Reviewed: Confessions from Correspondentland

Nick Bryant's memoir recalls the dangers and delights of life as a foreign correspondent.

Nick Bryant has covered an enormous range of events as a journalist and foreign correspondent for the BBC, from 9/11 to the death of Princess Diana. His memoir is an honest and fascinating account into the world of a foreign correspondent and the joy, unpredictability and sheer danger of the profession in which a small few make their living.

Think of a country with a war-torn past and Nick will have probably of been there. He's a veteran of Afghanistan, Pakistan (“probably the most impenetrable country I had ever covered”), and Northern Ireland - which he describes as a “kind of preschool for war correspondents” - as well countless other places which the vast majority of us only sample on the 10 O’Clock News.

Bryant draws you into his world with an open tone and the subtle warmth of his writing, inviting you into Correspondentland: “that place of boundless adventure, breathless reportage and ill-fitting flak jackets and extreme personal recklessness which we prefer to call bravery.”

Nick charts his own journalism career with an encouraging frankness, from the days at his student paper in Cambridge right up to breaking through at the BBC and travelling the world. He grants a privileged insight to the world of live broadcast journalism and switches quickly between personal and political recollections - interspersing flashbacks with the main chronological story.

The book flicks easily between personal diary and travelogue. While stories of globetrotting are prominent, the author doesn’t forget what a serious constraint even the remnants of a conscience can be in his position. Speaking of how quickly all forms of tact and compassion can fall away, he cites the oft-quoted line from Edward Behr, the famed BBC foreign correspondent who on arrival to cover a story on survivors of a siege in Congo, shouted: ‘anyone here been raped and speak English?’. Stories such as these are enough to raise the eyebrows of even the most hardened aspiring journalist.

Not all journalists are as hard bitten and heartless as some would have you believe - Nick once widtheld a front page story that could have made his tabloid career.  He writes of having the scoop and not wanting to use it, and the self torture that often comes with eager young journalists working on the "street of shame" - a potent metaphor for tabloid journalism harking back to the trade’s Fleet Street beginnings.

Nick paints a vivid picture of several leading figures in American politics, including Bill Clinton and his infidelities, how George W Bush fell short in the aftermath of September 11 attacks and the failed Republican presidential nominee John McCain and his “straight talk express”.

Nick, who holds a PhD in American politics, is deeply engrossed in wider governmental issues, covering the transition from old to new India as money and technology swept in from the West. From a journalist's point of view, as he points out, this created an enchanting cultural mishmash with reporters who became “chronically dependant on British idioms... storms for him usually came in teapots, mountains rose up out of molehills and stable doors were always closed long after the horse had bolted.”

He doesn’t shy away from the dangers of his profession and reveals some of his most dangerous encounters:  covering the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister in Jerusalem for his first assignment with the BBC; being shot at in the Kashmir valley while reporting on the thawing of relations on this disputed piece of turf on the border of India and Pakistan. Nick has also seen his fair share of natural disasters, covering both the cyclone that devastated Burma and the Boxing Day Tsunami.

Although the book focuses primarily on the Nick Bryant the journalist, there are also insights into Nick Bryant the man: in a heart-warming section near the books completion he reveals he suffered from a mild form of social anxiety that left him quite happy to enter a warzone, but sweaty over the thought of entering a crowded room.

Confessions from Correspondentland readily mixes witty political portraits with enthralling journalistic tales, and offers fascinating insight into the major news stories from the last decade.

Confessions from Correspondentland is published by One World Publications.

The Afghan desert is just one of the war zones Nick Bryant has made his home over the years (Getty Images)
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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.