John Simpson: My torture was ‘deeply humiliating, wounding to the spirit’

Veteran BBC journalist says writing novels is ‘very liberating’ in way journalism can’t be

Veteran war correspondent John Simpson says he has never really spoken before about the time he was tortured in 1982 while reporting on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for the BBC.

There were no fingernails extracted or more severe techniques of torture exacted on him but the 76-year-old broadcast journalist, the BBC’s world affairs editor, still finds it difficult to talk about it, not because of the abuse he suffered but because of the humiliation he felt.

“It is not something I have really written about or talked about because I didn’t feel that I behaved as I would like to have behaved. I have been quite kind of ashamed of the whole incident until now,” he tells The Irish Times on a Zoom call from his home in Oxford.

It wasn't long drawn out. It was quite short. But it was deeply humiliating, wounding to the spirit to be under somebody else's control like that

The incident surfaces now when Simpson is discussing his new novel, Our Friends in Beijing. The book marks the latest episode in the escapades of his fictional alter-ego, the Irish broadcast journalist Jon Swift, who is tortured by Chinese captors who try to extract details of his assistance to Chinese Community Party official Lin Lifang, a man Swift befriended when Lin was a young fixer and radical helping the reporter during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

The publication of the thriller about “truth, power, politics and friendship” coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. The fast-paced novel follows Swift trying to untangle a web of interactions with spooks, double agents and politicians as he is unable to tell who are his enemies and who are his friends. China’s past and present collide as Swift tries to understand the actions and motives of Lin, the dissident-turned-political climber.

The novel allows Simpson to stretch his writing muscles and to use his own experiences that never made his news reports in what he finds is an act of catharsis as a writer.

On his own torture, Simpson says it was not as bad as what was inflicted on his fictional character. Swift’s ordeal was “an extension of what happened to me – I opened a little window on it.” Simpson plays down the incident now, dismissing it as something that really was “not a major incident in his life.” He recalls how his captors tied him to a chair, and questioned and hit him.

“It wasn’t long, drawn out. It was quite short. But it was deeply humiliating, wounding to the spirit to be under somebody else’s control like that,” he says.

It ended with a phony execution: one of his captors held a gun to the back of his neck and pulled the trigger. Then they let him go. He says his "self-image" was "of somebody that would resist all that and not be scared by it." He wishes now he had told his captors: "F**k you!" That line, Simpson's esprit de l'escalier, is not wasted; he gives it to Swift in one of his responses to his interrogators in his novel, an opportunity for Simpson to process real-life moments of danger.

Looking back on the incident, he feels he made up for the missed response by telling the Lebanese Christian officer after the mock execution: “You’re a real w**ker.”

“I got my own back in a kind of quiet way, but with the torturing bit I don’t look back on that with anything other than kind of shame,” he says.

“I have seen enough of torture and of people who have been tortured – and indeed people who have done the torturing – to know that that is what you do feel. That is what is kind of forced into you: a sense of your helplessness and meaninglessness, that you are nothing and you have got no will of your own. All of these things come from it. I just wish I had been a bit more counter-aggressive instead of just meekly kind of responding.”

Simpson recalls being in Afghanistan under shell fire for several hours, describing the 'mounting fear that happens when you are being hunted down'

Our Friends in Beijing is Simpson’s fourth fictional book. He has penned another 12 non-fiction works that chart his long and storied career as a war correspondent, from covering the First Gulf War in 1991 to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when he famously disguised himself in a burka to enter the country before the attack. During the 2003 Gulf War, he was injured in a US “friendly fire” bombing that killed 18 people, including his translator.

Simpson finds writing fiction “very liberating” in a way that reporting as a journalist “can’t be and shouldn’t be.” Reporting, as he sees it, should not carry opinion or emotion. Simpson sees a clear line between reporting and opinion that is regularly blurred in modern media. In contrast, his fiction-writing is an opportunity to talk about the emotions around the themes and events he writes about, events that mirror his experiences during his half-century of work as a reporter.

“Fiction is a very convenient way of just being able to lift off the carapace of straightforward, decent reporting and express what you are thinking and what you feel. I don’t like the kind of reporting convention that says the reporter should tell you what they think about it. I wince a bit when I read that kind of reporting. I just don’t think that is the right place to do your emoting,” he says.

Asked about the scariest moment of his reporting career, Simpson recalls being in Afghanistan under shell fire for several hours, describing the “mounting fear that happens when you are being hunted down”. He quotes George Orwell’s writing about the Spanish civil war in Homage to Catalonia and how the shells came closer and closer, seeming to know where he was.

“It is not the things that happen suddenly, without warning, that are bad. One instant you are talking to people, you are writing notes; the next instant everything has exploded around you, terrible things are happening,” he says.

One of the worst such moments still stands out for Simpson, 43 years on. He was reporting from Tehran during the Iranian Revolution in 1978, from the middle of a “very volatile” crowd. The protesters were pleasant at first but turned on Simpson and his camera crew when some shouted a criticism of a BBC Persian service report.

'There would be so many bits of us they wouldn't be able to work out which bits belonged to who'

“They turned nasty, as crowds can do in an instant. They started pulling us to pieces. They started the process that would have finished with our being pulled to pieces. Our clothes were torn. We had great nail marks across our chests and face,” Simpson says.

In an act of self-preservation, he grabbed a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini that a protester was using to attack him and shouted in Persian: “Long live Khomeini.” This calmed the mob.

The incident stands out because of the reaction of Simpson’s old-fashioned BBC cameraman.

“He said as we walking away bleeding and torn: ‘You shouldn’t have done that, John.’ I said: ‘What are you saying? There would be so many bits of us they wouldn’t be able to work out which bits belonged to who.’ He said: ‘Even so.’ I loved it – it was a great comeback,” he says.

Simpson’s reporting from Tiananmen Square in 1989 provides material for his novel. Just as the fictional Swift had help from Lin during his reporting on the protests, Simpson had help from a young man named Wang who approached his camera crew two days before the massacre.

“He was just absolutely fantastically loyal and courageous, a little skinny shrimp of a kid who just had utterly accepted the notion you had to tell the truth about what was happening,” he says.

Wang took Simpson to the airport when he had to leave Beijing and the BBC journalist declined to stay in contact with him afterwards, parting with the instruction that the young Chinese man should “just go and hide and bury yourself in the countryside and let the whole thing blow over.”

Simpson shares the view of a top British biological warfare expert who believes that Covid leaked out accidentally from the lab and was 'hushed up' by the Chinese government

Simpson says the Chinese authorities have attempted to sweep the events of Tiananmen Square under the carpet in “a rather intelligent way” by falsely claiming that nobody died in Tinanamen Square when most of the killing took place in the avenues leading to the square. Simpson bore witness to 41 people being “hit, probably killed” though not in the square itself.

While the China depicted in Swift’s life is a place where no one can be trusted, it is a place Simpson loves to visit. He is a fan of its society and people, and even finds the authorities behave “in a mature way towards journalists like me”. While he has been arrested multiple times during his career, it tended to be by “low-level characters, always the local cop.”

“There is a kind of strange sort of propriety about how they operate. They give you a greater space to operate in. They don’t like you necessarily but at some level, in the governmental consciousness, it is part of the relationship,” he says.

He points to the fact that the Chinese authorities did not expel BBC correspondent John Sudworth but that he left for Taiwan along with his wife Yvonne Murray, a reporter for RTÉ News, amid concerns of his safety and that of his family after giving them “a very unpleasant and hard time” over his reporting on the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.

Simpson has a graphic description of a Chinese “wet market” in his novel based, he says, on “rather unpleasant afternoon and early evening” he spent in one.

In the debate on whether the source of Covid-19 was a wet market in Wuhan or local laboratory, Simpson shares the view of a top British biological warfare expert he recently interviewed who believes that the virus leaked out by accidentally from the lab and that it was “hushed up” by the Chinese government.

Simpson has 'huge sympathy and awareness' of Ireland's vulnerabilities from Brexit and the UK's departure from the EU

“You could see why the Chinese authorities don’t really want that to come out. It doesn’t bring them out in a particularly good light so I suspect that that is what happened. Most things are accidents in life and I suspect that that was too,” he says.

Simpson’s book is published weeks after Nato warned about the threat from China, saying that its behaviour posed a systemic challenge. He never used to think the country was a threat to international stability until Chinese president Xi Jinping came to power almost a decade ago and began a more forceful foreign policy towards Taiwan and Hong Kong and in the South China Sea.

“He does have a more aggressive sense of where China should be and its rightful place in the world and it is not being a peaceable associate of the US. It is much, much fiercer than that,” he says, warning that Taiwan could be the place that triggers a reaction from the US and Nato.

“So if something happens in Taiwan – and I suppose that’s the most likely place for something to happen – then it will be very, very hard for the Americans not to get drawn in in some way and the other Nato countries. I think we do face a different level of danger. At the same time, I do have some faith in the ability of China to be quite mature about its policies.”

Closer to home, Simpson has “huge sympathy and awareness” of Ireland’s vulnerabilities from Brexit and the UK’s departure from the EU. It irritates him that this isn’t reflected more in the British media. He was for a short period the BBC’s political editor in the early 1980s but left as he was “deeply depressed” at how “sheltered and tunnel-visioned the British political system was.”

'I really do love Ireland and I regard it as my kind of a natural place to be and I only want the greatest kind of peace and harmony and prosperity for it'

“It was all about Britain and nobody seemed very interested in the outside world,” he says.

Simpson finds the post-Brexit economic tug-of-war over Northern Ireland “absolutely fascinating” but believes, on “a desire and a hunch”, that the region will not return to violence. He is “quite amazed by the distance that even the DUP has come” since the Troubles, and the republicans too. A former BBC correspondent based in Dublin in the mid-1970s, Simpson returned to live in Ireland on two more occasions, the most recent in 2013. With a grandmother from Co Tipperary and a full name “John Cody Fidler-Simpson”, he has both Irish and British citizenship.

“I really do love Ireland and I regard it as my kind of a natural place to be and I only want the greatest kind of peace and harmony and prosperity for it,” he says.

He made Swift, the main character in his novels, Irish because it made for “a more rounded, intriguing character with a deeper background” as opposed to his own, which was “just boringly middle-class English.” The book even has references to “gurriers”, Drumcondra and Donnybrook Fair. There is even mention of Swift togging out on the rugby pitch for Leinster.

“That was pure wild fantasy and self-aggrandisement,” he says.

He says proudly that he did play cricket for Co Meath once but not well: “I was so bad that the rest of the team, charming people though they were, didn’t really want to speak to me.”

Simpson lived in Dalkey and Sandycove during his time in Dublin. He liked “the sense of relaxation and calm” that south Co Dublin life brought and he still misses living by the sea.

“We just had a superb time. It must be a possibility that we will go back if I ever retire because that’s where so many of our friends are,” he says.

In the modern media, Simpson laments the decline of the foreign correspondent and financial supports for overseas reporting more generally as “fairly disastrous”. He sees the kind of foreign correspondent work that he once did as “a thing absolutely of the past” and is concerned that news organisations will rely on local reporters who may be pressured by local governments.

“It is a dying profession. It doesn’t mean to say that we won’t get foreign news in our newspapers and on radio and television, but it won’t be the figures that used to do it,” he says.

He worries about how tribal British and American news has become and “can’t believe” how his journalist friend Andrew Neil, the former Sunday Times editor, does not see the dangers in the one-sided approach to news and “terribly tiresome anti-woke stuff” being pursued by the new television station GB News, where Neil is chairman and a presenter.

Simpson cannot see how UK media regulator Ofcom will tolerate a right-wing television station and he dreads any suggestion about controls over balance being lifted having “seen what a disaster it leads to in America.”

“There is as great a danger to the freedom of thought and the open expression of ideas from the kind of Fox News phenomenon as there is from a hostile and oppressive government. It is just differently expressed,” he says.

Away from the factual world, Simpson’s writing now helps him process traumatic real-life events he experienced during his years reporting. He recalls one in particular: writing about a botched execution, the hanging of three criminals, he witnessed in Afghanistan years ago and how a full-page report in a Sunday newspaper helped him purge traumatising memories of the event.

“As I was watching this, I thought this is going to be with me forever. I am never going to be free of these memories and these images that I am seeing,” he says.

He remembers the copy-taker at the other end of the line in London telling him in Kabul: “Oh you poor thing, I am so sorry you had to go through that.”

He did have a bad night the night he filed his story but it did not affect him further.

“I have never, since that happened, had memories of it. I can remember the names of the people that died and what happened to them but it doesn’t have any power over me, and it certainly doesn’t come back to me in the night watches or haunt me,” he says.

Simpson says the beauty of fiction is he gets to play God, that he can punish the bad guys – the enemies who did bad things to him – while the good guys get to survive and prosper. Writing honestly about incidents he has experienced has, he says, “a tremendously restorative effect.”

“Writing is the greatest of therapies, far better than talking it over to some psychiatrist who can’t conceivably imagine what it’s like to see a botched execution or be shelled or pulled apart by a crowd,” he says.

“That’s why I am a writer, I suppose, because it is the best way to exorcise any demons.”

Our Friends in Beijing by John Simpson is published by John Murray on July 22nd

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