Occupying the Media

Daniel Simpson is a renegade gonzo journalist, who got in touch to ask if we’d be interested in hearing how he threw away his job at the New York Times and got up to his neck with dope smuggling Balkan mobsters. We didn’t need to think about that too hard.

One of Daniel’s previous projects was putting together a fake Financial Times, so he’s got good subversive form. In fact, he’s collected his tales of professional weirdness (because ‘when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro’, as Hunter S. Thompson famously declared) into the excellent Rough Guide to the Dark Side, which is available on Zero Books.

Illustration by Ed Tolkien.

Occupying the Media by Daniel Simpson

Life’s too short to waste in a dead-end job. When that dawned on me this time last decade, I was working for The New York Times as a foreign correspondent, and my colleagues were enabling the invasion of Iraq. I was naive enough to be shocked by their propaganda, and too ambitious and too junior to challenge it. The only way ahead was to resign, and try to start a revolution.

The form this took was determined by my circumstances. Since I’d been hired to report on the Balkans, I was stationed in Serbia, which ignited the wars that had killed off Yugoslavia. My brief was to ask if “The Serbs” had accepted guilt. This got me ridiculed as a hypocrite: young Serbs were resisting their leaders all along, whereas I was employed by a paper that whitewashed warmongers.

I didn’t have an answer to that, except to get stoned. My editors showed minimal interest in Balkan news, so I had plenty of time to dream up other plans. I’d met a man who suggested we organise a music festival, on an island in the Danube in Belgrade. We convinced ourselves we’d start a Summer of Love, drawing crowds from the neighbouring countries Serbs attacked. We could also revive the dormant student protest movement, which helped topple a Serbian president two years earlier. We’d even lure some tourists from afar, by promoting ourselves as Ibiza crossed with Glastonbury. All told, it was ‘constructive ethnic cleansing’, a way of reclaiming Serbia from its past. Hell, The New York Times might even cover it.

To facilitate this, I invented an alter ego. That way I could interview myself, and talk us up in print to raise some cash. I set to work at once on laying a paper trail. A few days later, the Times ran a letter from Raoul Djukanovic, who ranted about the flaws in U.S. policy. “Western officials should consider how they can become a catalyst for change in the Balkans,” the text harrumphed, “by investing heavily in economic revival.” Like by funding the ECHO Festival in Belgrade!

Raoul’s fear and loathing subtext went unnoticed. His name was a Balkanised remix of Raoul Duke, the pseudonym of the volatile Hunter S. Thompson. And as the doctor of gonzo explained: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Before quitting, I made my job a kind of protest stunt. Armed with promotional brochures and a film, I hustled contacts for assistance, often in the middle of scheduled interviews for the Times. I asked NATO to lend me a pontoon bridge, in the name of improving relations with the people they’d bombed. I urged the European Union to sponsor the event, and promote itself to Serbs instead of vice versa. And when both said no, I tried a Nobel Prize-winning Auschwitz survivor, and begged him to ask his friends for a million dollars, with a promise to foster reconciliation.

My business partner found these stunts amusing. “If you are Raoul,” he said, “I wanna be archetype of Balkan refugee, like a Goran Needsavisavic of no man’s land. Together we make Utopia in shithole.” Our venue seemed well suited to this task. Its name was Big War Island, and it once marked the edge of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. “Now we make here anarchistic Interzone,” my partner said. “What can be better location to come on with love-in?”

Inspired by his zeal, I got radical ideas. “Imagine if Serbia legalised soft drugs,” I said. “They could call it learning lessons from The Hague. Coffee shops are full of foreign smokers. If we ran one, this place would be crawling with Western cash.” I’d already been importing hash in bulk, re-routing work trips so I could smuggle it on expenses. The next step was to court some politicians. This got easier once we’d scrounged loans from shady businessmen, who doubled as their friends.

Backed by the national airline and Serbia’s minister of tourism, I hijacked a stand at the world’s largest travel trade fair in Berlin. Our video blared on auto-loop for days. “It’s 2003 in the Balkans and everyone’s bored,” the soundtrack declared, over footage I’d nicked from the BBC and EXIT, another festival in Serbia. “That means the biggest crowd since the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic. Only this time everyone’s out to have fun.” And so it boomed on to its cheesy finale: “Come and watch Belgrade get back in tune with the rest of the world!”

Meanwhile, back in Serbia, the prime minister was being shot dead outside his office, by gangsters from a suburb near our island. I returned to be told to file a front-page story. Although I’d resigned, I was technically serving out my notice.I did the minimum, fearing the impact on our festival. Most of my story was copied off the news wires. It ended with a made-up comment from a man in the street. Compared to false pretexts for war, this seemed quite tame. So I also concocted quotes from Western diplomats. The New York Times seemed none the wiser.

Subversion was all I could muster at the Times, where news is routinely skewed to suit the powerful. It’s the same every day in newsrooms round the world. To quote official liars is objective, but saying someone’s lying makes you biased. To challenge who sets the agenda, I later made a fake Financial Times, depicting a world less addicted to ruinous growth, and explaining how the media serves big business. Though I gave away thousands of copies to commuters, and journalists let me tell them their shortcomings, it’s fair to say this didn’t change the world.

As for the festival, well, that also got subverted: by the well-armed men we hired as our security, as ‘recommended’ by the government. My attempts at resistance proved futile, strengthening the forces I opposed. Even so, they set me free from disillusionment. Our festival’s marketing slogan still applies: “life is an illusion; choose a nice one.”

Daniel Simpson is the author of A Rough Guide to the Dark Side, published by Zero Books.


See this in print – pick up your copy of Strike! here