LITERARY REVIEW

He walks into news

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

AMITA MALIK

He walks into news

JOHN SIMPSON, one of the finest — if not the finest — television reporters, has established a reputation for walking into the news, if not walking with it. Most recently, he was seen walking into where he had to be, one of the few reporters allowed into the courtroom on the first day of the trial of Saddam Hussain. But, for this writer, his most spectacular walk-in was into Kabul while the Taliban were actually leaving. He was the first in with his usual team of crew and friendly colleagues. In fact, his technique has inspired reporters all over the world, including our own Shekhar Gupta's "Walk the Talk" on NDTV.

I was very excited to begin with, when asked to review John Simpson's third book of autobiography, being a John Simpson fan and buff. But it has taken more time to review than all the other books I have reviewed down the years because every page, paragraph and sentence is an irresistible quote and one does not know which to choose, because one cannot summarise him. In fact, Simpson's quotes have often got him into trouble, so let me start with one of the most quotable. It was after his famous walk into Kabul: "We had all got through the hardest assignment I had ever been through. There was a good deal to be proud about. I still felt pretty charged up about the rapturous reception the crowds in the streets [of Kabul] had given us. Too charged up perhaps. Down the line [from BBC, London] I heard the attractive voice of Sue McGregor, one of the `Today' presenters. `I don't quite understand. If the Northern Alliance did not enter Kabul but the Taliban have gone, then who liberated it?' Sitting there in the sunshine, savouring the pleasure of it all, I made a mistake. Quite a bad one as it turned out. I cracked a joke. `I suppose it was the BBC', I said."

Soon all hell broke loose. The British Press (for whom Simpson also writes, but which looks on TV as an upstart rival) pounced on Simpson. They accused him of having the arrogance to claim that he had personally liberated Kabul!

However, to get back to the book and "Simpson's World", his famous programme, Simpson's chapter heads speak for themselves. I propose to pick out quotes from these chapters which get down to the basics of TV reporting and illustrating them with fascinating anecdotes. His first chapter, "A Short Walk to Kabul", especially for those of us who saw him actually doing it on BBC World, provides an exciting backgrounder to the hard work, terrible risks and much else that preceded it. His chapter, "The Journalistic Imperative", says: "Journalism is a refined version of the instinct that makes people slow down and crane their necks at a road accident". And then: "The point of being a reporter is to see things. When the starter's gun goes off and a news story opens, journalists become surprisingly careless of themselves, their comfort, their families, their lives. Being a reporter is one of the few genuinely all-consuming professions. When you are deeply involved in a story, nothing else matters". In the chapter, "The Archaeology of News", he sums up its bizarre side by listing the Taliban's "official list of forbidden items: Alcohol, Pork Products, lipsticks, nail varnish, recorders and video cassettes, any item made from human hair, chess sets, musical instruments including pianos grand or upright, billiard tables, statues, Christmas cards, neckties or bow ties, books, newspapers, postcards containing any image of any animate object human or otherwise".

From the chapter "Human Agendas": When you watch TV news, you have to tell yourself constantly that you are watching a few quick images selected from one particular event. The trouble is, journalists from all the different media inevitably concentrate on the biggest or worst or most alarming facts... that is what draws attention and journalists want attention". The chapter, "The Use of Words", quotes from press, radio and TV reports to illustrate the difference the choice of words can make. The chapter, "Truth or Consequence" includes censorship and he says, with illustrations: "Moral issues of all kinds abound in TV news. The act of naming someone or merely showing their face can be enough to get them into real trouble". From the chapter, "Under the Burqa": "Sometimes we tend to assume that our audience is incapable of understanding anything more complicated than rising prices, crime and second-rate hospitals. These things are never as cut and dried as they seem", and he adds that foreign reporting is the conscience of BBC news programmes. Other chapters discuss political pressures (of special relevance to TV in India), getting your quarry under near-impossible circumstances and all chapters document anecdotal experiences. Maps and photographs embellish the text.

I hope I have proved that this is a valuable handbook for TV reporters and students of TV everywhere in the world and not only in India, because all his dos and don'ts seem to be applicable to our own TV channels, as also their problems. The largely passive Indian viewer will also recognise his rights thanks to Simpson. I would make it compulsory reading for all the schools and students of mass communications in India and for practising TV professionals.

As usual, Simpson walks into our lives on and off the screen. Long may he walk.