Robert Fisk (1946-2020): Historian of the Present

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His fearless reporting of the struggle from Ireland to Afghanistan was defined as ‘speaking truth to power’. Jack Robertson pays tribute to a journalist who changed the mind of a generation.

R obert Fisk, who died of a stroke at the end of October in his adopted home of Dublin, was one of the most outstanding journalists of our times. What marked him out from so many of his contemporaries was that he refused to comply with the mainstream notion that the role of a journalist was to provide a ‘balanced view’. Calling this 50-50 journalism, Fisk’s attitude was that a reporter should be neutral and unbiased — but on the side of those who suffer, to monitor power and not succumb to it. During a career which spanned fifty years, Fisk sent frontline dispatches from war zones throughout the Middle East and from the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, he reported on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was the only Western journalist to interview Bin Laden (three times before 9-11), sent dispatches from inside Baghdad during the Bush/Blair ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq and from the ongoing war in Syria. He received countless honorary degrees and innumerable awards for his journalism which included winning the prestigious Press Awards Foreign Reporter of the Year — seven times. Fisk’s career as a foreign correspondent took off when he was offered a posting in Beirut in 1976 — the city which would become his home for the next 30 years.
When asked if there had been a single event ‘one war, one incident, one village destroyed’ where he had come to a new level of understanding of war, he immediately said: ‘Oh yes…the massacre at Sabra-Shatila, from September 16-18, 1982, when Israel’s Phalangist Christian Lebanese allies were sent into a camp and massacred up to 1,700 Palestinians’. When Fisk went inside the camp with an American colleague, they were forced to take refuge in the back yard of a house, fearing that they might be shot as witnesses: ‘I looked down out of the left-hand side of my eye and I saw this young woman lying on her back with her head up towards the sun, the hands spread out, with a halo of clothes pegs around her head. She’d been putting up the washing. And from behind her back was running this ant’s track of blood across the yard. She’d just been murdered’.
After this, Fisk said, he wrote with a passion and anger he’d never felt before. Fisk’s first experience of a war zone was in Britain. He was sent by The Times, in the early 1970s — when in his early twenties — to cover ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. He was struck by how run-down Belfast was — but with British troops, armoured vehicles, concrete blocks and barbed wire on every corner. This was where Fisk first encountered the shocking brutality of the British Army and the deception habitually dispensed by the military everywhere. In this instance, the army had an entire department devoted to psychological warfare, or PSYOPS, whose sole purpose was to feed misinformation to journalists. Fisk was one of the very few who refused to go along with this. He was among the first journalists to expose the activities of British Government ‘dirty tricks’ operations and to draw attention to the collusion between the NI Police Force, loyalist para-military groups and the Security Services.
His first major scoop exposed the activities of an armed loyalist militia called Tara, described in an Army report as ‘well-armed’, organised into platoons and recruited almost exclusively from members of the Orange Order. Its leader, William McGrath, was a long-time friend and associate of the DUP leader, Ian Paisley — and worked as an agent for MI5. Fisk showed was that McGrath was also involved with the paedophile network operating at the Kincora Boys Home in Belfast. McGrath had been a former ‘father’ at the home but because he was an intelligence asset, McGrath had virtual immunity from prosecution. He was eventually convicted of the sexual abuse of residents in 1981 but the person who had provided Fisk with the information — Colin Wallace — was hounded out of his post, fitted up on a false murder charge and spent six years in jail before being exonerated many years later at the Calcutt inquiry.
Robert Fisk’s experiences in Northern Ireland instilled in him an utter contempt for what he called the ‘parasitic-osmotic relationship’ between journalists working in the officially approved ‘pool’, or ‘embedded’ in war zones. All this does is directly connect supposedly honourable reporters with the nexus of power ‘that runs between the White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence’. He hated the deception of terms like ‘peace process’ — a form of words used ‘to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people’. Or ‘surgical strikes’, which is not what he witnessed on the road to Basra in 1991, when ‘I saw women, as well as soldiers and civilians, old men, torn apart by British bombs as well as American. And dogs were tearing them to pieces to eat, it was lunchtime in the desert’. Fisk left The Times, in 1988. By then, the editorial line had become increasingly pro-American and pro-Israeli after the paper had been acquired by Rupert Murdoch.
The final straw came when Fisk filed an exclusive report on the shooting down of an Iranian passenger airliner over the Gulf which American ‘sources’ had claimed must have been the work of a suicide bomber. Fisk proved that, in fact, it had been shot down by an American aircraft carrier, the USS Vincennes — but when his report appeared next day, all criticism of the Americans had been deleted, and all of his sources had been ignored. Fisk moved to The Independent where the editor, Simon Kelner, was supportive. Kelner knew that because Fisk was critical of the Israeli government, he would have to face down accusations of anti-Semitism. Kelner said that, ‘Being Jewish myself, I was often taken to task by the pro-Israel lobby for what they believed to be biased reporting…rival journalists, too, would sometimes be disparaging, arguing that he was a prejudiced witness. But that was the point, really’.
One of Fisk’s fellow war-correspondents at The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, recalled that he was particularly suited to Beirut ‘with its free and somewhat anarchic atmosphere, a place always on edge and with people — Lebanese, Palestinian, exiles of all sorts — who were born survivors... Robert had a natural sympathy for their sufferings and a rage against those who inflicted them’. Robert Fisk used to say that all you needed to be a good journalist was some facts, a reasonable grasp of English — and ‘rat-like cunning’. To Cockburn’s mind, Robert Fisk was more than a person who simply covered the news. His journalism, ‘for all its scoops and revelations — had such depth because he was, in many respects, a “historian of the present”. In the mainstream media, it became customary to describe Fisk as ‘controversial’, a man of ‘strong views’ — terms John Pilger has described as ‘weasel words’. In its obituary, the news outlet, MediaLens, wrote that: ‘In corporate media newspeak, controversial can actually be translated as ‘offensive to power’. It’s a term, they said: ‘intended as a scare word to warn readers that the labelled person is ‘dodgy’…The journalist is also signalling to his or her editors and other colleagues “I’m not one of them”!’. For a variety of reasons most other journalists kept Fisk at arm’s length.
This has been particularly evident in the last few years because of Fisk’s approach to the war in Syria and his insistence on what he described as ‘the fearful realities keeping the Assad regime in power’. What particularly upset opponents of the Assad regime was that Fisk questioned the official reasons given by Western powers to justify their intervention in Syria — the discovery of canisters of chlorine gas in the city of Douma, where over 40 civilians were killed after an air attack. In Britain, Theresa May condemned the Assad dictatorship for using gas against women and children to justify military intervention, egged on by the bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party.
Defending his position, Fisk wrote: ‘Institutional — and journalistic — memory is such that we should perhaps take a trip down memory lane to remind ourselves of the importance of the 2018 Douma attack. As Syrian government troops closed in on Islamist-held Douma in the early spring of last year — besieging several square miles of apartment blocks, slums and narrow streets on the eastern edge of Damascus — videos transmitted from the scene showed harrowing footage of civilians foaming at the mouth and apparently choking to death after inhaling gas. The Damascus government denied the claim. So did the Russians’. It turned out that a majority of the inspectors sent by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not believe that the chlorine canisters had been dropped by Syrian helicopters either — but that their views had been ignored. So, the way Fisk saw it, the US, Britain and France had launched bombing raids into Syria despite sufficient evidence of a gas attack being provided.
The notion that Fisk had come to this conclusion because he was a ‘useful idiot’ for the Assad regime, or an apologist for Putin, is utterly preposterous. Fisk made it absolutely clear that: ‘Just because the OPCW took the extraordinary decision to cover up some of its evidence in Douma does not mean that gas has not been used in Syria by the government or even by the Russians or by Isis and its fellow Islamists. Undoubtedly it has. All stand guilty of war crimes in the Syrian conflict’. The other reason for caution was: ‘We all remember how, after falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, we invaded Iraq on these false pretences and — within a few years — claimed that Iran was making weapons of mass destruction, and then threatened Iran with war, something we continue to the present day’.
His advice to any budding journalist was, first, that you’ve got to feel passion and, second, that you’ve got to read: ‘Read War & Peace. It’s an extraordinary book about the reality of war. I remember in Sarajevo being with a Russian soldier who was in the UN force, under fire with him, shells are falling around us, and we were discussing Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino and how it was exactly the same as what we were in now. You’ve got to read Anna Karenina about lost love and betrayal. You’ve got to read novels about the First World War, you’ve got to read World War I poetry. Be fascinated and always carry history books in your back pocket’.
Books by Robert Fisk include Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (1990) and The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005). Available from Bookmarks Bookshop, bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
Jack Robertson was editor of the Media Workers Against the War bulletin during the First Gulf War.