NS Internet column

Here's a trivia question: who were the last three hostages to be rescued by Terry Waite before he was himself taken prisoner? My friend Brian Harris  needed to know for an exhibition of his photographs in Brixton. He rang urgently. The Private View was due to start in three hours and he had just spent an hour in futile search on the Internet for their names. He had one picture of the three with Terry Waite, taken in 1986 as soon as the hostages were freed: at the time they were so famous that he did not bother to name them on the print. Now they are just four tired men with beards, and only a specialist would know all their names. I was the religious affairs correspondent of the Independent when this happened, but I had forgotten. So had the current press office at Lambeth Palace. I seem to have only one biography of Robert Runcie in the house; it is extremely boring and doesn't mention hostages at all.

This is the kind of thing that an expert is meant to be good at. I plugged "Waite three hostages" into Google, the most fashionable search engine of the day, and got back 364 results; after checking the top thirty I gave up. They were all various versions of a story in which Waite and Terry Anderson, who had been hostage with him, had appealed, after their release, for the safety of three missionaries kidnapped in Colombia. There is not yet a search engine clever enough to understand a search like "Waite and three hostages (he's not one of them)". I thought that one of the hostages was named Jenko, and another, perhaps, Weir. So I tried Waite and Jenko, feeling very pleased with myself. This brought back only one hit, which should have answered my question. Instead it told me that Boe Waite of the USA is 887 in the latest world professional snowboarders' ranking lists, and Tomas Jenko of Slovenia is 835.

One answer would have been to go through the FT profile service, as used by newspapers. But that is very hard to access from the Internet. Compuserve used to have a gateway, but it had disappeared the last time I looked. The FTs own web site only goes back three years, and though it is not really expensive at $1.50 an article retrieved, all it told me was that "Waite and hostages" has become a trope to be used in almost any circumstances. One web page I turned up was an impassioned plea for the rights of the mentally ill: "We are all hostages"; another was an article by Jim White, the football writer and Manchester United supporter, mocking the plight of Paul Ince, whom Liverpool have sacked. Impressive though the hatred between Liverpool and Manchester may be, it's still some distance form the Lebanese civil war.

"Jenko" alone turned up a lot of information about Slovenian genealogy. At around this point, after half an hour's searching, I was beginning to notice an unexpected pattern. None of the results were useful, and most were dementedly off-beam. But that has been true for as long a search engines have existed. What was new was that most of the stuff I found, was, so far as I could tell, reliable. The information out there was far less of a compendium of amateur opinion than it would have been even a year ago. The Internet today is full of professional misinformation, and this is real progress. I rang Brian and confessed failure. He said that he had in the meantime rang Lambeth Palace. They didn't know the name of the hostages either.

So I went back to the screen and tried "Jenko and Beirut" this turned up a piece from the Presbyterian News Service of the USA describing a visit that Ben Weir so that was his name had paid to the Lebanon last year, 13 years after his release. But it mentioned five people he had been held with, and not one he had been freed with. In fact, so far as I could tell form the story, he had been freed on his own.

It looked like a total disaster for the Internet as a search engine, and the private view would open any moment, so I finally gave up and cheated. I rang Terry Waite himself. He couldn't remember who the hostages  were either. "I brought out about eighteen people, you know, in those years" he said. Then he rang Brian to help him out.

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