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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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