As seen on TV

Keith Kyle

  • From the House of War by John Simpson
    Hutchinson, 390 pp, £13.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 09 175034 2
  • In the Eye of the Storm by Roger Cohen and Claudio Gatti
    Bloomsbury, 342 pp, £16.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1050 4

For many people the BBC Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson, who stayed behind in Baghdad when Armageddon was scheduled to begin, was the civilian hero of the Gulf War. The only thing that may have puzzled them was his title. How could a man edit reports coming from all quarters of the globe if he deliberately isolated himself under conditions of siege? On this matter From the House of War provides little help, except for a passing reference to the author’s ‘rather empty title’, which apparently carries important psychological impact when dealing with Iraqi (and other) civil servants, perhaps pandering, in the case of the Iraqis, to their notion that the whole world ought to be edited from Baghdad. One advantage of Simpson’s position is that in a crisis he seems to be able to post himself wherever he wants to be and to stay on, albeit with a scratch team, even when instructed by the BBC to leave. ‘You’ll have to get yourself a new foreign editor, then,’ he growled on being told to leave Baghdad, admitting now that he had been ‘probably much too heavy-handed in my response; I usually am.’ A large part of his motive was ‘the fact that I was writing a book’.

From the House of War is that book and one should say straight away that it is very good indeed: the best kind of journalist’s book. Any momentary unease about ‘the book’ figuring so prominently in the mind of a man whose job, after all, it is to give the instant version on the screen can be brushed aside: Simpson in no way appeared to viewers to be stinting his services to them. More generally, it should be said that the quality of television reporting, which is now the source of most people’s information, can only be sustained if reporters who convey the impression of being capable of writing a good book are given all the encouragement they can get. The primary medium, after all, is not naturally suited to lengthy narrative and nuanced thought and its product is to a high degree evanescent.

The outlet in print, which in weekly journalism used to be provided to BBC journalists by the Listener, is met now in the case of John Simpson by the Spectator and by the writing of books such as this. The London Review of Books, which has been publishing some of the high-class work of Stephen Sackur, a BBC radio reporter of the Gulf War and the Middle East generally, has recently brought out in paperback a collection of these pieces under the title On the Basra Road. [*] Radio and television reporters can be divided into those whom one would care to meet in print and the rest.

Though hastily published without an index, From the House of War, a book to be classed perhaps with William Howard Russell’s My Diary North and South on the opening phases of the American Civil War, is not at all carelessly written, nor is its quality impaired by periodic observations that remind one that the author is a television man. Indeed, that seems especially appropriate for a book about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Bush’s war against it. The Iraqis have a long habit of making publicly available their most embarrassing material. When I was in Baghdad for the BBC in 1969 (the first full year of the Baath regime) the Ministry of Information eagerly pressed on me stills of men hanging, with placards attached, in the central square, and videos of the Chief Rabbi and the General Secretary of the Communist Party reciting confessions on television (thus foreshadowing poor Farzad Bazoft by some twenty years). It was therefore fascinating to learn that Simpson had been shown a televised recording of the infamous session of the Revolution Command Council in 1979 at which Saddam celebrated his elevation to the Presidency after a decade as Number Two by accusing 60 associates of treason – 55 were found guilty and 22 executed.

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[*] London Review of Books, 78 pp., £4.95, August, 1 873092 01 6.