Saturday 30 May 2015

Talking to Islamic State

This viewer comment -
Every second of airtime given to these ISIS terrorists is a gift to them. If their intention is to strike terror in people's hearts, then the press is helping them all the way.
Andy Wood
- was the starting point for Steve Hewlett's interview with the BBC's World Affairs Editor John Simpson on this week's Newswatch

As it was such an interesting interview, I thought I'd transcribe it for posterity. It touches on such important subjects.


Steve Hewlett: John, thanks very much for coming. Are you, do you think, and the media more generally, really guilty of giving IS propaganda?

John Simpson: Oh, it's the kind of thing that people say whenever you get this kind of situation, or "You're giving them airtime. You're doing their propaganda work for them". I mean, what is news? I mean, otherwise, we would be reporting anything. People often say, "Oh, would the BBC have been in Berlin in 1943?" Of course we would have been - if we'd have been able to - of course. We don't want to tell people less than we can. We want to tell them as much as we can. 

Steve Hewlett: You've been covering conflicts for a long time, often featuring combatants, some of whom are described as "terrorists" from time to time, and one thing and another. How is covering this conflict differ?

John Simpson: This is really, really hard. I've kind of made what I laughingly call "a career" out of being on the other side. Not the side...not our government's side, not the side of people who say "You shouldn't give these people propaganda", but going and trying to see what's happening there. I used to do a lot of work with the IRA. Then I went to Argentina during the Falklands War. I...all of these kind of things....

Steve Hewlett (interrupting): You met the Taliban!

John Simpson: I met the Taliban, and I spent a lot of time with...Yes, and I would really like to go and see ISIS - except that I would be one of these characters in an orange jump suit with my head being sawn off. And when it's as extreme as that it really does made it difficult. If I could find a way, Steve, of going and being pretty sure I'd come back, I would do it. I wouldn't tell the BBC before I did it or anything, but I would go and do it. But I haven't found a way of doing that.

Steve Hewlett: Do you think that because of this, or that effect, that we are less well informed about this conflict, the dynamics of it, than we might otherwise have been?

John Simpson: I think if we saw the kind of people that are in places like Ramadi and Mosul up front and listened to what they had to say I think that would be the strongest propaganda against them that's imaginable. It may be some of them are wise enough to realise that and that's why they don't want to do it.

Steve Hewlett: How sure can you be that you know what's happened? I mean in the piece that we looked at there's a bit where you say, "One of the things about this conflict is you never see the enemy. You see lots of people firing, but you never see who they're firing at" and all you're able to say is that IS are somewhere over that ridge, sort of thing. How sure can you be that you're getting the truth of what's going on?

John Simpson: It's hard, of course. The fact is the Iraqis aren't terribly good at...well, they're not actually very good at lying, the Iraqi government, and, of course, when they win some places back they're not terribly good about taking journalists there. But you can go there. You can see by the facts on the ground whether ISIS is there or not. I mean, frankly you rather hope they won't be.

Steve Hewlett: One last question, if I may: You said that if you could you would like to talk to ISIS, if you could do it without losing your head, so to speak...

John Simpson: In every sense!

Steve Hewlett: Have you made any attempts to get to them, and are any arrangements underway? Attempts to...Is there other form of communication at all?

John Simpson: Well, I probably wouldn't say if there were, but actually no, because I don't know through the normal channels in Iraq and Syria and so forth...I don't know how to make contact with them. But, you know, you get a nose for these kind of things and one day it might be possible. The problem is you've got to have absolutely failsafe agreements that they won't kill you. You know, whatever else, that's not a very bright idea. I don't want to make the news. 

Steve Hewlett: OK, thank you very much indeed.


  1. The media as a whole have been guilty of underplaying the Islamic State threat. I well remember two (Muslim as it happened) Sky press previewers laughing at the absurd notion that anyone would seriously attempt to revive the Islamic Caliphate...wonder if they are laughing now.

    Because no one is prepared to understand that the ideology of "real" Islam is the ideology of IS (i.e. I have never heard anyone seriously be able to criticise the way the IS state runs on grounds of Sharia - because it is a Sharia state, more so even than Saudi Arabia or Iran) - because of that failure there has been a complete failure by the media to describe the reality of what IS is.

  2. I would love to have played this to my Dad:

    "People often say, "Oh, would the BBC have been in Berlin in 1943?" Of course we would have been - if we'd have been able to - of course. "

    The licence fee DD for their home would have lasted a millisecond.

    John Simpson clearly is living in a mental state of media idealism that has fried any semblance of rationality.

    As have too many others. They clearly imagine that in gaining access to supreme propaganda experts they can somehow reveal them in all their gory.


    1. I found John Simpson mostly persuasive here.

      But, yes, that bit about IS not wanting to be interviewed by the likes of him because they sense it will embarrass them struck me as deeply unlikely.

      IS love propaganda - and the BBC, elsewhere, hasn't been coy about pointing out how good they are at it.

      The idea that, if they ever chose to be interviewed by a kuffir from the BBC, they wouldn't be able to find someone to present a propagandist front and would simply fall into a nervous, gibbering wreck at the first hammer-blow question from a BBC interview strikes me as wishful-thinking.

    2. The BBC's reporting from Gaza, where they failed to notice what their hosts didn't want to see or hear, and wallowed in unverified or stage-managed tosh from minders or stringers, has rendered me immune to BBC claims of BBC impartiality in war zones. They arrive and the propaganda kicks in.

      Challenge it, or try to, and the censorship soon follows.

  3. I don't have a problem with journalists going in and talking to "the enemy" and letting us know what's going on. I do have a problem when journalists start telling us to consider their humanity and respect their grievances and start justifying the extremism.

    I don't mean to say Simpson does that. But many of his colleagues do.

  4. 'Might be surprised at the volume of expertise and content we have within the BBC'

    Following BBC World News on FaceBook... no, I would not.

    Deconstruct that, in a non-linear way... Ros & Steve.


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