News and review of John Simpson in Ely on 23rd March 2010

John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor, is a giant of a man, in stature and reputation. On Tuesday 23rd March 2010 in St. Peter’s Church Ely he spoke candidly of the people and situations he has encountered during his 44 year-career in journalism. Brought up in London and Suffolk he is no stranger to Ely – he has been here twice before. He has reported from over 130 countries and now, he says, he is working harder than ever.

Toppings of Ely arranged his visit to support his new book “Unreliable Sources”, but the length and depth of John’s talk was more that a speech about his book, it was a treatise on the principles of good journalism with flashes of insight into famous politicians and stories of human frailty and humour.  

He reflected on the tensions between an unwillingness to damage your own side’s confidence in war and telling the truth. Journalism is a precarious and difficult job especially after reporters over the century gradually realized that authorities are inclined to tell untruths. John described how lack of trust between the authorities and reporters had brought about censorship of the press, but now, in broadcasting, there has been a change of power from management to the person with the microphone. A report is assembled 5 to 10 minutes before broadcasting so there is no time for censorship. He smiled.

While researching his book John enjoyed reading about reporters of the past and their mistakes. He told of the Daily Mail’s support for Adolf Hitler earlier in the century, a support that quickly changed as the onset of war became inevitable. Stories of key figures of the 20th century rolled out gently as John described their roles in the world of reporting, frankly admitting their strengths and weaknesses. He said he can forgive mistakes but he has no time for journalists who do not go and see what is happening for themselves and who invent material and lie.

There were moments when John showed his lighter side to the packed audience and joked about his fame, describing how he has been mistaken for Mr. Attenborough and his 4 year-old daughter as his grandchild. Ever the discerning word craftsman, he vividly described the time Nelson Mandela came to a Cambridge University for an honorary award and had the dons dancing in the aisles. He mimicked Nelson’s voice perfectly and St Peter’s Church filled with laughter as he quoted Nelson’s excuses for feeling nervous before so many people. Nelson said he was nervous because 1) He was an old-aged pensioner. 2) He was unemployed and 3) He had a very bad criminal record.

In his answers to questions at the end of his talk John revealed his opinion of Barak Obama – charming and intelligent but more of a phrase maker that a strategic thinker. He applauded the reporting of the Daily telegraph and the Guardian (formerly the Manchester Guardian) and described how ownership has much to do with it.  Until a few years ago, the Daily Telegraph was owned by a benign almost absent owner who rigidly refused to get involved in opinions; the editor was free to make his own decisions. The Guardian is run by a trust. In contrast, he described Rupert Murdoch’s influence as deleterious, although John applauded him for rescuing the Times.

John Simpson is indeed an impressive man and a charming, informative speaker. John’s book is now available from Toppings Ely.



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