Why I'm not joining the party

Alan Johnston's kidnapping proves definitively that the BBC's claims to fairness are false.

johnston haniyeh 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
johnston haniyeh 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Excuse me while I do not raise my champagne glass to toast the release, unharmed, of BBC Gazastan correspondent Alan Johnston. Excuse me while I do not endorse UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's encomium of Mr. Johnston as "a fearless journalist" whose voice was "silenced for too long." Don't get me wrong. I can be the life and soul of the party. I am not averse to a drink or three. But I am very particular as to what or whom I celebrate. And while the release unharmed of Johnston is clearly felt in some quarters to be a cause for mirth and merriment, I just cannot bring myself to embrace the mood of misplaced euphoria that seems to have gripped the United Kingdom. Johnston is - or was - the only Western journalist to have remained in Gazastan and to have reported from that Islamist enclave. He worked for the BBC, that national institution that is supposed to report the news without fear or favor. Time and again, in response to criticism of bias in its Middle East reporting and reporters, the Beeb has assured us that its reporting is thoroughly objective and its reporters completely professional. The one good thing to have come out of the Johnston kidnapping is that we now know, definitively, that these claims are false. CONSIDER the facts. Johnston was kidnapped by an extended family of Islamist thugs on March 12 last. Almost immediately there was an Arab-inspired, worldwide chorus of demands for his release. There are - alas - a number of European hostages held in Iraq. But this chorus dwelt only on the plight of Alan Johnston. Why? Not - primarily - because he should not have been kidnapped in the first place. Not because kidnapping and holding hostages to ransom is wrong, full stop. But because, according to his father (in Mr. Johnston senior's first public statement after the kidnap) Alan was "a friend of the Palestinian people." One Palestinian journalist demanded Johnston's "immediate freedom for the sake of Palestine and its case." Another called for his release so that he could "continue to support the Palestinian cause." But we do not have to take the word of others - even of his distraught father, doubtless anxious for the very best of reasons to enlist sympathy for his son - that Alan Johnston was biased. On June 1 his captors, the self-styled Army of Islam, released a video in which Johnston launched into a full-blown diatribe against Israel and its Western allies. Having referred graphically to the "huge suffering" and "absolute despair" of Palestinians, he went on: From history, the British worked to bring about the state of Israel, which is the cause of all the suffering... of the Palestinian people, and we, the British, are completely to blame, along with the Americans, for the situation in Iraq, and the British are the main force in Afghanistan, causing all the trouble to ordinary, simple Afghans who simply want to live. NOW ONE explanation of this extraordinary litany is that Johnston was under threat - perhaps with a gun pointed at his back - and simply said whatever his captors demanded of him in order to stay alive. But we must remember that Johnston's supporters claimed he was just a "professional journalist doing his job." What does this signify? I suggest that, if it signifies anything, it signifies a willingness - indeed a commitment - to uphold professional integrity, come what may. If you or I tell a journalist something off the record, for instance, we expect the journalist to protect her/his source even at the risk of going to prison. In July 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller calmly went to gaol for refusing to betray the identity of the source that had talked to her about a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame. And in other parts of the world - such as Russia - there are only too many cases of journalists risking, and suffering, death in order to pursue stories and protect their sources. EVEN IF Johnston had been threatened that he would forfeit his life unless he launched into a public condemnation of Israel and Britain as the joint authors of all the misfortunes that have befallen the Muslim world, I have to say that I would have expected him, as a professional, to have defended that professional integrity, whatever the risk. But Johnston, sadly, did not rise to the occasion. And the most charitable explanation I can come up with for this extraordinary conduct is that he must actually believe what his captors asked him to say. If I am wrong, Johnston will no doubt lose no further time in publicly apologizing both to Israel and to Britain for what he said on camera to the Army of Islam video. But will such an apology ever be made? As to the manner of his release, Johnston allowed himself (and he was clearly enjoying it) to be used as the centerpiece in what we have to recognize was a brilliant piece of Hamas propaganda, showing a humane face in order to mask its true terrorist identity. Truth, honor and professionalism seem to me to have been sacrificed so that one man may go free. In this I personally see nothing whatever to celebrate, and that is why I am not joining in the celebrations. The writer is professor of politics & contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, UK.