In today's Wall Street Journal online, Bret Stephens, a member of the Journal's editorial board and former chief editor of the Jerusalem Post, reflects on his personal experiences with kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnson. Asking why the BBC felt secure in keeping Mr. Johnson in Gaza, when kidnapping of foreign journalists had become increasingly frequent, Stephens notes:
Yet the BBC also seemed to operate in the Palestinian Authority with a sense of political impunity. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti described Mr. Johnston as someone who "has done a lot for our cause"--not the sort of endorsement one imagines the BBC welcoming from an equivalent figure on the Israeli side. Other BBC correspondents were notorious for making their politics known to their viewers: Barbara Plett confessed to breaking into tears when Arafat was airlifted to a Parisian hospital in October 2004; Orla Guerin treated Israel's capture of a living, wired teenage suicide bomber that March as nothing more than a PR stunt--"a picture that Israel wants the world to see."
Though doubtlessly sincere, these views also conferred institutional advantages for the BBC in terms of access and protection, one reason why the broadcaster might have felt relatively comfortable posting Mr. Johnston in a place no other news agency dared to go.
By contrast, reporters who displeased Palestinian authorities could be made to pay a price. In one notorious case in October 2000, Italian reporter Riccardo Cristiano of RAI published a letter in a Palestinian newspaper insisting he had not been the one who had broadcast images of two Israeli soldiers being lynched in Ramallah. "We respect the journalistic regulations of the Palestinian Authority," he wrote, blaming rival Mediaset for the transgression. I had a similar experience when I quoted a Palestinian journalist describing as "riff-raff" those of his neighbors celebrating the attacks of Sept. 11. Within a day, the journalist was chided and threatened by Palestinian officials for having spoken to me. They were keeping close tabs.
Still, whatever the benefits of staying on the right side of the Palestinian powers-that-be, they have begun to wane. For years, the BBC had invariably covered Palestinian affairs within the context of Israel's occupation--the core truth from which all manifestations of conflict supposedly derived. Developments within Gaza following Israel's withdrawal showed the hollowness of that analysis. Domestic Palestinian politics, it turned out, were shot through with their own discontents, contradictions and divisions, not just between Hamas and Fatah but between scores of clans, gangs, factions and personalities. Opposition to Israel helped in some ways to mute this reality, but it could not suppress it.
Stephens' account mirrors this May 7 post in The Hedgehog Blog.
The Kosher Hedgehog is leaving off blogging tomorrow and Wednesday in observance of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Lowell, the Hedgehog, will presumably hold down the fort with continuing coverage of the Immigration Bill debate and the ancillary McCain-Romney confrontation.