Belfast Telegraph

BBC's Mark Simpson: Being duped by Karen Matthews on TV left me humiliated, scundered. That story hit me hard but little Shannon was all right, so it was a case of, Mark, get over yourself


BBC reporter Mark Simpson
BBC reporter Mark Simpson
Mark interviews Karen Matthews on TV about the supposed abduction of daughter Shannon
Shannon Matthews
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

BBC NI's Mark Simpson (51) on the scoop that turned out to be a sensational hoax, on uprooting his family to England and why he always wanted to cover sport

Q: You'll be married to Catherine Gamble (50), a former teacher, 25 years this year. Love at first sight?

A: We met at Queen's; every time we pass the university my wife says to the children: "That's where mummy and daddy fell in love." When Grace, our eldest, was four she asked: 'Mummy, when you fell in love, did you hurt yourself?' We got married in Strabane Presbyterian Church and honeymooned in Barcelona, where we saw Manchester United in the Champions League.

Q: Tell us about your daughters Grace (22), Holly (20) and Joy (14).

A: Grace has just finished a four-year course in English and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin, Holly is halfway through a business course at Trinity, and Joy is finishing third year at Sullivan Upper in Holywood.

Q: You've been in different roles: political correspondent, North of England correspondent, BBC Ireland correspondent. What was your favourite?

A: I don't have a favourite but the time in England was the most different because, having done politics and security here, I was thrust into stories about floods, transport, train crashes and missing children.

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However, within a month of arriving in the north of England a police officer was shot dead in Bradford (Sharon Beshenivsky) so, ironically, I ended up covering that one.

It's a typical Northern Ireland situation; you're taken away from home to west Yorkshire and who was the Chief Constable there? A man I knew, (the late) Colin Cramphorn, an ex-RUC man.

Q: You moved to Ilkley near Leeds in 2005 and stayed four years. Was that difficult for your family?

A: It was a bit isolating. It was a huge upheaval for my wife; it took a long time to persuade her to move to Belfast from Strabane, so to move her and our three children, including a baby, to Yorkshire was a major undertaking.

But, even though the geography was not good for us, the people of Yorkshire could not be more welcoming and we made friends for life there.

Q: Why did you decide to come home?

A: Every parent knows that once your eldest child gets to beyond P7 stage you've a decision to make.

So if we decided Grace was going to go to big school in England that was us making a decision to stay in England at least for the next 10 years. That brought things to a head and we decided to move back.

Q: You've broken many big stories, not least Shannon Matthews' 2008 disappearance in a hoax kidnapping. (The case of the nine-year-old was initially compared to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Shannon was later found alive at a house belonging to the uncle of the boyfriend of the girl's mother, Karen Matthews). You must have thought you had the story of the century when you first got that.

Mark’s car as a ‘mobile studio’ during his stint as BBC North of England correspondent
Mark’s car as a ‘mobile studio’ during his stint as BBC North of England correspondent

A: It's one of the highlights of my career, and one of the lowlights as well.

I got the first interview with the mother, broke the news that Shannon had been found, but then completely messed up by accidentally saying, live on air, that Shannon and not Karen had been arrested. I was a YouTube sensation.

Q: How did you feel when you realised you had been duped by Karen in that initial interview?

A: Embarrassed, humiliated, scundered. As the father of three girls, including a girl around the same age, that story hit me very hard.

I managed to recover my own personal sense of embarrassment by thinking: "What's the big picture here? This little girl, whom everyone thought was dead, was alive and going to be all right; nobody had died here, so, Mark, get over yourself."

Q: You have a strong Christian faith and regularly attend Holywood Parish Church. Does having high moral standards make it harder to be a journalist?

A: People like fairness, accuracy, balance and trust. I believe those are the criteria on which all journalists will be judged.

Q: Does death frighten you?

A: Yes and no. As a Christian I have a belief about the meaning of life. As a journalist used to deadlines, the concept of eternity has always been something I've struggled with, but I'm satisfied it does exist.

Mark’s with his wife Catherine and their daughters Grace, Holly and Joy
Mark’s with his wife Catherine and their daughters Grace, Holly and Joy

Q: In 2005 you were on Tony Blair's campaign bus during the general election that saw him become the first Labour PM to win three times. What is he like in real life?

A: He invited us all round to his house at the end of the campaign. I played the Northern Ireland card to get a one-to-one interview. Whatever you think about him on Iraq and other issues, he was obsessed with making things work in Northern Ireland.

Q: What's the most important story you've worked on?

A: The Good Friday Agreement. I was there every day of the talks from 1996 to 1998 - two years.

Q: And your favourite story?

A: The most fun story was the 2016 Euros in France, following Northern Ireland fans day and night for three weeks. Also following Republic of Ireland fans and being there when NI and RoI fans met each other - and all got on. The banter was something else.

Q: What has been your worst interview?

A: Peter Robinson. Only twice in my whole career has my tape recorder failed, and bizarrely it happened twice with the same man. We had to do the interviews again, but he couldn't have been more understanding.

Q: There's a certain je ne sais quoi about you. People think you're a friend without having met you. What's the secret?

A: Social media. One of my pet hates is people who go onto social media and are not social. Even if people criticise me, as long as it's constructive I will respond, and it's been the same on the street.

I regard our listeners and viewers as shareholders and I have to engage with them.

Q: So you are one of the few modern journalists who actually think it's about the people rather than about them?

A: Yes, but I need to be quite mercenary too. Another reason to engage with people is that they can be the source of your next story.

But I don't think as a journalist you can sit in an ivory tower, put your two minutes out at 6.30pm and think that's all your responsibility. You've got to talk to the people who are actually watching.

Q: What's the most important piece of advice you have been given?

A: It's a waste of time comparing yourself with anyone else. Envy is the thief of joy.

Q: How do you relax?

A: Up until nine months ago I was cycling four times a week, swimming three times a week, running twice a week, I'd joined a triathlon club... then I found out I needed knee replacement surgery and a shoulder operation.

I've been told that I'll never run again. I'm devastated. It's been a big part of my life - I've run three marathons.

Q: When were you told?

A: September last year. I was training for the Dublin Marathon. To be told that I'll never run again was really gutting.

Q: Are you concerned that not being able to exercise will have implications for your mental health?

A: We've all got to be aware of any life-changing moment and I would be honest and say I'm still trying to work out how I'm going to be able to exercise in some way.

Q: When is your surgery?

A: I'm on the waiting list. The thought fills me with dread. A BBC colleague was in hospital a few years ago and I went to see him. He told me about his operation, which was only minor, and I fainted.

But my wife has a serious illness - rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. She can't do the job she's qualified for any more, she's had to retire early as a teacher, so I've got to put this into perspective. I can't enjoy my sport any more but I can still do my job.

There's a lot of people going to doctors and getting worse diagnoses than me. My wife's father Wylie Gamble died from cancer two years ago, which had a huge impact on our family, so I've got to put things into perspective.

Q: Tell us about the best day of your life.

A: In recent years I've realised that every day is precious. My very good friend Tommie Gorman (RTE's NI editor) has battled cancer for nearly two decades; every time I ask him how he is he says he's still alive. I've kind of stolen his motto and just treated every day as potentially the best day of my life.

Q: And the worst?

A: The day my father-in-law died. He was a big part of our entire family. I've absolutely no DIY skills and he did everything. The kids adored him.

Q: You now live in Holywood but moved around when you were young because of your dad's job (parents John and Barbara, who both worked in insurance, are in their 70s. Sister Caron (56) lives in London). Happy times?

A: We started in north Belfast, then went to Eglinton and Holywood and ended up in Helen's Bay. My biggest treat was being taken to a football or rugby match by my dad.

Q: You went to Eglinton Primary, Holywood PS, Crawfordsburn PS, Seahill PS, Sullivan Upper, then QUB, graduating in 1989 with a history and politics degree. Why journalism?

A: I wanted a job where I'd actually be paid to watch sport. I'd absolutely no intention of doing anything else.

And the best route would be a postgraduate course in London or Cardiff. I got into Cardiff. One day I got speaking to the Daily Mail's rugby writer Peter Jackson who advised me to do at least two years in news first.

I went back to Belfast and worked for the News Letter, Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and the BBC - and I'm still not a sports journalist!

Q: You worked at all three regional papers before moving to the Beeb as a political correspondent. What were the main differences in the cultures of the three papers?

A: I must be one of the few people who's worked for all three national papers here. It stood me in really good stead because I got a really rounded view of journalism in this city. What struck me was there wasn't really a difference in culture, that news is news. Everyone talks about Belfast being a divided city during the Troubles but in the news rooms there was no sectarianism. News trumped everything.

Q: Is there any one story that stands out from those early days?

A: Ironically it was my first ever sports story. I covered the 1991 libel trial involving Barry McGuigan and his former manager Barney Eastwood.

It lasted for 21 days.

If I'm honest, I was slightly star-struck at seeing these two household names, and fascinated by the story of their break-up.

Q: It's clear you've always wanted to be a sports reporter. Is it too late to oust Stephen Watson?

A: I couldn't lace his boots. I'm content as a news journalist.

I've finally got my head around it after 29 years in journalism!

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