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)
Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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