What’s it like to write 4,000 words about Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy?
Steve Bloomfield’s essay, The Corbyn Doctrine, was a highlight of the June issue of Prospect. What was it like to write it—and how do you convince politicians to sit down for an interview, anyway?
There’s been a lot of conversation about Corbyn’s foreign policy in the broadsheets—so it’s hardly surprising Prospect decided to take the topic on for a really in-depth write. For Steve Bloomfield, however, it wasn’t just about length, but focus.
“I felt that no-one else had really done it justice,” he explains. “Corbyn’s foreign policy is radically different from everything that has come before, but most of the coverage in the media focuses on what he may or may not have said to a Czech diplomat 30 years ago or the parsing of a column in the Morning Star.”
“I wanted to set out, fairly, what Corbyn was hoping to do and whether he would be able to achieve it. I also wanted to set it in the context of Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ and Tony Blair’s ‘liberal interventionism’.”
The piece includes an interview with Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry. For members of the public, it can be difficult to appreciate the work it takes to procure such an interview; especially with a busy politician. Bloomfield explains:
“Sometimes it can be as simple as making a phone call; most of the time it involves making a phone call, sending an email, sending a follow-up email, making a phone call to check that one of the emails has been received, then sending an email again to a different address.”
“I spoke to lots of other people who aren’t quoted in the piece—people who know Jeremy well, those who like him, those who don’t, plus a handful of foreign policy experts and diplomats. Some were off the record, others were on but their quotes didn’t make the cut.”
“Most people I approached [for this piece] were happy to talk—it helps that Prospect has such a good reputation. Plus everyone likes the idea of their favourite topic being covered in-depth—when you can tell someone you’re writing 4,000 words, they know that you’re not just after soundbites.”
Writing 4,000 words might help convince your sources that you’re serious, but it also poses challenges. When I ask Bloomfield how many drafts the piece he went through, he says: “loads.”
“Maybe five full drafts, plus several other versions of different sections. The piece ended up being 4,000 words but I probably wrote nearer to 7,000 altogether.”
“I try to get everything I want to say out in a first draft, however bad that draft might be, then start revising. Only once I’m happy with a version will I pass it on to an editor.”
“Tom [Clark] and I then worked on it back and forth for a few days, others including Sameer [Rahim] and Steph [Boland] also chipped in, and eventually we were happy with it.”
“Another key part of the drafting stage, for me, is talking. I like talking about the thing I’m working on with friends and family—it helps me to understand what it is I’m trying to do and to formulate my arguments. Whether they all appreciate this is another matter.”
The reception of a piece like this can also be a mixed back.
“The quotes from Emily Thornberry about Assad were reported in all the national newspapers. That’s nice, but ideally you want to draw as many of those people back to the original piece—it’s an essay, not a soundbite.”
“The piece has been the most-read on Prospect’s website since it went live. It shows there is an appetite among our readers for long, deeply-reported essays.”