Being Alan Johnston

Hi, it’s Leonardo here, just back from White City where I went to see Alan Johnston. He was speaking at the BBC News & Sport Festival.

Always generous in his words, worried about not boring the audience with his stories (as if).

And as strange as it seems, a sense of humour that seems to have only been sharpened by four months in captivity.

But the main satisfaction was to see that the messages the WHYS played for him meant so much in those dark Gaza days.


Alan managed to get hold of a radio a few weeks into his captivity and was able to listen to the World Service output. He did it for hours and hours every day.

From day one, we played him messages. I remember Mark explaining to me, when I joined the programme.

“We want to raise his profile, his one of us. And we’re doing that in the hope that he’s listening and, at least, it’s going to put a smile on his face.”

It certainly meant a lot to Alan.


Asked about the messages that meant most to him in those days, he said:

Brian Keenan, who said on the WHYS: “There are hundreds of thousands of people here, ligting a candle for you. And we shall not walk away”

Terry Waite, who said we’re much stronger than we think.

– And “my folks, especially my dad, who was speaking for the family”.

“I used to repeat to myself what Brian Keenan had said: we shall not walk away, we shall not walk away, we shall not walk way…”


Alan also mentioned the messages from his childhood heroes, Scottish footballers, like Dennis Law, Alan Hansen and Archie Gemmil. “Oh, those footballers… If you’re my age…”

And he repeated what he told us on that memorable 4th July broadcast: “The one time I thought I was losing my marbles is when I heard Dennis Law talking to me”.

For all of us at the World Have Your Say, that was such a defining moment.

We work as journalists on the assumption that what we do matters, that it will make a difference to someone somewhere.

It made a big difference to Alan. All those messages gave him so much strength and that is very gratifying.

Alan thanked the whole of the BBC, in particular the World Service, for raising his profile and making him too valuable.

“If you’re going to be kidnapped, make sure you work for the World Service”, he said, making the audience laugh.


How far would Alan Johnston go to save his life?

“I wasn’t given the choice. But I was prepared to convert to Islam, if needed. Those Fox guys had to do it. I would do it. God would understand…”

He went on to explain that it’s against the Koran to convert anyone by force. He would do it, knowing this would have no meaning — to him or to true Muslims.

And has the kidnapping changed the way he sees the world, the Middle East?

“I would be prepared to defend every line I wrote on Gaza. The Palestinians had the rough end of the stick. I just told what I saw.”


One of his main concerns after being released, on July 4th 2007, was returning to a normal life.

Being Alan Johnston again. Not, as he repeated today, “that kidnapped guy”.

Has he managed it? To a certain extent. He’s enjoying Britain more than he ever did, the cinemas, the restaurants (“I used to think it was a nice place, but dull…”).

He’s back at work now, at the World Service, and close to his family. “My father used to call me our man in Obscuristan.” Not anymore.

“My folks are wary of me having a holiday in Spain… If I talk about a post in Mogadishu…”

He keeps being recognized in the streets. Brian Keenan told him when they first met after his release: “welcome to our very exclusive club”.

Alan told Keenan that being in captivity for four months was nothing compared to the four years he was held as a hostage in Lebanon.  

“He was very generous. He told me four hours in a place like that is enough.”


As for being recognized in the streets, Alan thinks it’s just a matter of time before people forget him.

Here’s an amusing anecdote Alan shared with us.

Alan went to get some Cokes in a local supermarket.

The guy looks at Alan, points the finger at him… “I know you… No, don’t tell me. It’s on the tip of my tongue… ”

There he was, Alan says, wondering if I played for Crystal Palace or what.

Finally: “Ahhh… Ok, no, I can’t remember”.

Alan, “ego on the floor”, says: “I’m that kidnapped guy”.

“Oh, yes, Iraq!”

“Just give me those Cokes…”

6 Responses to “Being Alan Johnston”

  1. 1 Mark
    January 16, 2008 at 22:58

    I found the entire story implausible, the more I heard, the more implausible it became. First I wondered why BBC would allow Johnston to stay in an area so dangerous that every other international news organization removed its reporters and why he would agree to it. Both BBC management and Johnston made it clear they not only knew the grave risks but Johnston actually expected to be kidnapped according to BBC accounts. This especially when coverage of conditions in the Gaza had been covered extensively over a period of many many years. Then people including Johnston’s own father said he was “a friend to the Palestinian People.” How can someone who has befriended his subject be an honest objective reporter at the same time? This demonstrated to me beyond doubt that Johnston was there in the role of a propagandist with an agenda, not as an honest reporter at all. Given that Gaza is the most densely populated place on earth and the publicity surrounding his disappearance, it seemed impossible that he would not have been seen by someone, that his whereabouts would not be known. When he reappeared in public on the day of his supposed release, he did not show any of the signs of psychological trauma one normally associates with kidnap victims. For instance, the 15 Royal Marines who appeared on an Iranian propaganda broadcast just days after being captured showed enormous stress and fear. By the next day back home in Scotland with his parents, he looked much more relaxed and refreshed, hardly like someone who had just spent four months alone with terrorists in perpetual fear of losing his life at any moment. Johnston’s own accounts of how he was asked what food he wanted, was given access to a radio to boost his morale, and was so lightly guarded, the one guard he was left with at times fell asleep makes the story even more difficult for me to swallow. I just don’t buy it. While he disappeared, my inquiries to BBC were met with statements that they would not respond because it could put his life in jeopardy. After he reappeared four months later, they have not even bothered to give any response to inquiries at all. My hunch is that it was just a stunt to get the Palestinian issue back on the front pages of the newspapers and top billing in the media at a time when the world and the Middle East were preoccupied with other issues. It is also my opinion hat this will not be published on WHYS just as BBC has quashed all of my similar comments on other forums.

  2. 2 Caroline Funck
    January 17, 2008 at 10:41

    I remebered the first days Alan got kidnapped.
    I always saw him as an extraordinary journalist ,a really ‘down to earth’sort of guy.
    I was shocked about the news and then followed every single news about him on the Web,on TV ,even in the Gym I had only BBC news on to see if there was any news about him.
    Then the videorelease with this strange message surfaced…..I thought:’ that isn’t him, he is under duresse…….’ and was relieved on one side to see him alive but then fearing for the worst. I wrote a message to cheer him up in ‘Have your say’ and received a phonecall from BBC later that evening asking me if I wanted to record a spoken message for Alan .I did that hoping it sounded cheerful enough to make him feel good in case he heard it.
    When the news came out early July all that worrying about him dissapeared, I was relieved he was alive and finally free again.
    Now I just hope he can get over the Trauma he had to live there and he survived the ‘reverse cultureshock’ ( which he obvioulsy did) being back in ‘dull’ Britain.
    I am looking forward to hear and see more of you Alan,hopefully from a less critical spot in the world!Besides, ,Bangers and Mash ‘and a draft beer can be a real delicacy after all this time abroad plus in the circumstances you have been….!

    Caroline Funck Bangkok,Thailand

  3. January 17, 2008 at 12:42

    alan the most fascinating to hear in your interview in bbc radio was you thinking that the extremists would wear out after months looking after you just like muhammedali weared out georgeforeman in rumble in the jungle at zaire (africa).and to the dismay finding out the extremists showing no signs of wearing out oh what would have gone through alan .then what you thought sure death .its people like you make us look at ourselves and selfintrospect our lives .all the best alan.

  4. January 17, 2008 at 14:02

    Hi Leonardo ! Alan Johnston…. You’ll always be my hero ! With my love ! Lubna in Baghdad !

  5. 5 Shirley
    January 18, 2008 at 14:42

    When I see/hear this PSA on PBS here in the States, I remember Alan and how his work in Gaza impacted people’s opinions around me. And then I think of how the world responded with compassion when he was kidnapped. Listen, read, enjoy.
    -Shirley, Chicago, IL USA


    I can change the world
    with my own two hands
    make it a better place
    with my own two hands

    I’m gonna make it
    a brighter place
    with my own two hands
    I’m gonna help the human race
    with my own two hands

    I can hold you
    in my own two hands
    and I can comfort you
    with my own two hands
    with my own, with my own two hands

  6. 6 Anonymous in Singapore
    January 19, 2008 at 01:03

    Wow. As the days dragged on into weeks and later months, I remember wondering how everybody could be so hopeful; surely the terrorists wouldn’t keep a single hostage that long, especially with all the pressure from local and world governments; surely any day now they’d decide he wasn’t worth the effort and dispose of him one way or another. I couldn’t be happier that I was proved wrong, and it’s heartening to know that even kidnappers can have heart.

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