‘Gagged by the Government’: should Alan Henning’s family have been allowed to speak out?

Cry for help: could a publicity campaign have saved Alan Henning?

What could be worse than having your loved one kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic terrorists? Not much, clearly. But for the family of the murdered aid worker Alan Henning, one thing has made their pain even greater than it might be. It’s the belief that had they spoken out about his plight earlier, he might have been spared.

That’s the feeling now tormenting Alan’s brother, Reg, who has said the family were “gagged by the Government” and prevented from publicising Alan’s plight from the moment he was kidnapped last December. The Foreign Office, as per their standard procedure, feared that doing so would raise his value as a hostage and make it harder to get him back. But as Reg Henning puts it: “If we made more noise, perhaps people down in London might have stood up and taken notice.”

Certainly, “more noise” might have made the mandarins take notice, even if what else they could have done is another question. More to the point, though, is whether the people who were holding Mr Henning might have taken notice. After all, the Salford cabbie had gone to Syria as an aid worker, in tandem with Muslims whom he knew through his work. It was not hard to paint him in a charitable light: an ordinary working man, moved by the plight of suffering people in Syria’s war to head to a danger zone with his Muslim friends.

The problem was that because the Foreign Office believed that silence was the best option, it was only when Isil themselves paraded Mr Henning on video that the publicity campaign to save him finally went ahead. And by then, it was too late. A knife was already being held at Mr Henning’s throat, and Isil were being bombed by the Americans. The stakes were already far higher, and the humanitarian card that could be played on his behalf was no longer the trump it might have been. In other words, had the Hennings ignored the FCO’s advice to keep quiet in the first place, he might now be back home with them in Salford.

The yellow ribbon campaign to free Alan Henning came too late to save him

I’m sure many people will no doubt have sympathy with Reg Henning’s point, and not just because it leads to a scenario in which his brother ends up safe and well. His use of the phrase “people down in London” is perhaps telling. It’s surely very difficult, when ones’ relatives are in danger, to be told by some distant functionary in the Foreign Office that the best course of action is to keep quiet, thank you, and let HMG get on with its job. For it would require the patience of a saint – and a slightly naive one at that – for a family not to reason that one benefit of keeping quiet is that it allows HMG’s mandarins not to have to pull their fingers out too much.

I should know. My own family entertained such thoughts themselves when I was kidnapped while on assignment for the Telegraph in Somalia, fretting in darker moments that both the Foreign Office and my employers had secretly written me off already. It sounds like a conspiracy from a bad airport thriller novel. But when your loved one has been kidnapped, you feel like you’ve been thrust into a bad airport thriller novel already. Conspiracy theories come with the turf.

But having been through this with my own family – and having interviewed other hostages’ families since – I should also mention some of the advantages of a news  blackout (which my case itself was subject to). The first is to point out that blackout requests generally come not from the government per se, but from the hostage negotiation teams charged with establishing dialogue with the kidnappers. They like them for several operational reasons.

The best-known one is the obvious one: that a huge publicity campaign to free a hostage can backfire by convincing the kidnappers that they have a very high value prize, who should not be lightly released. But another reason is that in nearly every hostage case, the more publicity there is, the more the negotiators find themselves being approached by various dodgy “middlemen” claiming to have traction with the kidnappers, and offering to get the hostage released if only they are paid a fat “consultancy” fee.

Bear in mind that in countries like Syria and Somalia, hostages are potentially worth a fortune, and all kinds of people will seek a piece of the action. There were several people like this in my own case – despite the blackout – and each one had to be listened and heard out on the off-chance that they could actually be of help. Mostly, though, it was just a waste of precious time, and so the fewer such people come forward, the better.

Likewise, more publicity there is, the more chance that other armed groups on the ground may try to get in on the act, insisting that they too get a cut of the ransom or some other concession. The whole thing can end up in chaos, with no clear channels of communication, and no clear idea of whom, if anyone, a deal can be struck with.

From a professional negotiator’s point of view, then, publicity campaigns are seldom helpful. They add yet another variable into a situation that is already tough enough as it is. But that does then mean having to rely on HMG, who, as far as I can tell, do seem to get slightly mixed ratings in this department.

Some hostages’ families I have met seem to have nothing but praise for them. They speak of how family liaison officers becoming lifelong friends, or how GCHQ allocated teams of eavesdropping staff to listen out round the clock for mobile phone signals that might help track down their loved ones.

Equally, others claim to have found the Foreign Office less than helpful, such as Stephen Collett, whose sister Rachel Chandler was kidnapped in Somalia. Not only did he find them distinctly frosty at times, they also refused to let him use the diplomat baggage system to ship out to Kenya the £500,000 ransom he paid to buy her freedom.

The FCO’s explanation was that it wasn’t their policy to have anything to do with “facilitating ransoms”. But for Stephen, the sole effect of that lofty stance was to force him to hire two £6,000-a-time ex-SAS men to guard the money, and to then fret that it would be “confiscated” by some corrupt customs official at Nairobi airport.

At the end of the day, though, the sad fact is that in many hostage cases, publicity campaigns only ever stand a very limited chance of making a difference anyway. For them to work, it requires a certain reasonable-mindedness on the part of the kidnappers or those around them. The people it does help, though, are the family of the missing person, simply by allowing them to feel they are at least doing something, rather than nothing. Tragically, Alan Henning’s relatives have been denied even that small consolation.

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