Witless in Gaza: The BBC, Fox News, and the Western Press

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When Hamas purged the Gaza Strip of its Fatah rivals in June's "five-day war, Western news media seemed virtually unaware of the meticulous planning behind the violence. Coverage of the abduction of British Broadcasting Corporation's Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston three months earlier, and of his eventual release by the "Army of Islam" on July 4, helped explain why.

When it comes to the Palestinian Arabs, many in the British media see their role as publicists, not journalists. And not only Brits. Knees jerked in much the same manner in America when kidnappers seized two Fox News Channel staffers in the Strip in 2006.

After the BBC's Johnston was snatched, his father appealed to those responsible. This "is no way to treat a friend of Palestinians," he said (The Daily Mail, March 20). Graham Johnston explained that his son "felt the Palestinian story had to be told. It was a piece of the Middle East jigsaw."

One day after Johnston's seizure, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams explained, on a network Web site, that "it is his [Johnston's] job to bring us day after day reports of the Palestinian predicament in the Gaza Strip." That is, Johnston's job was not to report news from Gaza--including the fact that much of the "Palestinian predicament" is of their own making--but rather constantly to publicize Palestinian claims of victimization.

Then-Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett informed the House of Commons that she'd raised the kidnapping with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. "I think it is particularly sad ... when someone who has been a long-standing friend of the people of Palestine suffers in this way, and it does nothing to help," (Associated Press, March 20).

It is one thing for a worried father to curry favor with his son's kidnappers by describing him as sympathetic to their cause. It's another when the foreign secretary assumes that a journalist, in particular a reporter for the government-subsidized BBC, should be "a long-standing friend" of one party to a conflict he is covering.

Beckett was not alone. Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian Authority information minister until Hamas's June offensive, called for "severe measures" against Johnston's kidnappers. He explained that "we are opposed to the kidnapping of foreign journalists who serve the Palestinian cause" (The Jerusalem Post, March 18). In Barghouti's remark, one heard the echo of Yasir Arafat's description of the Western press in Beirut in the 1970s as his "best battalion."

Johnston, who also had reported from Afghanistan, himself said in a January segment titled "Abductions in Gaza" that ...

   ... so far, all the foreigners kidnapped [15 journalists and 17 aid
   workers] here have been freed quite quickly and unharmed. Often
   they have been used as bargaining chips, a way for a group of
   gunmen to get attention.... And the whole business of kidnapping
   goes very much against the local social grain. Palestinians are
   extremely hospitable people, and one of the dangers of being
   abducted here must be that you could get fed to death.

Perhaps that extreme hospitality explains why, during the first quarter of 2007 (which included Johnston's kidnapping), 34 Palestinian Arabs were killed either while attacking Israelis or during Israeli counter-terrorism, according to Israeli military figures, but 147 were killed by their brethren, occasionally after being kidnapped, by the count of a Palestinian organization called Al Mezan. During the May and June battles between Hamas and Fatah, a number of partisans were murdered after being kidnapped.

Why was Johnston the last Western journalist based in the chaotic Gaza Strip? Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens suggested it was because Johnston and his superiors at the British Broadcasting Corp. thought their pro-Palestinian sympathies would protect him.

BBC news executive, Fran Unsworth, called Stephens' column "scurrilous" and charged the Wall Street Journal with "lack of sympathy" and failure to question itself "over the appalling tragedy of Daniel Pearl," kidnapped and decapitated by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. …