As published in The Herald (Scotland)
The author worked as a Reuters correspondent for 15 years.
A Rough Guide to the Dark Side
By Andrew Gray
In the autumn of 2002, Daniel Simpson, a young British correspondent for the New York Times, sat down with a Serbian presidential candidate in Belgrade.
Instead of asking about policies, Simpson advanced a proposal, namely to let him and his friend organise a giant rave in three days to rescue his campaign. He even had a document outlining the event, complete with a script for the candidate, a bearded economist named Miroljub Labus. “It’s really very simple,” Simpson told Labus. “If you give us 50 grand, we’ll get you elected.”
This, of course, is not how mainstream journalists are meant to operate. But Simpson was on a journey away from mainstream journalism, and he describes that rollicking and sometimes shocking voyage with considerable flair in this gonzo memoir.
The love-in for Labus did not come to pass, but Simpson and his Serbian guru cum business partner, identified only as G, hatched a grander plan for a massive music festival on an island in the Danube. They dreamed of a cross between Woodstock, Glastonbury and Ibiza to bring the young of the Balkans together in Belgrade and transform the region’s war-battered image.
A Rough Guide To The Dark Side recounts Simpson’s efforts to make the fantasy a reality. There’s some sex, some rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of drugs, most of them consumed and smuggled by Simpson. It is the tale of an enterprise fraught with peril, featuring Balkan gangsters and large amounts of missing cash, in which Simpson explores the “dark side” of his own personality, the region, western foreign policy and conventional journalism with black humour. Also in the mix are a sense of the painful rootlessness of the foreign correspondent and the angst of a lifelong high-achiever who suddenly feels his achievements are worthless.
In theory, Simpson had everything going for him when he started at the New York Times in the spring of 2002. He had read history at Cambridge and served as a correspondent for Reuters. Now, still in his twenties, he had been recruited by the world’s most prestigious newspaper to cover the Balkans. But he was soon disillusioned. The foreign news agenda had changed dramatically after the 9/11 attacks. His editors, he says, weren’t much interested in the region and only wanted stories about whether the Serbs had accepted that they were “bad guys”. “The rank hypocrisy disgusted me,” Simpson writes. “I was told to hold Serbs to account for supporting warmongers while the Times helped enable the invasion of Iraq.”
When Simpson was based in Belgrade, I was the Reuters bureau chief in the city and I have kept in touch with him over the years. But most of this book was news to me. I was one of those correspondents sent to cover the post-9/11 wars (Iraq, in my case) and I had no idea how much of a double life Simpson was leading.
While still ostensibly working for the New York Times, his priorities and ethics came to diverge radically from those of his employer. He hustled for festival funding from a bewildering and bewildered array of prominent people, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the would-be king of Serbia. He routed work trips via Zurich so he could smuggle drugs into Belgrade up his backside. He went so far as to invent an alter ego, Raoul Djukanovic, a Balkanised version of a pseudonym used by Hunter S Thompson. “Djukanovic” had his own business cards (“Why Do They Hate Us Correspondent” for the “New Hawk Times“) and even got a letter printed in the real New York Times criticising the west’s Balkan policies.
The conflict between Simpson the mainstream journalist and Simpson the activist festival organiser came to a head when he returned from a foreign trip in March 2003 to discover the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, had been assassinated. Finally the Balkans was the centre of world attention again and Simpson had a front-page story on his hands. But he didn’t really want to write it.
Already working his notice period with the newspaper, he worried the news would scare off festival-goers and funders. He relegated quotes about the gravity of the situation facing the country to the bottom of his article. (His editors moved them higher.) He admits fabricating a man-in-the-street quote, complete with fake name, based on a conversation with his translator and G. In the following days, he also invented quotes attributed to western diplomats. “I felt sure my stories made them sound more honest,” he writes. His rationale was simple. If the New York Times was publishing phoney justifications for a war that would kill countless thousands, where was the harm in concocting a few quotes of what people would say anyway? Who was the real villain?
I suspect Simpson accepts now that if we all start inventing things and presenting them as facts, it’s unlikely to help anyone get to the truth. Indeed, he appears to have gone to great lengths to give an unflinchingly honest account of his Belgrade adventure here. It has taken him the best part of 10 years to come to terms with it and that distance serves the book well. It adds insight and humour to an experience so intense that it drove Simpson to breaking point. In telling his story, he has found an ideal home for original, colourful and opinionated prose that would never have made the news wires of Reuters or the news pages of the New York Times.
Andrew Gray was the Belgrade bureau chief for Reuters, 2000-04.