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Simpson became a BBC reporter in 1970. Early in his career, the then prime minister Harold Wilson, angered by being asked whether he was about to call an election, punched Simpson in the stomach.
Simpson was the BBC's political editor in 1980-1. He presented the Nine O'Clock News in 1981–82 and became diplomatic editor in 1982. He had also served as a correspondent in South Africa, Brussels and Dublin. He became BBC world affairs editor in 1988 and presented an occasional current affairs programme, Simpson's World.
Simpson's reporting career includes the following episodes:
Simpson has freely admitted to using hallucinogenic drugs offered to him by locals in various jungles of the world. This prompted jibes from other panellists when Simpson appeared on BBC Television's topical quiz show Have I Got News For You. On his first appearance Simpson revealed that one hallucination involved a six-foot goldfish putting its flipper round his shoulders while wearing dark glasses and a straw hat.
In 2008 and 2009 Simpson took part in a BBC programme called Top Dogs: Adventures in War, Sea and Ice. It saw Simpson unite with fellow Britons Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the adventurer, and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the round-the-world yachtsman. The team went on three trips, experiencing each other's adventure field. The first episode, aired on 27 March 2009, saw Simpson, Fiennes and Knox-Johnston go on a news-gathering trip to Afghanistan. The team reported from the Khyber Pass and the Tora Bora mountain complex. The three also undertook a voyage around Cape Horn and an expedition hauling sledges across the deep-frozen Frobisher Bay in the far north of Canada.
During the 2011 Libyan civil war Simpson travelled with the rebels during their westward offensive, reporting on the war from the front lines and coming under fire on several occasions.
In 2016 Simpson presented a Panorama special, "John Simpson: 50 Years on the Frontline", revisiting the people and places that have impacted on him most, revealing his thoughts on the challenges for the future.
In 2018, he described how a previous head of BBC News had recently tried to force him out of the BBC. "I wasn't the only one: he did the same to several eminent broadcasters, on the grounds that the news department was clogged at the top by the aged. I was unsighted by being assured regularly how wonderful my contribution to the BBC was. 'I'd be distraught if you left', he said."