Why we broadcast what Jamal Khashoggi told us three days before he disappeared

Editor, The World Tonight, Newshour

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, here appearing on the BBC News HARDtalk programme in November, 2017

Some people have questioned the decision by Newshour and The World Tonight to broadcast the words of Jamal Khashoggi recorded shortly before the formal start of an interview.

So I'd like to explain how we arrived at that decision.

Mr Khashoggi, a regular contributor to the World Service, came into Broadcasting House in London the weekend before last. He was on his way from Washington to Istanbul.

The interview was on the subject of the Oslo Middle East peace accords, but while he sat in front of a microphone in our radio studio, Mr Khashoggi was asked whether he could return to Saudi Arabia. In that exchange he spoke of how he feared he would be detained, particularly after acquaintances had been arrested.

Ordinarily, this kind of 'pre-chat' would never be transmitted. But three days after his visit to our studio he disappeared.

It was soon clear that something very serious had happened to Mr Khashoggi.

We began weighing up whether we should be broadcasting this conversation, which had been recorded automatically in the studio.

Firstly, we asked whether there was a clear public interest in what he had said. We felt the answer to this was yes. This may have been the last interview he recorded before his disappearance, and he expressed concerns for his safety. Concerns that have since been borne out.

Next, we asked whether broadcasting this material could put him at any greater risk. This is not an abstract exercise for me. While working for the BBC internationally I have had to deal with our own journalists who have been abducted or detained, and appreciate how critical these things can be.

We went back through Mr Khashoggi’s published articles in the Washington Post, and through previous interviews with the BBC, and found that nothing expressed in the latest recording was substantially different to words already in the public domain.

As an example, in a previous interview with Newshour in January of this year, he had said, on the record, that he couldn’t return to Saudi Arabia because “I am 60 years old – I have no stomach to spend my time in jail.”

We finally considered whether all this taken together should outweigh the principle of not broadcasting a recording that was not intended for transmission without consent.

We debated this for some time, with arguments on both sides.

In the end we felt broadcasting the conversation was in the public interest, and believe that hearing his fears expressed in his own words, at this particular time, was important and relevant to telling his story.

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