Editor of BBC World News Jon Williams has revealed that he visited missing BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza two months ago to thank him for work done before the reporter returned home to review his job with the World Service – which he was due to finish at the end of April.
Williams said: "Alan always knew what the risks were; he'd covered some of our most difficult beats in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan with the Taliban, and had witnessed at first hand Gaza's descent into chaos. But Alan stayed when everyone else left because he believed the story of the people of Gaza needed to be told. It's difficult to imagine anyone better equipped to do that job."
Speaking at the National Union of Journalists Annual Delegate meeting in Birmingham, Williams said: "It's the people of Gaza who suffer when journalists like Alan are taken hostage. It's vital for them and for our audiences that journalists are able to report freely without fear of harassment or intimidation."
On Johnston himself, Williams added: "Alan is private, quiet, dedicated, and with a steely determination someone who has shown real courage over the past three years, and I've no doubt he's shown real courage over the past four weeks. If you saw his father reading his letter to Alan on Thursday then you'll know where he gets it from."
Williams was speaking the day before a report, still unsubstantiated as Press Gazette went to press, that Johnston had been killed.BBC director of news Helen Boaden spoke of the BBC's concern for "our boy" Johnston at a press conference with his parents Graham and Margaret and sister Katriona last Thursday.
Boaden said that the BBC had already appointed a reporter to cover Gaza but she added: "Clearly in light of this [Johnston's abduction] we would have to review having someone permanently in Gaza. We would not abandon it as an office but we would be likely to have someone who moves between Kabul and Gaza."
At the time of his disappearance from Gaza City on March 12 Johnston was the only Western reporter permanently based in Gaza.
On Monday more than 1,000 people attended rallies at BBC offices as 30,000people globally signed a petition for his release.
At Television Centre in London, BBC director general Mark Thompson addressed around 500 staff "demanding urgent clarification from the Foreign Office and the Palestinian Authority"
on the claim by the Brigades of Tawheed and Jihad that it had killed Johnston.