Weighing the risks
A scurrilous piece of journalism appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week regarding Alan Johnston’s kidnapping. An article by Bret Stephens criticises BBC management for our failures of “prudence and judgment which put our reporter, Alan Johnston’s life in jeopardy.” Fair enough. It is not as though all of us responsible for Alan’s safety have not asked ourselves the same question many times over the course of the past 11 weeks.
But the article goes on to propose that our reasons for this complacency were as a result of our institutional pro-Palestinian views which meant we felt able to operate in the Palestinian authority with “political impunity”. He would appear to be suggesting that Alan was a Palestinian sympathiser and therefore we felt he would be protected by that. The author throws in the few other BBC correspondent names to stack up his case – saying Barbara Plett and Orla Guerin had also made their views known to the public.
He alleges we believed this stance gave us “institutional advantages in terms of access and protection” and that is why “we felt comfortable posting Alan in a place no other news agency dared to go".
Aside from the lack of sympathy shown by the Wall Street Journal, who must have asked themselves a few questions over the appalling tragedy of Daniel Pearl, it also happens to be totally unfounded. I would have thought the writer would have attempted to establish some facts before committing to the page. Had he put a call into the BBC he might have discovered that we had been by no means complacent about Alan’s safety.
Alan was highly alert to the possibility of kidnap. He had come out of Gaza on several occasions in the months before he was taken; we had drawn up plans to avoid it happening and even a plan of what we would do if it should. He had spent the previous three years in Gaza during which time the security situation had progressively deteriorated. He had been due to come out two weeks before he was kidnapped, and the BBC was assessing whether Gaza was safe enough for western journalists in the immediate future.
Obviously none of this prevented the desperate situation in which Alan is now in. We, as his managers, have repeatedly asked ourselves what more we could and should have done to protect him, including the issue of whether he should have been there at all. But we do think very carefully about putting our staff into dangerous parts of the world and take every measure we can to minimise the risks. We continually talk to our correspondents on the ground, as we did with Alan, about how to do this. However, newsgathering is not, and can never be, an entirely risk free business.
But I am surprised that one of the US’s leading newspapers with a great tradition appears to think that a desire to provide first hand reporting for our audiences, on a key news story of major significance, was an enterprise to be regarded as foolish and complacent, rather than what journalism is supposed to be for.