Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington

Peter Hanington is a former radio producer for the Today programme, latterly rising to be its Assistant Editor. Taking on board the old adage to write what you know, he’s set his debut novel in the world of the foreign correspondent and the political machinations inside the BBC. We have William Carver, a gifted but deeply flawed veteran correspondent, an inveterate drunk who the hierarchy are trying to force into early retirement; Rob Mariscal, the editor of Today, an embittered man who strikes fear into those under him; and Patrick Reid, a young whippersnapper of a producer, still very green and idealistic.

Patrick is dispatched by Mariscal to Afghanistan, his first foreign posting, with orders to reign Carver in. The foreign correspondent is onto something with a story concerning a recent bombing, in which a prominent Afghan businessman and politician was murdered. Unfortunately, there are people who don’t want this story told. At risk of giving away too great a spoiler, they have their claws in Rob and get him to try to put a stop to it. What plays out is a conspiracy thriller set against a realistic portrayal of radio journalism and foreign correspondence in the 21st century.

There are aspects of this novel that I liked and others that I didn’t. Having been a current affairs journalist myself, and having worked for the BBC - albeit for only a short time and not on Today - I was impressed by his no pulling punches approach to writing about the corporation. While this is no hatchet job on the BBC, and BBC journalists are shown doing a good and thorough job, the stultifying bureaucracy which so too often stifles them is ably demonstrated, particularly in the earlier sections. So too is a reporter’s life in Afghanistan, that sense of surrealism and privilege that representatives of a first world media organisation can’t fail to demonstrate when operating in what is in essence a third world country. Finally, Carver’s relationship with his fixer, Karim, is well drawn. Hanington does a service to fixers everywhere with his portrayal of Karim, for as in this novel, they are often as gifted journalists, sometimes more so, than the apparent star.

There is one other aspect I should mention, something that might only appeal to fellow journalists. I might be imagining this, but to me both Rob Mariscal, and a minor character, the pompous news correspondent John Brandon, appear to be mischievously based on real people. Mariscal made me think of a certain former Today editor who now makes a living as an outspoken columnist. Brandon meanwhile brought to mind someone who once liberated Kabul on his lonesome. Of course, as I say, I could be imagining this.

Some aspects of the novel weren’t so satisfying, however. The book is very male. Early on, Carter has a producer whose role is also to reign him in, but he wears her down and she flies back to Blighty. This leaves a gap for Patrick and hence he comes. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, and I’m certainly not suggesting the author needed to shoe-horn in a female character out of some politically correct notion of box ticking, it did feel a bit like, “Well, now the women are safely out of the way, we can get on with the job of real journalism.” Another issue I had is while I enjoyed this book immensely, it was a bit of a slow burner; there were times when I put it down and had to actively remind myself to return to it.

That all said, A Dying Breed is certainly a compelling thriller, and if you have any interest in the news business at all it is well worth a read.

4 out of 5 stars

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