Writers come to Hanif Kureishi’s defence as BBC pulls short story

The writers’ organisation English PEN is concerned by the BBC’s decision to postpone the Radio 4 broadcast of Hanif Kureishi’s short story, ‘Weddings and Beheadings’, a dramatic monologue about an Iraqi cameraman coerced into filming the executions of western captives. The story is one of five nominations for the National Short Story prize due to be broadcast this week.


The BBC has said ‘we do not now feel that it would be right to broadcast at the moment’ following unconfirmed reports that kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston has been killed by a jihadist group.


Writers including Monica Ali have come to Kureishi’s defence, arguing that the BBC’s response is misguided. English PEN is challenging the BBC to explain how the decision to postpone this broadcast in any way solves the predicament facing Alan Johnston and other courageous journalists working in troubled zones. English PEN also asks for reassurance that the story will be broadcast in its entirety. If necessary, English PEN will ask the new BBC Trust, which represents licence payers’ interests, to investigate this decision.


Hanif Kureishi said: ‘The abduction of Alan Johnston in Gaza is cruel and terrifying. However, we don’t honour persecuted journalists and writers around the world by increasing censorship. We maintain our freedoms by continuing to speak and write about contemporary events. This craven act of censorship by the BBC brings disgrace on this organisation. I don’t believe it is something that Alan Johnston would want.’


Philip Pullman, best-selling author of His Dark Materials, said: ‘Despite the fact that I can understand the BBC’s necessary worry about Alan Johnston, this is the wrong response to a difficult situation. The BBC should have the courage to broadcast Kureishi’s piece and to defend it stoutly, not only for its merits as a work of literature (and it is an excellent story) but as an example of the insight and understanding that can only come from unfettered freedom of expression. There will always be reasons to withhold this or that piece because of the sensitivities of the moment; there will always be the fear of provoking retaliation, or providing an excuse for further violence. But such fears should be resisted. These are bad times, and we need people who can tell the truth about them. We need both Alan Johnston’s reporting and Hanif Kureishi’s fiction.’


Monica Ali, novelist and judge of the National Short Story Prize, said: ‘Kureishi’s story is a serious and powerful work which fully deserves its place on the shortlist and which deserves equal treatment by the BBC with the other shortlisted stories. I would like a clear commitment from the BBC saying when “Weddings and Beheadings” will be broadcast.’


Lisa Appignanesi, Deputy President of English PEN, said:  ‘Hanif Kureishi’s work has always been prescient. In My Son the Fanatic, he forewarned us of a prevalent mood in Britain to which politicians had been blind. In this story, he is tapping into the way filmed images of torture and killings circulate the globe to become part of the weaponry of war. To censor this kind of imaginative writing which alerts us to the deeper state of our world, runs counter to what underpins our most important values.’


Linda Grant, Orange-Prize-winning novelist, said: ‘There are few if any situations in which artistic censorship is permissible. This isn’t one of them.’


Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said: ‘We all sympathise deeply with Alan Johnston’s friends, family and colleagues as they go through this terrible ordeal. In 2006 alone PEN monitored more than one thousand writers whose freedom of expression was constrained by governments, corporations and non-state actors such as those who are now threatening to scare journalists out of Gaza. However, we fear that the BBC’s response is the wrong one. The BBC is a public service broadcaster. They cannot pull sensitive material simply because it is too close to home. They were rightly proud to show Jerry Springer the Opera in the face of religious sensitivities. Is there a difference between the feelings of Christian evangelists and those of BBC staff and families?’


Contact: Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, on 07889 071711.


Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/news/_1630

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