John Simpson: a war correspondent’s revenge

Revenge, John Simpson believes, is a dish best served piping hot in print. It’s why the veteran BBC world affairs editor has lampooned the boss who he maintains tried so hard to sack him on grounds of old age and expense across 328 pages of his new novel, Moscow, Midnight.

‘He came in believing the BBC had far too many old white men at the top,’ says Simpson. ‘I realised I was being propelled towards the exit with soap on the threshold to make sure I skidded through.’

The apparent efforts of James Harding, the BBC’s former head of news, to show Simpson the door of New Broadcasting House are fictionalised in a character who is the very definition of modern corporate man. Daniel Porchester is a head of news scared of a high-risk, high-impact story that might upset Number 10 Downing Street or The Kremlin or his proprietor, a barely disguised Rupert Murdoch.

Revenge, John Simpson believes, is a dish best served piping hot in print. It’s why the veteran BBC world affairs editor has lampooned the boss who he maintains tried so hard to sack him on grounds of old age and expense across 328 pages of his new novel, Moscow, Midnight

The hero Jon Swift is, naturally, a raddled old foreign correspondent with a taste for poetry, fine burgundy and a pretty girl in bed with him. He unravels a Russian conspiracy, gets a landmark investigation to air and, in what was supposed to be the twilight of his career, celebrates a new professional dawn.

Oh John! It’s a book that could only have been written by someone who thinks they’re bulletproof without the need for kevlar body armour and a BBC issue helmet. Moscow, Midnight is not so much a roman à clef, as a memoir à clef.

Simpson is a BBC lifer who’s been part of the corporation for more than half a century, earning three Baftas, an Emmy and a CBE along the way. But when moderniser Harding took over in 2013 after editing The Times, it did not go well.

‘By the end I was on my knees, clinging on by my fingernails, you could virtually see the tracks on the ground,’ recalls Simpson. I wasn’t travelling, big stories I thought I ought to be doing, such as the official report into the Iraq war, were assigned to other people. They started to cut my pay down by two-thirds. My programme The Editors [a monthly news magazine show, of which Simpson was very proud] was axed. He wanted rid of me, felt that I was in the way.’

Did he consider petitioning for constructive dismissal? ‘Well, it crossed my mind but in the end I outlasted him. [Harding stood down earlier this year to launch his own media company.] James is a highly intelligent man, a really impressive character, but I don’t think he ever understood that weird place.’

He goes on: ‘I was in Downing Street and someone’ – [he won’t say who] – ‘said, “Harding looks a bit out of his depth.” This last line, delivered more in sorrow than in anger, is utterly ruthless, the inference that someone in Government didn’t trust Harding to handle the news output of our state broadcaster either. However, the new regime, under Fran Unsworth, finds favour. ‘There’s a real sense of relief that someone who doesn’t have to learn on the job is in charge.’

Simpson is 74, toweringly tall and smart in a well-cut navy velvet jacket and a crisp white shirt monogrammed with his initials JCFS. He happily refers to himself as doing ‘elderly gentleman’ things such as hanging out in his library at home, but he definitely doesn’t view age as an impediment to his work.

‘What really p***** me off about trying to get rid of older people is that it is based on your date of birth, not the quality of your reporting. That is why I am so deeply offended someone tried to get rid of me solely on those grounds. I don’t think there is any difference in my capabilities now and 20 years ago.

‘I watched what happened to Carrie Gracie,’ he says, referring to the BBC’s China editor who led the campaign by the corporation’s women to close the gender pay gap. Gracie humiliated the BBC in public and, crucially, in Parliament over the culture of paying women significantly less than men. In June this year she forced her bosses to apologise, pay her years of back pay and watched as the BBC slashed the salaries of male stars including Huw Edwards and Nick Robinson.

‘It is absolutely wrong to pay someone less because of their sex. But what about paying a person less because of their age? What about not saying anything to the person but organising things so they’d be shoved out?’

He reckons he’s still fit enough to play football with his 12-year-old son, whom he brings into conversation often and with gusto, referring to him as ‘my kid’. Fatherhood second time round – he has two daughters in their 40s from his first marriage – has also made him an ace cricketer and soon he plans to have surgery on an ear drum burst by a bomb blast in Iraq ‘so I can teach my kid to dive.’ He obviously can’t believe his luck, and his prowess, at having a baby in his 60s. He has been with his second wife, South African Dee Kruger, since 1994 and the family lives in Oxford.

In the ever-lengthening gaps between assignments under Harding’s rule, Simpson wrote a novel, his first for 35 years.

Moscow, Midnight begins with a scene that tugs at distant memory. British government Minister Patrick Macready is found dead in his west London apartment with his feet bound, a ligature around his neck and an orange containing amyl nitrate, the sex-enhancing drug better known as poppers, stuffed in his mouth.

It is, of course, a facsimile of the 1994 death of MP Stephen Milligan, a fast-rising star of the Conservative party, a man with interest in foreign affairs and a junior defence position. He was found dead wearing women’s stockings with an electrical cord around his neck and orange segment in his mouth, a scandal so seismic it killed off John Major’s Back to Basics campaign.

The Establishment bustled on, embarrassed on his behalf, but there were some, including Milligan’s friend and former colleague, Simpson, and fellow journalist Andrew Neil, who feared Milligan had not died in an auto-erotic sex game gone wrong: they thought he might have been murdered. In Moscow, Midnight Simpson lays out this alternative reality, the fictional case for Milligan’s defence.

‘He was an upright sort of person, the idea of that kind of sleaze was impossible,’ he says. ‘It just didn’t match the man we knew.’

An inquest recorded a verdict of misadventure, but Simpson points out that an auto-erotic accident, with its attendant ridicule and shame, would make a great cover for a political assassination.

Macready dies, as Milligan did, in London and the action flits from there to Paris, Dublin and Moscow. It’s stuffed with anecdotes from Simpson’s own life covering faraway wars and places in the middle of frenzied political change. Naturally, Swift’s CV includes Simpson’s legendary 1998 desert encounter in a Bedouin tent with Colonel Gaddafi, when the Libyan dictator kept lifting his backside off his chair to noisily break wind.

The fictional storyline is underpinned by the real world geopolitics of Putin’s Moscow and its soundtrack is the growling of the Russian bear. Given the attacks against Russian citizens on British soil, notably the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury, it all feels pretty current.

John Simpson in Kabul, Afghanistan, after the city was liberated by the Northern Alliance in 2001

John Simpson in Kabul, Afghanistan, after the city was liberated by the Northern Alliance in 2001

Simpson is horrified by these events. ‘Novichok is deeply humiliating for us as a country, it shows how far down we have slipped in importance in the world. It would never have happened under any Prime Minister up to about the year 2000. And it is not us but President Trump who has made the running in retaliation. We are dealing here with a harder, prouder Russia, a country which is rather noisily patriotic.’

As Jon Swift investigates his way towards the Kremlin and that titular rendezvous in Moscow at midnight, he makes it clear he’s pursuing the story in memory of his dead friend and not because he’s one of the ‘monsters of ego’ who used to dominate both broadcast news and Fleet Street.

Egotism is something Simpson’s been accused of himself. It got him into a lot of trouble when he announced in a 2001 despatch from Kabul that he’d liberated the city, which had actually been taken by the Northern Alliance, not the BBC. He had to say sorry for that. It’s also seen him have spats with other star correspondents, notably Martin Bell. This latest outburst against James Harding shows he’s still very conscious of his status in Auntie’s extended family. ‘Gentle, slightly passive people don’t do well in television,’ he says.

Anyway, he has earned his spurs, he’s been almost everywhere and seen almost everything: the Soweto uprising and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of Gorbachev and fall of the Iron Curtain, both of the Iraq wars, the genocide in Rwanda, the horrors of the Balkans.

He’s back on the road again now, as he would wish, making a series of long segments for BBC News about big things happening in the world. When Unsworth took over from Harding she called Simpson in for a cup of tea – he’s careful to say she made it for him herself – and told the broadcaster he was ‘part of the history and the architecture of BBC news’.

They can engrave that on his retirement present. If he ever needs one. 

‘Moscow, Midnight’ by John Simpson is published by John Murray on Thursday, priced £20