John McCarthy, the journalist and former hostage, gave the first Nick Lewis Memorial Lecture at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, on Tuesday, 18 November.
John McCarthy’s face was so familiar to me when I saw him speak at Cardiff University this week that I felt I knew him. Pictures of him were all over the walls of the Worldwide Television News agency building in London where I started work in 1990 as a researcher for a Japanese news station based there.
McCarthy had been the WTN bureau chief in Beirut when he was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in 1986 and was by then entering his fifth year as a hostage. I remember vividly the news of his release nearly a year later – the scenes of jubilation in our building, the yellow ribbons and the welcome home cards that arrived, despite the scant address: “John McCarthy, London”.
Unlike their current day counterparts, whose captivity is shrouded in secrecy, the names of John McCarthy and his fellow British hostages, Brian Keenan and Terry Waite, were engraved in the public consciousness thanks to tireless campaigning for his release by his girlfriend at the time, who set up The Friends of John McCarthy.
What struck me during his talk was his apparent lack of bitterness towards his captors after the 1,943 days he was held, often chained to a radiator, and the beatings he endured.
Of the 40 or so guards that had been put in charge of the Western hostages over the years only a few had been brutal and had relished the control they exerted. When a fellow American captive, Terry Anderson, had been sick, the guards on duty had left him unchained so that he could go to what could be described as a toilet at the end of their cell. But when one of the more brutal guards had come along he had chained him up again.
It was this particular guard that had asked McCarthy to help him with his English. McCarthy used the opportunity to engage with his captor on the one hand and entertain his fellow hostages on the other.
“How you say this?” the guard asked McCarthy, picking up his drinking cup.
“Cup”, he replied.
And pulling out a pen from his jacket, the guard asked, “And how you say this?”
“Cup”, said McCarthy again.
“So this is ‘cup’ and this is ‘cup’?”, asked the guard, after which he shook his head and never asked for help again.
In those dark days of not knowing why they’d been captured, why they were being held and when or if they would ever be released he said it was not only humour that had kept them going. It was also the responsibility they felt for each others’ well-being like giving each other emotional space to recover when they were depressed. He recalled a period that he had blocked out for years following his release – how Keenan and Anderson had gently cajoled him out of a deep depression by talking nonsense to each other, testing his responses. One day, McCarthy picked them up on it: “What on earth are you two on about?” he asked. “You’re back”, they said, signalling his return from a dark place.
Humanity featured prominently in his talk – what tests it and what brings it out. He felt that the majority of their guards showed their humanity in small gestures, like allowing Anderson to stay chain-free during his illness. McCarthy remembered comparing his privileged, middle-class upbringing to the lives that these men had led, especially the younger ones, who would only have known life dominated by a horrific civil war.
I wondered whether the hostages being kept together was a measure of their captors’ humanity or was it was just easier for security. I suspect it was the latter – but we’ll never know.
At times, McCarthy’s measured middle-class, public school accent belied the horrors that he recounted. And I doubt we heard the worst of it. There were reports in the years after his release that he, of all the hostages, had been the most traumatised by his experience. It was rumoured that he had found it most difficult to come to terms with life after captivity despite writing his memoir with girlfriend, Jill Morrell, Some Other Rainbow, in the year after his release. Much as the British public wanted a fairy-tale ending, his relationship with Morrell did not survive.
At the start of the talk, the organisers showed us a short video summarising his capture and release. The video had apparently been streamed from an agency website because a slide flashed up saying: “To book John, please contact….”.
John McCarthy is a survivor as well as a writer and broadcaster. He is also an engaging speaker and lecturer, brave enough to talk about a very dark period in his life. Talking about it may well have helped him come to terms with an unbelievably gruelling experience. As listeners, we can only be humbled by his story.
His talk was particularly poignant with news of the beheading of another Western hostage hitting the headlines less than a week ago. The lack of hope for these captives is devastating for their families who fear they will never get to celebrate a safe return with yellow ribbons.