Alan Johnston plans return to World Service

Alan Johnston has spent the past four months “enjoying his freedom”, but expects to return to a post within BBC World Service in London in the New Year.

Johnston detailed the emotions he felt both as a captive and upon his release on 4 July after 114 days confinement in Gaza during a panel discussion about the issues arising out of journalists taken hostage at the News Xchange broadcasting conference in Berlin.

He was speaking after his first media interview on BBC Radio Four interview and ahead of a Panorama documentary about his ordeal that aired last night.

On suggestions that he might return to Gaza, Johnston said he’d “do anything” to sit at the beach cafes and talk politics with friends. But, he lightheartedly added that the idea of turning around and asking the BBC to do the same again was too much.

Johnston said he was lucky he hadn’t been tortured and only experienced “a small amount of violence”.

On three occasions he thought he would be killed, including the night he was finally taken to be handed over to Hamas. His kidnappers drove through three Hamas checkpoints in an increasingly fraught atmosphere.

“At one point I heard one [kidnapper] say the Arabic for ‘brain’ and that the hostage would get it if Hamas did not get back.”

On his captivity he said: “It was a huge psychological battle – an endless battle to keep my mind in the right place. It was not a battle I always won. There were many dark moments where I could have been driven to despair.”

Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering at the BBC revealed that the corporation had used Jahadi internet forums in an effort to negotiate with the kidnappers of Alan Johnston. She Johnston’s kidnappers, the organisation calling itself the Army of Islam, initiated direct negotiation and that a daily conversation with them ensued.

Unsworth also revealed that although his kidnappers had no asked for any ransom money, they did demand cash to feed Johnston, although the corporation was unsure if he was alive at this point. The corporation was also in daily contact with the foreign office over his captivity.

Unsworth said that the BBC had a blueprint in place should kidnapping happen to any of its journalists but the support for Johnston from BBC staff, Palestinian journalists and the will from senior BBC staff to do everything it could for staff, meant the campaign became global in reach.

“There is no way we could have played a low key campaign even if we wanted to,” said Unsworth. She said their approach had been vindicated as Johnston, who had been given a radio by his captors, was hearing of global efforts to ensure his release.

The session was hosted by former BBC correspondent Anita McNaught, whose husband Olaf Wiig was one of two Fox News journalists kidnapped in Gaza in 2006.

McNaught, who was on Gaza reporting herself when Johnston was kidnapped on 12 March, revealed that he give her a lift that Monday morning and that his last words to her were: “Don’t get kidnapped”.

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