Foreign Correspondent: One man’s crazy vocation

Shaun Carney – The Melbourne Age

Copyright The Melbourne Age, 1 Oct 05
When you shake hands with Robert Fisk, it is difficult not to think of
Osama bin Laden. After all, Fisk has met bin Laden three times, the last
time eight years ago, in Afghanistan. So this right hand of Fisk’s,
gripping mine as we were introduced in Melbourne yesterday, has also
gripped the hand of one of this century’s monsters.
Fisk’s meetings with the al-Qaeda leader were more than fleeting
encounters. Each time the two men met, Fisk interviewed bin Laden and at
each progressive meeting, the world’s most wanted man presented an
increasingly threatening and paranoid view of power relationships across
the planet. On September 11, 2001, Fisk knew enough about the terrorist
leader’s intentions to be able to conclude immediately that al-Qaeda was
behind the attacks on New York and Washington.
Fisk has covered the Middle East for 29 years, first for The Times and,
since 1989, for one of its rivals, The Independent. Before he was posted to
Beirut, he had been based in Belfast, covering the Troubles in Northern
Ireland. He has seen a lot of suffering and a lot of violence. With his
colleague Patrick Cockburn, Fisk covers the occupation of Iraq for his
newspaper. Later this year he will return to Baghdad, where he will eschew
what he refers to as “hotel journalism” and its reliance on official
statements and sources, and go into the streets and shops and write stories
about ordinary Iraqis.
But Fisk’s journalism is of a certain style. His highly personalised
reporting and commentary has made him a favourite target of bloggers and
conservative columnists. Depending on who is attacking him, Fisk is
variously anti-Western, pro-Palestinian, pro-Taliban, pro-Saddam. When he
was beaten up by a group of enraged Afghan refugees in Pakistan in late
2001 and subsequently wrote that he could understand the anger that had led
to assault, he was ridiculed by some in the media and on the internet.
Actor John Malkovich once said that he would like to shoot Fisk.
Yesterday afternoon, at a city restaurant by the Yarra, it was hard to
consider that this 59-year-old with the thinning mop of white hair, glasses
perched on his nose, slightly ruddy face, pressed check cotton shirt and
neat southern English vowels was a hate figure for so many.
Fisk had arrived in Australia in the early hours to give a series of talks
and also to promote his new book, a massive tome 29 years in the making
called The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. In
it, Fisk attempts to gather up everything he has seen and learnt since
first arriving in Beirut.
Does he accept the suggestion that he is an advocate as a journalist? “I
think I do maintain an objective distance. I mean, I go to a place, I see a
massacre and I have a pretty good idea who did it and I say so. If you’re
covering the slave trade in the 18th century, do you give equal time to the
slave ship captain or more time to the slaves? If you’re present at the
liberation of a concentration camp, do you give equal time to the SS
guards?
“I think there are moral issues when you’re reporting people’s deaths. I
think we journalists can afford to be angry. You know, we’re not
mouthpieces for government, or we shouldn’t be. It seems to me that if
you’re going to be covering a story like Iraq, which is a massive
historical tragedy, especially for the Iraqis, you’ve got to tell it like
it is.
“I’ve got the great advantage of news reporting. I go to bus bombings in
Iraq. I’m outraged at what I see. Morally, if you go and see some terrible
crime against humanity — and I call September 11, 2001, an international
crime against humanity — if you’re just there and you’re a car parking
attendant, say, and you see it, you’re going to be outraged. Have we got to
switch that off because we are journalists? I don’t think so.”
Another British-born journalist, Christopher Hitchens, has famously moved
away from the left as a consequence of September 11. Fisk says that he felt
himself being pulled in an unexpected direction on that day, but it was not
on the left-right continuum.
“On September 11, I was in a plane above the Atlantic going from Europe to
the States and I was on the satellite phone talking to London and they were
telling me ‘another plane’ and then ‘another plane’, so I went to the
purser and he brought the captain back. I turned to the stewardess and
said, ‘What do you think?’ and she said, ‘They must have wanted to kill
themselves. There must have been a lot of planning, a lot of dummy runs.’
“And the purser and I looked at each other: ‘Who’s on our plane?’ And we
walked around that plane together looking for people we didn’t like. And I
came up with 13 or 14 people, dusky Middle Eastern appearance and either
because they were reading the Koran or they had worry beads or they looked
at me suspiciously, I had become a racist in one minute. That’s what bin
Laden had done. And that’s what we were meant to do, if you know what I
mean.”
Fisk’s assessment of the situation in Iraq, and indeed of the world, as a
consequence of events in the Middle East in recent years, is avowedly
pessimistic. “The Americans must leave. And the Americans will leave. But
the Americans can’t leave. And that’s the equation that turns sand into
blood. Apart from the Kurds, I don’t find anyone who wants the Americans to
stay, whether it be the guy who serves me in the restaurant, or the guy who
cleans the pool or the guy who sells me pot plants for the balcony. Clearly
it’s a failure. No weapons of mass destruction. Democracy in the fire?
These people are not talking about their draft constitution, they are
trying to live with no services, trying to stay alive. Trying Saddam? This
is stories to frighten children, like us. It’s not important to Iraqis.
He’s way in the past.” That last comment will surely attract the attention
of his critics.
Fisk believes there is still a reasonable amount of good, fearless
journalism going on — he cites Seymour Hersh’s reports on the abuses at Abu
Ghraib prison as the best example — but is critical of the spread of what
he regards as American-style reporting that’s tentative, hedged and limited
by obedience to public officials.
He says The New York Times should change its name to “comma, officials say,
full stop”. “Newspapers have this thing where every three years, just when
(their correspondents) learned the language and got to know the place they
pull you out and send you somewhere else. You know, ‘They’ve been there so
long, they’re going to go native.’ Bullshit! I’m not going to go native
when it’s so dangerous. Give me a break.
“The interesting thing is that when I talk to my American colleagues, we
can have dinner and they’re very interesting but when I open the paper,
they’re not very interesting because they have suppressed everything from
their report that might suggest they have an opinion. What’s the point of
having a reporter as the nerve ending, thousands of miles from your paper
if you’re not going to put in what he thinks?”
So what does he see as the real purpose of journalism? “Look, I’ll tell you
what I think. I’m not trying to compare it with medicine, say, but
journalism should be more than earning your money for Pellegrino or working
in a bank or driving a bus. It should be a vocation. And if it’s not, what
are you doing it for?”
At this point of the interview, the restaurant staff dropped something at
the waiters’ station making a sharp, banging sound, and Fisk instinctively
jumps in his chair. I suggested that after only a few hours out of Beirut,
he is still being desensitised. “It does happen. You see a lot of people in
the world who think they’re going to live forever. They never contemplate
the thought that they are going to die. And I do, ’cause I have to all the
time.
“When you see an awful lot of people dead, you realise how easy it is to
die. When I see in the mortuary in Baghdad all these people, hands behind
their back, shot through the head, (when) I see my colleagues dead, of
course, it’s very easy to be killed.” He appears to genuinely shudder at
the thought. “Oooohhh.”
Fisk has no interest in the internet or email, saying that it takes too
much time. He takes pictures to go with his reports but none of that
digital stuff; he uses film. “I read all the time. Read books, read
newspapers, read documents, read readers’ letters. Go and see the same
contacts over and over again in every country you go to because they always
know something new, and generally never sleep. I am exhausted all the time.
“Sometimes I used to think that I was privileged to see so much history.
But I’m not sure it’s not a bit of a curse. Sometimes I see people in
London or Melbourne on trains or in the streets, living their lives in
safety with their families and I think ‘Hmm, not so bad’ but I chose my
profession and I’ve stayed with it. I have a nice home in Beirut and I go
out and go to concerts and films and restaurants.”
Just before the end of our lunch, our waitress, who had earlier told Fisk
that she was of Iranian descent, came by to see if everything was all
right.
“Do you still speak Farsi?” Fisk asks. “I do a little bit, not very well,”
she replies. Fisk then rolls out a sentence in Farsi. The young woman looks
at him quizzically. “You think I’m crazy?”
“No, no,” says Fisk and he repeated the sentence emphasising each word. A
look of recognition and a smile passes across the waitress’ face. “Oh,
right,” she says. “You’re a crazy journalist. Oh, OK, I see.” Pleased,
Robert Fisk grins as she walks away.
____________
MILESTONES — ROBERT FISK
1946
¦ Born Maidstone, England. PhD in political science from Trinity College,
Dublin.
1971-75
¦Belfast correspondent, The Times.
1976-88
¦Middle East correspondent, The Times.
1989-
¦ Middle East correspondent for The Independent, London, based in Beirut.
Has reported on the Israeli invasions of Lebanon, the Iranian Revolution,
the Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1990-91 Gulf
War, wars in Bosnia and Algeria, the NATO war with Yugoslavia and the
Palestinian uprisings.
AWARDS
¦ Wins the Amnesty International UK Press Awards in 1998 for his reports
from Algeria and in 2000 for his articles on NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
British International Journalist of the Year seven times.
BOOKS
¦ The Point of No Return — The Strike which Broke the British in Ulster
(1975)
¦ In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster, and the Price of Neutrality (1982)
¦ Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (1990)
¦ The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005)

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