The Bulgarian asylum seeker who became BBC icon John Simpson’s right hand man in Iraq and beyond
PUBLISHED: 06:55 21 August 2014
Tucked away in the serene streets of Belsize Park, the home of Oggy Boytchev is a treat to behold. Towering in that period red-brick style so typical of the area, its inside is a veritable treasure trove, with paintings by Barbara Hepworth and Julian Opie taking pride of place in the living room above a host of ornate antique furniture.
"Our translator died in my arms. That thing, that experience, haunted me for months, regularly every morning as I was waking up"
It marks a stark contrast to the views Boytchev studied from his bedroom window as a child in 1960s Bulgaria. Alongside the peeling facades of Vienna Secession buildings and dilapidated mansard roofs, he could often make out the oppressive red glow of the five-pointed star that shone over the Communist Party Central Committee building, which itself stood as a symbol of the party’s domination over the city.
It was here as a 30-year-old that Boytchev first began his journalism career – daringly escaping via Egypt to London, where he sought political asylum before even telling his parents. As he pours tea back in Belsize, I point out the irony that his subsequent adventures with BBC world affairs correspondent John Simpson have, if anything, topped his 1986 defection in terms of sheer danger.
“Yes, well you’re absolutely right, because on various assignments – for example, going undercover in Zimbabwe – you stay with trusted people and all that, but every morning you wake up and half-think, ‘When is the proverbial knock on the door going to happen, when the secret police will come in and arrest you?’”
From any other mouth, this may sound a tad James Bond, but over the course of eight years, Boytchev and Simpson truly did go far beyond the line of duty in order to expose some of the Ten O’Clock News’ most memorable stories.
As Simpson’s long-time producer, the 59-year-old not only gained a valuable insight into the countries he reported on, but also into the world of his work partner and the BBC machine, which often proved more of a hinderance than a help.
It is such experience that proved the foundation for his illuminating new memoir, Simpson & I: Between Two Worlds, which details the pair’s time spent travelling everywhere from the crumbling empire of Gaddafi’s Libya to the revolutionary sands of Cairo.
“My policy has always been to be professionally switched on and never let private relationships enter the mix,” says Boytchev. “I haven’t been forced into these situations where I say, ‘I have to do it because he’s my friend’, but John became my friend and I fought for him and fought to get him on air with editors, as I describe in the book, because I believed in his product and believed in what he did – and still does – and how it relates to people.
“He has his adversaries and people who dislike his style and manner, but he’s incredibly brave and gets to places where most people probably don’t want to go.”
Shortly after arriving in London, despite having little money or identification, Boytchev got his break at the BBC when they responded positively to one of the many hopeful letters he sent out to news publications asking for work. His career with them started at the World Service and lasted 25 years.
His first project with Simpson came when they travelled to northern Iraq during the breakout of war in 2003. The team came under fire while covering the American friendly fire incident; they lost several members over the trip’s duration, but it proved the start of a fruitful relationship.
The question though, as with any foreign correspondent, is what compelled Boytchev to go back after the turmoil of Iraq?
“It’s probably a very callous thing to say, but it didn’t affect me that much – apart from a period of time maybe three or four months after the event. I used to wake up with something which wasn’t a dream…I basically relived the moment when our translator – who was with John in the friendly fire incident – died in my arms.
“That thing, that experience, haunted me for months, really regularly every morning as I was waking up. Eventually, as I started doing more work, it disappeared. I didn’t go to counselling; I didn’t take psychotherapy. It just disappeared through its own accord, simply through working and going back.
“I can’t answer the question as to why. I suppose it’s like a bug that bites you and doesn’t let go; it’s the excitement, but also going back to these places helped me get over the trauma from the northern Iraq experience.”
Boytchev’s closest miss himself came in 2010, in Peshawar, Pakistan. While about to interview the city’s most senior police official, he heard a soft whistle before a bullet nestled into a concrete block next to his foot. Realising they were under attack, he froze terrified, but was bundled numbly to safety.
He views the incident with a black irony: “When you put yourself in a hostile environment, you take all the precautions and watch out. When you’re waiting to interview the police chief of Peshawar, you don’t expect a bullet to suddenly graze your shoe.”
The book is full of dry humour. Alongside countless tragedies and daring incognito investigations, there are accounts of Simpson and Boytchev disagreeing over their favourite Coen brothers film, while in another anecdote the latter tells of Simpson’s frustrations at often being mistaken for David Attenborough.
On another level, the Bulgarian’s personal journey and aspirations prove an equally compelling read. The sacrifice of his decision to escape to England is laid bare when he recalls his father urging him to return home to become a political force, or when he recounts early morning phone calls from his mother who has begun to show signs of dementia.
Of course over the years, the landscape of broadcast journalism has dramatically changed. The advent of 24-hour news in the 90s proved particularly transformative for Boytchev, who regrets that the practice of ‘rooftop journalism’ – where reporters are often made to broadcast from foreign countries without even leaving their hotel – is increasingly commonplace, as is the reprioritisation of speed over accuracy.
For everybody involved in the business, this can prove a tremendous challenge. I ask Boytchev, who eventually left the BBC in 2011, if he sympathises with someone like Jeremy Paxman, who made it known after stepping down from Newsnight that he wanted to quit before mistakes started creeping into his work.
“Oh live television is ruthless. This is why live television presenters are so scared: it’s basically like being a surgeon doing a live operation. Any little mistake can cost somebody’s life – ok, not in the case of Jeremy Paxman perhaps, but it can cost a career.”
The ex-producer adds that he didn’t want to find himself in a position where he’d be told to go to Northern Iraq and have second thoughts, or make a mistake which could potentially cost the lives of his team. There is a cut-off point, he says, beyond which you can’t really go, but on the other hand, there is a side of him that still craves the adventure.
“I miss it. I miss it. There’s no hiding the fact that I do miss it. But I haven’t made an effort to go back to it. I’m sure if I wanted to go back it wouldn’t be too difficult. Sometimes if I see things on television, I think, ‘Oh, I would have done this differently, we would have gone to a different place.”
With Simpson still scouring the far corners of the Earth and showing little signs of slowing down, you sense the final chapter in his trusted companion’s memoir is yet to come.
Simpson & I: Between Two Worlds by Oggy Boytchev, published by Quartet, is priced £20.
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