Hanif Kureishi has accused the BBC of censorship for deciding not to broadcast the scheduled reading of his short story Weddings and Beheadings following unconfirmed reports that BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped in Gaza five weeks ago, has been killed by his captors or those to whom his original captors sold him (the "Tawhid and Jihad Brigades" claimed responsibility). The BBC says it has postponed, and not censored, the story because it is about the beheading of a hostage. The first-person narrator of Kureishi's story is an aspiring filmmaker who, in his unnamed "war-broken city", is regularly hired to film beheadings. "The cameras are good quality, they're taken from foreign journalists..." A mate in the same line of filming has business cards inscribed WEDDINGS AND BEHEADINGS. The nervous narrator constantly resorts to such glib humour to get him through his gruesome assignments.
The story was due to have been read this week as one of the daily readings at 3.30pm on BBC Radio Four of the five stories shortlisted for the £15,000 National Short Story Prize. The prize is supported by Radio Four and Prospect magazine with administrative support from Booktrust and Scottish Booktrust. In the Sunday Times on April 15 Prospect's associate editor Alex Linklater predicted that the BBC might alter its plan to broadcast the story, saying: "As with all fiction where there are close parallels to real news, it's a question of sensitivity. The sensitivity may be increased by the fact that British hostages in addition to Iraqis and others have had their murders by insurgents filmed." Surely Kureishi should also have directed his ire against Prospect, for seemingly supporting the BBC decision.
In his diatribe against the BBC, reported in today's Guardian, an "angry" Kureishi describes the decision as the result of "stupid thinking" by BBC executives. "It seems to me that he would be against censorship" he says of Johnston. "There are journalists and newspapers in peril all the time around the world. We support them by supporting freedom of speech rather than by censoring ourselves." In his notably solipsisitc outburst, Kureishi expresses not one word of sympathy for Johnston and what Johnston's family and friends are going through, nor any understanding of the BBC's predicament. It might have been better if he'd held his peace on this occasion.