Belfast Telegraph

Harold Wilson punched me on my first day at the BBC

By Ian Patterson

For nearly 50 years journalist John Simpson has repeatedly risked his life for the story. “What's the point in doing the job if you don't do the job?” he asked rhetorically.

It could have ended rather quickly, Simpson related, recalling his first day for the BBC.

Faced with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Simpson held his microphone “in the bayonet position”, whereupon Wilson punched him in the stomach.

“He wasn't a bad man,” said Simpson sportingly, “apart from having a nasty left hook.”

Simpson likened interviewing Margaret Thatcher to “getting an ancient pike out of a pond”. Colonel Gaddafi fared worse, being described as “barking mad”.

Simpson interviewed the gaudily dressed Libyan leader in a tent — the despot “whacking himself with a fly whisk” and farting like a camel. The levity last night was countered by Simpson's sobering recollections of the Tiananmen Square massacre, bombs on Belgrade and the hair-raising exploit of being smuggled into Afghanistan disguised in a burqa, desperately trying to cover his size 11 feet.

It is, Simpson noted, “a bonkers way to make a living”.

As regards impartiality versus subjectivity, and with reference to Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow's recent emotive report on Gaza, Simpson said: “It's enough to show people what's going on.

“You don't have to add all the adjectives and roll your eyes and weep. Let them make their minds up.”

“He added: “I would love to have the freedom to do it, but I just think if the BBC starts to do it that's the end of the BBC.”

Simpson described a foreign correspondent's lot as “a highly competitive job” and shared his admiration for mentors Charles Wheeler, Brian Baron, and ITV's Ulster native John Irvine.

During the subsequent Q&A session a woman asked if Simpson remained optimistic: “I feel really quite positive about things, “ he replied.

As for Northern Ireland, which Simpson covered in the early 1970s, Simpson declared his utmost respect for those who are willing to embrace change.

On cue, there was a Beckett connection, quoting Waiting For Godot: Vladimir: “How they've changed!”

Estragon: “Who?”

Vladimir: “Those two.”

Thought-provoking stuff from the inimitable John Simpson.

Four stars

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