John Simpson – Hadyn Ellis distinguished lecture

johnsimpson-cardiffuni_mh20161124_10wmaThis year’s Hadyn Ellis distinguished lecture brought foreign correspondent veteran John Simpson to Cardiff University.

They don’t get more distinguished than Mr Simpson. For many people alive today Simpson is one of those omnipresent BBC voices of sturdy broadcasting authority. He has been on our screens and in our airwaves seemingly forever. His 50 year BBC career has seen him reporting from an unfathomable range of dangerous and volatile places, at times of major historical significance.

In journalism terms, he’s been there, done it and got the waistcoat.

Unsurprisingly, he drew a big crowd and the large Julian Hodge lecture theatre of Cardiff Business School was packed out.  The title of the lecture was the same as the title of his new book: We Chose to Speak of War and Strife: The World of the Foreign Correspondent.

Simpson admitted he was there to ‘flog a book’ and the lecture theatre laughed along at his honesty. He then explained he would read a section from the book before speaking in freer fashion about the work of foreign correspondents. This is what he did. I wondered if this basic structure wasn’t a tiny bit lazy, mildly disrespectful of the distinguished lecture. It didn’t appear that Simpson had gone to heaps of effort for this lecture, but perhaps he had earned the right not to because he was John Simpson.

He read from his book about the new phase our world finds itself in: mainly Brexit and Trump. He spoke of how people are told how they ought to think by newspapers, the subtle inference being that broadcasters do not tell so much, especially in the UK, and especially not the BBC. He strongly spoke of our much discussed post truth world, this sad place where facts and detail are relegated, where the EU referendum and Trump election campaigns saw false and untrue claims freely made.
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These are depressingly fascinating areas, but if you’re a regular consumer of lefty press there was nothing new in acknowledging the existence of this. There were no glittering insights or moments of stark outspoken illumination.

Perhaps it was unfair to expect or hope for such. To me it felt rather pedestrian and ambling.

How It Should Be Done

What did come through strongly was his belief and pride in doing reporting the way it should be done, and that the BBC upholds values which are no longer broadly held in such high esteem. During his 50 years of working for the BBC, he wanted to put on record that nobody ever told him to report in a particular way for political reasons. The duty of impartiality must be taken extremely seriously. It was suggested that other broadcasters don’t take impartiality so seriously and do tell reporters to report in a particular way for political reasons.

But can this impartiality lead to a robotic and boring type of reporting, which people have grown bored and tired of? The style of language and delivery can seem predictably stiff with the BBC. It appears like you have to slowly earn the right to express individuality and personality over the course of a broadcasting career. Could it be said that BBC reports often employ a similar type of language, with similar inflexions and intonations as those employed by traditional politicians? Those politicians against whom it seems the majority of the UK reneged in voting to leave the EU?  Might Brexit on some level have been a reaction or revolt against such stuffy impenetrable parlance from politicians and our state broadcaster? ITV and Channel 4 news both attempt to inject more personality in hosting and presenting television news.

Timidity The Enemy

You might also pick at Simpson’s line that timidity is every national broadcaster’s enemy, because he also spoke of how everything you do as a member of BBC staff is monitored. This feeling of constant surveillance must be both positive and negative.

Did Simpson ever have a really strong urge to be outspoken or voice more of a risky opinion? Was there anything he regretted? Was he himself ever timid? My hunch is that the BBC tends to fully institutionalise and indoctrinate people over a significant period. And 50 years is a significant period. Perhaps it was and remains successful in institutionalising a social elite, effectively prepared through public schooling and Oxbridge educations in grandiose buildings.

The BBC and old fashioned British broadcasters are the goodies with integrity, honesty and truth. Most of the press, most of America and all its conceited new age television networks are the baddies, with lies and falsehoods. As I understood it, this was the general undercurrent of Simpson’s lecture. Hopefully his book goes deeper in exploring this but still it seemed a touch simplistic and binary: us and them, white and black; a little like any old person saying things were better in the old days.

After his reading Simpson spoke of other foreign correspondents he admired, offering anecdotes which sounded like they might have been regular dinner party material. Entertaining enough. But again, for a broadcaster of such heft and authority, such urgency and gravitas, he was surprisingly not a gripping speaker for me. There was seemingly no plan, structure or direction to his lecture. Not much passion. It ambled along.

Although there were compelling vignettes.

  • Today if he was a young journalist he would visit a difficult and nasty place like Burma, where there’s appalling treatment of muslim minorities.
  • Reporting on Nelson Mandela’s rise to power was his most uplifting experience.
  • On ‘platforming’ he said it’s important not to ban controversial figures like Nigel Farage. This would be the reverse of free media. We can’t ban people if we don’t like what they’re saying.
  • US broadcast news is now ruined.

Afterwards I wondered if Simpson was usual amongst foreign correspondents, people who have reported from the heat of significant historical moments. In fiction and comedy, foreign correspondents and war reporters are often portrayed as arrogant, swashbuckling, self-serving, adrenalin junkies. (The cover of his new book is a side profile photograph of him looking at least 15 years younger next to a big plume of black smoke, although of course he may have had no say in this).

But when you have worked in numerous intense environments, when you reach Simpson’s age, is the real world not a little dull to you? Maybe at that point all you can really do is amble along.

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