powerful interests since then, probably most BBC reporters have. This is a point we have made time and again – that mainstream journalists +do+ criticise and challenge powerful interests. But our argument is that this criticism tends to remain within certain bounds. Reporters who step beyond these bounds tend to be targeted for attack and career destruction. We have also consistently argued that journalists in general do not consciously conform, but tend to internalise the values required by the system. It’s not that they lie, or try “slavishly to keep in with ‘the powerful’“. As Noam Chomsky famously told the BBC’s Andrew Marr:
“I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)
This is not merely our view, by the way. It is the view, for example, of award-winning former CNN producer and CBS reporter Kristina Borjesson. In her book Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press – Borjesson writes:
“The buzzsaw is a powerful system of censorship in this country that is revealed to those reporting on extremely sensitive stories, usually having to do with high-level government and/or corporate malfeasance. It often has a fatal effect on one’s career. I don’t want to mix metaphors here, but a journalist who has been through the buzzsaw is usually described as ‘radioactive,’ which is another word for unemployable.” (Borjesson, Into The Buzzsaw, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.12)
The same, we believe, applies to Britain.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to John Simpson
Email: [email protected]
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC news
Email: [email protected]