John Simpson is the world affairs editor at the BBC. He has worked at the BBC as a journalist for his entire career and much of his work was as a foreign correspondent. He was once hunted by Robert Mugabe, avoided bullets at the Tiananmen Square massacre, bore witness to the Kosovo War, the first Gulf War and countless other pivotal world events.
This, his latest of several books which have detailed his life as a journalist, is more of a history of the evolution and role of the foreign correspondent. I first heard of the book in an interview between Simpson and Phillip Adams on Radio National’s Late Night Live. The segment was titled ‘The End of the Foreign Correspondent’ and in the interview Simpson posited that the role of foreign correspondent has all but been replaced by news services and freelance local journalists and implied his book was a sort of response.
This idea of an obituary to the profession is perhaps an angle which Simpson used to promote the book. Meanwhile, the back-cover blurb uses a different angle by name-dropping Hemingway (who only appears in the book tangentially in an anecdote), and also portrays the book as a series of hair-raising adventures.
In actuality, the book is neither an obituary to foreign correspondence or an auto-biographical tale of adventure though there are elements of each. Rather, Simpson has compiled an anthological history of the foreign correspondent. He has culled from history books, foreign correspondents auto-biographies, his own life, and his own auto-biographies.
I’ve a certain immediate and unfounded suspicion of Simpson based around generational difference and Australian/English colonial histories. I was interested in the subject but wary of both him and his book. As the structure of the book revealed itself to be neither searing indictment of modern corporate journalism or personal tales of adventure I was even more willing, perhaps even eager, to decry the book as little more than a lazy cash-grab copy-and-paste exploitative compilation of other journalist’s lives.
I do have small criticisms of the book but they do not relate to Simpson’s use of other writings. If anything, I applaud him for having curated such a diverse, interesting, and at times obtuse collection of writings on foreign correspondence. He is also humbly adept at backgrounding himself as a segue device between the various journalists.
In terms of criticisms the book does almost collapse under its own ambitions in the opening chapters. Simpson begins with a history of the origins of the foreign correspondent. He seems to be aware of the concentration required to keep track of the unfamiliar names, wars and monarchs involved in the first instances of foreign reporting. To keep the reader interested he intersplices elements of his own autobiography and the effect is that initially the book seems messy and self-absorbed.
Simpson also uses a wry, almost arch, tone of voice which is seemingly common to journalist biographies (including Edward Behr in the 60’s and Kim Barker in the 2000’s). I think the idea in using this tone is to avoid sensation but it often leads to anti-climax, detachment, boredom or even smugness.
Simpson also often misses the irony in romanticising the early decades of foreign correspondence and laughing at the many examples of its excess and drunken follies. After detailing the history of a profession that was often unnecessarily lavish Simpson ends the book decrying the extinction of the foreign correspondent. He posits that the living expenses of the foreign correspondent are seen as too expensive in the modern age.
I’m can’t speak to the veracity of Simpson’s assessment of the current state of foreign correspondence. In Kim Barker’s book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which details her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in the 2000’s, there is an underlying theme of budgetary constraints. That said she is often stubbornly reporting on Afghanistan while her editors are asking her to look for different subject matter or report within different countries.
Thirty fives years earlier Edward Behr in his autobiography (entitled ‘Bearings: A Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines or, alternatively, ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’) which was published in the early 70’s, also ends his book with the budgetary worries and concerns as both Simpson and Barker.
I don’t think it’s necessary new or surprising that there is an effort to curtail spending on foreign correspondents. In the wake of the global financial crisis many industries have had to scale back from past excesses and autobiographies of the music, movie and tv stars similarly lament the contemporary states of their respective industries while also yearning for the golden era of endless expense accounts.
Ultimately, it’s hard to truly know how objective Simpson and his views on the modern state of journalism are. He continues to occupy one of the top spots at the BBC after having lived through the golden era of foreign correspondence. Is the foreign correspondent really dying out? Will the news industry learn to adapt? Or will it copy its entertainment cousins of music and movies and adapt cry poor while still living rich?
Thankfully these questions are not the real aim of this book. I do wish that Simpson had been more willing to predict the future of journalism or provide some sort of guidance to up and coming journalists. Instead he provides a loving curation of the many chapters of the profession as lived and written by past heroes of foreign journalism such as Don McMullin, Martha Gellhorn, and Marie Colvin. The book cherishes and values the lives of these and many other individuals. Simpson celebrates their passion and work and grieves for those who were lost along the way. It is an invaluable resource as it acts as aa stepping stone towards dozens of other amazing journalist auto-biographies. A fatalist could call it the book an obituary to the profession. An optimist would view it as a sort of celebratory honour roll and call to arms.
*Edit 16/7 Kim Barker’s book was actually titled The Taliban Shuffle and adapted into a film with the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.