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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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.