There is a man in the area in London where John Simpson lives who, when he spots the BBC world affairs editor walking in the neighbourhood, shouts insults at him. If you were to believe what this man and certain other disgruntled Iranian exiles say about Simpson, then he and the BBC are to be held responsible for helping to create the 1979 revolution in Iran simply by way of news reports.
"You know, if it were true, if I thought I'd done something that had indeed helped the revolution, I'd feel really bad about that," Simpson tells Weekend Review. "Since I didn't, since I'd simply described what was happening in front of me as accurately as I possibly could, I feel sorry for the man."
One would expect the rants of an old man on the street to be a matter of small concern for this icon in the world of foreign reporting. The famous war correspondent has over the decades reported from some of the most troubled spots on the globe — Angola, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland — to name just a few. Nelson Mandela has described him as "a very fine journalist". His list of famous interviewees includes a host of world leaders, royalty and dictators. Yet in spite of all his many achievements, it would seem the name calling on the street still touches a nerve with Simpson. "It is embarrassing when it happens," he confesses. "I can't bear it when this old man starts screaming and I am with my little boy and it upsets him."
The story of how Simpson got to where he is today is one filled with daring and adventure. Simpson, 65, began his stint in journalism working for his school newspaper. Later, while a student at Cambridge University, he became editor of the magazine Granta. "I think a lot of people felt that I'd let down the grand intellectual standards by writing and commissioning articles which were interesting to people as opposed to impressive," he says. He, in turn, dismisses the magazine as having been at the time "rather pretentious", with "a very high opinion of itself".
Then in 1970 an incident took place which brought the young Simpson's path directly in collision with then prime minister Harold Wilson. The BBC, which he had joined in 1966, had recently appointed him to the new role of reporter when he got punched in the stomach by Wilson for daring to ask a question. "It was really powerful," he recalls. "I was amazed. I used to think him a rather feeble little civil servant before ... and suddenly he comes with this quite good left hook." He talks about his "contempt" for someone who would refuse to answer questions. "Wilson was a great bully," he says. "The people around him were bullies, which is why he attacked me because that is how you sort of ran things. You'd lash out and you'd accuse people."
Yet afterwards when he got to know Wilson a bit more he felt sorry for him. "He was quite a nice man, really," he says. "What nobody in the world realised at that stage was that he was already showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and I think he didn't want to answer questions because he absolutely wasn't certain he would be able to answer in a proper, sensible way."
The reporters who witnessed the incident had a good laugh at Simpson's expense but the next day there was a surprising silence in the media about the whole business. "That is how things were in those days," Simpson explains. "The prime minister was a real pedestal and you didn't do anything to sort of push him around or weaken the pedestal in any way."
"It didn't last, of course," he says. "It was Margaret Thatcher who changed all this business of being willing to talk to the press because she never minded what she said and she would almost never refuse to speak to you. She often gave rather damaging answers in one way or another but she didn't care and that changed everything as a result. Prime ministers now — Tony Blair was rather bad I think, but Gordon Brown, for instance — will always answer questions and John Major was the same. It is something prime ministers feel they have to do nowadays."
Simpson has covered some of the defining events in recent history, including the breaking down of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Kabul and South Africa during the apartheid period. "Of all the people I have interviewed, all the political leaders, Nelson Mandela was one of the gentlest and kindest," he says about the Nobel laureate whom he has met on various occasions.
But perhaps one of the most memorable moments in Simpson's career was being on the fateful aircraft in 1979 which brought Ayatollah Khomeini back from exile in France. It was risky business and there were rumours the aircraft would be shot down once it entered Iranian territory. "Cold" and "hostile" is how he describes the man destined to lead Iran over the next decade.
"But I'd interviewed him before and found him actually extraordinarily polite and cautious," he says. "I didn't take against him and in fact, later in the last five-six years or so, I got to know his granddaughter, who, I sort of imagine, is just precisely the kind of person who would be a natural supporter of the moderates in Iran. As a close relative she loved him but she has given me a different, much more positive view of Ayatollah Khomeini."
Over time Simpson's reporting from far-off corners of the globe began to earn him recognition from some of the most famous figures around. In 1989 at a state banquet in Buckingham Palace he met the late Princess Diana, who introduced herself to Simpson by saying she had "been looking forward all night" to meeting him. "I was like a lot of people my age — really in love with the Princess," he recalls. "The fact that she should say she had been looking forward all evening to meeting me, you know, I would imagine that is what she said to everybody. It was one of her chat-up lines."
But hers was more than just a pretty face. "She had a grasp of things," he says. "She knew I had just come back from Romania, which was at that stage just a few months before the revolution and she certainly understood about it. She knew about Ceausescu and the conditions people lived under there."
That night of their first meeting, Simpson felt so excited he walked all the way home rather than take the taxi. He met her occasionally afterwards. "It was just the way some people, women in particular, make you feel that you are the most important person at the moment in their lives and although you know that she did that to everybody, nevertheless it had a profound kind of effect," he says.
"If she had said, ‘Look, I am a little short of cash at the moment. If you have got a chequebook, could you help me out?' I'd have written her a cheque for a £1,000 then and there," he says.
1989 was also the year when Simpson had a bizarre run-in with Osama Bin Laden. Simpson was in Afghanistan to make a film about the resistance groups in the country when somewhere along the way he came across the terrorist leader, dressed in white robes with an AK-47 hanging over his shoulders. When Bin Laden saw Simpson, he urged his fighters — for some inexplicable reason — to kill him but fortunately they weren't too keen and left him alone.
Years later, when September 11 happened, Simpson was surprised to see the Al Qaida leader's image being broadcast everywhere. "I didn't know who he was at the time," says Simpson. "I and a couple of the people who had been with me saw his photograph in the paper and we all rang each other up and said, ‘Look, it's him, he's the one.' His face was one that you would never forget. I thought he was incredibly charismatic and, if I can use the word — it is a strange word to use — beautiful. I just thought he was a beautiful example of a human being. I wanted to take his photograph but it was not really quite the moment."
Simpson sent him an interview request to which he got a pleasant reply, surprising given the earlier episode in Afghanistan. "I am pretty sure he wouldn't have known one Western TV journalist from another," Simpson says. "So I don't think it absolutely necessary that he changed his mind. I think that on one occasion I just represented an infidel to him and the next I sent a request for an interview and he sent me this very sort of pleasant and polite, courteous reply, which indicated that he did know my work and quite didn't disapprove of it. This," he laughs, "in today's world, I am not very sure if it is very clever of me to boast about."
He is sorry the interview did not happen and says Bin Laden is "clearly" still alive. "I would like to meet him," he says. "I think he is the most interesting person at the moment on Earth. It doesn't mean I have got any sympathy with what he does and says, because I don't. I mean, I can't think of anybody who has got so many interesting things to tell as Osama Bin Laden. If somebody said to me, ‘Who you would like to interview most of all?', I'd say him immediately. I just long to be able to do it."
But it is not just Bin Laden who — apparently— approves of Simpson's work. "President Karzai," says Simpson. "I forgot what it was, the BBC did or said something that offended him. He, I think, publicly said that he'd never speak to the BBC again. Then I wrote him a note and said, ‘Look, I am coming, can I interview you?' And he sent me back a really nice thing saying, ‘Looking forward to seeing you and doing an interview'."
But even all the fame he accumulated over the years didn't protect Simpson from being targeted by United States forces in Iraq during a friendly fire incident in 2003 in which he lost his young Iraqi translator and was himself injured. In his BBC report about the incident, Simpson said: "These things happen if you are fighting a war." I asked him how he could manage to remain calm. "You must remember that at that stage although it seemed lots of fighting from a distance, none of the sort of journalists really had seen something like this, got it on camera, and survived," he says.
"Worst war for the deaths of journalists that has been," he says. "It was the first real example that we got pictures of. So it was important in a professional way to do a really good job and I didn't want to spoil it all by getting emotional about it, screaming, running around saying it's terrible. Also I wanted to be balanced about it.
"I was very angry actually and I was right in the end to be angry, because it was an act of immense carelessness and stupidity on the part of the American pilot who really should have known better," he says. "But I didn't want to start ranting on about that and I thought an important thing at the time to say was, ‘Look, you know, don't just sort of blame the Americans. It's the Americans that have suffered from this. And it's the Americans that are going around helping the victims of it.'"
But did the incident not make him question all this business of collateral damage? "It happens all the time," he says. "You can't play around with high explosives and bombs and bullets without running that risk. This is why in my old age I am turning so much against all of this kind of thing. I mean, I have come to absolutely loathe high explosives.
"Whether it is the Americans bombing a convoy or a wedding or something in Afghanistan or in Iraq; whether it is the British shooting, hitting and perhaps torturing people; whether it is Islamic extremists — I have come to hate the whole of that business," he says.
"There surely must be a better way of doing it than packing high explosives and dropping them or detonating them in front of civilians," he says. "I get really quite emotional about it and now that I've got this son of mine in my antiquity, I just think they are all like him. They are all people that once were the joy of their parents. And to blast them away just because you are under orders to do it or because you think this is the will of God or whatever reason, it just seems to me to be the most savage thing to do."
In conservative societies such as Afghanistan, women journalists seem to possess a certain advantage in gaining access. Does he think it easier for a woman to get interviews in difficult situations? "Oh, I am sure that is true," says Simpson. "People notice you more because there are fewer women journalists. So, somebody like Christiane Amanpour can be one of the most famous women on Earth whereas people like me are just old hacks struggling away."
Perhaps being a bit modest there, or sarcastic, yet he is insistent everybody has their own advantage. "I mean when I started out in journalism I was a white male, public school educated, Cambridge educated," he says. "Those were all the badges of the best that society thought that it could have. Now every single one of those is a disadvantage."
While a lot is made of media censorship under authoritarian regimes, on the reverse end it can be argued Western media outlets can be very selective when deciding what stories are worth reporting. Could this not be considered a form of censorship? He acknowledges, at some length, the ignorance which does exist and how it is all a "daily battle" but stops short of levelling it into a tool for media control: "I don't think it is fair to say that this sort of rather vague, ignorant attitude of many editors and correspondents in any way equates to that quite cynical kind of desire to control information that you get in a lot of countries. This is much more serious and reprehensible because it is a pattern of control. I mean, this business of not being interested, not spending the money, not going to places and not being aware of what is happening is disgusting. But it isn't a broad nationwide policy and that is what it is in a lot of countries."
Yet there is a powerful counter argument. Those living in countries where media is controlled are at least aware it isn't free but people tend to be more believing of everything they read in the West. So it is kind of invisible and in some ways people don't even know there is information they are not finding out. "A lot of this is true and I am not denying it," he says. "But in our society if you want to find out something, there is nothing to stop you. It maybe that it isn't provided easily enough for you, that is certainly true. But nobody tries to stop you finding out things. Free society — it isn't a perfect society but it is easier for people to know what is happening. But they have got to make the effort."
Perhaps his new book, Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century Was Reported, will shed light on some of the areas of media failings. "I bit off more then I could easily chew," he says. "It's a history of British reporting in the 20th century. So it is a history of how the 20th century was reported. It is not very favourable. It is extraordinary how much was got wrong, how journalists just allowed themselves to be carried away, again and again."
Towards the end of the interview, I question Simpson about one of the quirkier sides to his character, that he does not read interviews about himself but usually gets someone else to have a look. "Yes, that is usually what I try to do," he says and confirms he plans to do the same when this interview is published. "I will say to him [the person he will ask to read], ‘Is there anything I ought to look at?' And he will tell me yes or no. If there is something I ought to see for whatever reason then I will caste a quick glance at it. But you know, the thing is if people are all nice to you then I feel they are not doing a sufficient job of scrutiny. And if they are horrible to you then they aren't doing it either. So I think it sort of finds its own level."
So how did this interview go? "This interview has been very charming," he says, clearly trying to curry some sort of favour. "You have let me ramble on, you have asked me nice questions but that is not really the kind of thing I am talking about. The kind of thing I mean are those kind of big newsy newspaper personality where people meet you for half an hour or an hour and then they make judgments on your entire character background, life, everything and blurt it all over the place. And tell everybody what they think you are like regardless of whether it's true. I don't like [that].
"But your interview with me was a model of pleasantness and good manners," he says. "I mean, it's up to you how you deal with it. I am sure you will do a lovely job on it and you have clearly got a broader understanding of the whole thing. But there are people, you know, when you speak to them, they will use the bits that will make you look bad. Which is part of life — I mean, I don't mind."
By now I am worried my interview with him may have gone too "nice", so I ask Simpson if he regrets an infamous speech he made in 2008 at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where the press quoted him saying the BBC was in its "last stages" and that he would get the sack under "horrible circumstances".
"Of course I got into endless trouble," he says. "I have never had so many people in the BBC out to tick me off and correct me and so on. But actually what really happened was that I was making a speech, I didn't even know there were journalists present and I started saying that it is true that I think the BBC is under very fierce attack at the moment and I am not sure whether it will be able to continue in its present form. I would rather suspect not. And I started saying something about how good the people I work with are and how nice they are, my bosses. Then I said, ‘Well, actually I hate [them]'," he says. "Somebody solemnly wrote it down and unfortunately the British press has no sense of humour or irony at all. And so this got in the papers quite a lot. And BBC was cross at me of course. But the thing is they are from time to time and I am too old to care very much. I don't think they will sack me just for the moment but you never know. I certainly think it well to feel that they might do. I think it is better if you are careful about what you say."
It would be very unwise of the BBC if they ever do it, I assure him. "Well I don't know," he says. "I just think you have got to be your own person, you have got to say what you think and not take orders from anybody, whether it is government or the BBC or indeed your own prejudices. So I think you have got to be aware of your own prejudices as you are of every other pressure on you."
Syed Hamad Ali is an independent writer based in the UK.