Robert Fisk’s reputation precedes him. For the past 30 years, he has unerringly sought out those places in which civil strife is most deep-seated, from Ireland to Lebanon and Iraq. His reporting has made him ‘probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain’ – and maybe the least likely to allow complacency in that country’s government to go unmentioned.
In 1988, he left The Times after an article of his about a British attack on an Iranian plane was bowlderised. Later, he moved to a more congenial position at The Independent, but his happier professional situation has not dulled his insight. Though Osama bin Laden praised Fisk’s reporting as ‘neutral’ after three interviews with him, he has not always been so well-received abroad or at home. Western conservatives have immortalised him in the slang word ‘fisking’ – definition: ‘savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the Internet’ – though Fisk himself downplays the word and describes its originator as ‘some crackpot.’
The preceding biography would seem to suggest a rather fractious left-wing firebrand, but Fisk does not fit such a stereotype. When I went to meet him, I was prepared to see my political counterarguments thoroughly shredded. However, I soon found that Fisk’s convictions are neither untempered by humour nor held without serious scrutiny.
Though his detractors denounce him as a pundit masquerading as a journalist, he might be better described as a journalist-historian, for whom recent events in the Middle East are only the latest chapter in a continuing saga of mismanagement and injustice.
As a rookie journalist in Newcastle, Fisk ‘used to read history books on Sunday afternoons,’ to gain a sense of perspective. He compares the huge American bases in Iraq to crusader castles. As for the argument that withdrawal from Iraq will lead to civil war, he notes scornfully that David Lloyd George had stood up in Parliament in 1920 and said exactly the same thing about the same country, as well as claiming that the British came to it ‘not as conquerors but as liberators.’ Glancing back over three failed American wars, he predicts: ‘Americans must leave Iraq, they will leave Iraq, they can’t leave Iraq. That is the equation that turns sand into blood.’
Furthermore, in defiance of the stereotype of the liberal as the man who sees the past as another, unenlightened country, Fisk’s articles and speeches are suffused with a deep respect for history. He says of politics today: ‘Where are the Roosevelts? Where are the Churchills? In the old days,’ he observes, ‘people had an extraordinary ability to plan ahead’ – but no one bothered to draw up a detailed plan for the reconstruction of Iraq.
Instead, Fisk believes that the Bush administration went into Iraq with only the ‘visceral need of empire to expand’ and the dictum that ‘we can go to Baghdad, so we will go to Baghdad.’ Fisk is equally perceptive in diagnosing the failures of the left. ‘In America,’ he remarks, ‘the academic left will not talk to the poor. They talk about how they can get their message out to, and network with, other academics…what they don’t do is go down to the person at the truck shop serving coffee, who’ll see a chance for better pay and education and join the Marines.’
Fisk, in contrast, is not afraid to talk to those whom academics reject. One of his key insights into the Iraq war is drawn from a letter from a veteran with a son in the military who mentions that a changed US Army Code now highlights adventure and aggression instead of service to one’s country.
Fisk also possesses an old-fashioned sense of the power of language. In a stance very similar to George Orwell’s in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language,’ he can locate behind most euphemisms and imprecisions an act of moral blindness which can ‘semantically destroy the reality,’ and which begins ‘in the brains of journalists.’ Journalists, with their ‘osmotic, parasitic’ reliance on government sources, fear being branded as ‘unpatriotic, potentially subversive.’ Thus journalists begin to refer to occupied territories as ‘disputed’ and to preface quotations unquestioningly with the phrase ‘US officials say…’ Nonetheless, the readers are not always fooled.
‘Most people in most places are quite bright…2,000 people come to hear me in LA, not because they want to hear from Bob, but because they know they’re not getting the full story.’
However, Fisk’s long years of experience can be a fault as well as a virtue. The natural stance of the historian is chronic pessimism, and, unlike the politician, he is not required to offer solutions. He has never voted in an election, and when asked how he would advise the next generation of Western leaders, he concludes: ‘I see no hope anywhere in the Middle East. It’s a deeply depressing situation. My crystal ball is broken.’
Furthermore, Fisk’s worst offences against truth and ethics tend to spring from his occasional inability to break free from history, to concede that the issues and moral equations of the past are not necessarily those of the present: namely, those instances in which a sense of postcolonial guilt overwhelms rational argument. Fisk sums up Iraq as ‘the battle against the occupation forces by the insurgency,’ as though there were only one unified insurgency and the suffering citizens of Iraq were those of colonial India or Africa.
However, most journalists would agree that suffering alone does not give the victim a carte blanche for a violent response. Fisk himself might have learned that lesson when he was attacked in a fit of anti-Western sentiment by a group of Afghan refugees.
Instead, Fisk wrote forgivingly of his assailants that their ‘brutality was entirely the product of others’ and that ‘The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us – by B-52s, not by them…If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.’ To state that the cruelty of these Afghans – or of the 9/11 terrorists – was entirely the product of Western foreign policy is an act of startling condescension: why should the Afghans lack the moral insight to distinguish between those politicians and soldiers actually responsible for bombing them and a random Englishman accidentally caught in the crossfire?
Holding all innocent individuals of one race accountable for the sins of the few is no more attractive in Afghans than in Western racists. Fisk’s desire to attribute nefarious schemes to former colonial powers also leads him to endorse some embarrassing conspiracy theories, as though he would like to believe America and Israel not only wickeder but smarter than they are. In truth, most of the conservatives I have spoken to claim that they would have liked nothing better than to have left Iraq the day after the Baathists fell. They are guilty of political naiveté and arrogance, perhaps; but they are not nineteenth-century imperialists.
After thirty years in the Middle East, however, Robert Fisk can be forgiven for letting his anger come to the fore. The precise political conclusions that he pushes, after all, could never outweigh the invaluable service that he has rendered to the casual British reader: reminding them that the printed word is always a distortion of reality, that journalists have vested interests too, and that the phrase ‘officials say’ is not necessarily a guarantee of truth, or even an attempt at it.