Robert Fisk is one of the world’s best known journalists. He has been based in the Middle East as the UK Independent’s Middle East correspondent for nearly 30 years, during which he has reported on two U.S. wars in Iraq, two Afghan wars, the Israel/Palestine conflict, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
His new book, The Great War for Civilization (HarperCollins 2005), collects his reporting in a single, 1300-page source. A previous book, the 700 page Pity the Nation (4th edition Nation Books 2002) covered the Lebanese civil war.
Fisk is widely respected as a tireless reporter who strives to get firsthand information and who brings a sense of fairness, knowledge and history to his reporting. His work is based on a moral framework that views war as the “total failure of the human spirit” and journalists as having a duty to report from the perspective of the victims. I caught up with him in Toronto on November 24 to discuss his book and his views on journalism, war and even Canada.
Journalism and audiences
Podur: What accounts for the widespread readership you have achieved?
Fisk: The mainstream press — I hate that phrase, by the way — but the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post version of events doesn’t satisfy millions of people. So more and more people are trying to find a different and more accurate narrative of events in the Middle East. It is a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European “mainstream” newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times.
One of the reasons they read The Independent is that they can hear things they suspected to be the case, but published by a major paper. I’m not just running some internet site. This is a big operation with foreign correspondents. We are the British equivalent of what the Washington Post should be.
More than half my mail comes from the U.S. That doesn’t mean we don’t have British readers, it means we have an awful lot of American ones. So does the Guardian. So people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, the United States, Canada and many other places, are finding that a British journalist can write things they can’t read elsewhere but which must have considerable basis in truth because otherwise it wouldn’t appear in a major British paper.
I’m not some cranky left wing or right wing nut. We are a newspaper, that’s the point. That gives us an authority — most people are used to growing up with newspapers. The internet is a new thing, and it’s also unreliable.
Podur: Can you elaborate on why you hate the word phrase “mainstream media”?
Fisk: The phrase itself has become a cliché. But also in the university, especially in the U.S., you have a lot of people who call themselves “activists.” I’m not sure what that means, we’re all “activist” if we get up in the morning, I don’t know. We’re activists when we drink coffee. And “activists” spend hours and hours emailing each other to no purpose it seems to me, other than to say, “we’re losing.”
And they keep saying “mainstream” and “alternative.” The problem with that is that if I’m an ordinary person not in the university élite and I have the choice of a “mainstream” or an “alternative” newspaper, I’ll choose the “mainstream” one, won’t I, because it sounds better? Why not call your papers mainstream and the New York Times alternative?
Podur: You talk about journalism itself in your book. What do you think about words like objectivity, fairness, balance and neutrality in journalism?
Fisk: Look across daily newspapers in the United States and the coverage of the Middle East is lamentable and incomprehensible. There are semantics introduced to avoid controversy, mostly controversy from Israeli supporters. Colonies become “neighbourhoods,” occupied becomes “disputed,” a wall turns into a “fence” magically — I mean I hope my house isn’t made of fences.
For years now journalism has been cabined, cribbed, confined into a straightjacket of rules made in the 1940s in the original journalism schools in the U.S. These schools were introduced to train reporters for local newspapers. And if you’re dealing with a dispute about a highway, public or private property for an airport, it is essential to give protesters equal time with those who want to open a new airport. In a court case, it’s essential to give equal time to the defense and the prosecution.
If you’re dealing with local journalism of this kind — a public inquiry, a legal case, a battle over a new hospital — both sides have the right because this is not a moral issue. It is a moral issue insofar as the community deserves a good hospital and private homeowners deserve privacy without having to worry about government projects, but there isn’t a great burning passionate moral issue of human life, the taking of life, war.
In these circumstances it is correct to make sure everyone is equally represented. But in foreign affairs, in a part of the world that is cloaked in injustice, where thousands are torn apart and shredded by weapons every year, you’re entering a new kind of world. One in which the standards of neutrality used in a small-town court case fall by the wayside because they are no longer relevant.
When you see child victims piled up at the site of a massacre it’s not the time to give equal time to the murderers. If you were covering the slave trade in the 19th century, you wouldn’t give 50 per cent to the slave ship captain; you would focus on the slaves who died and on the survivors. If you are present at the liberation of an extermination camp in Nazi Germany, you don’t search out the SS for 50 per cent of the comment.
When I was close to a pizzeria bombing in Israeli West Jerusalem in 2001, in which 20 were killed, more than half children, I didn’t give half the time to Hamas. In 1982, in Sabra and Shatila, I wrote about the victims, the dead who I physically climbed over and the survivors. I did not give 50 per cent to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia who massacred them nor to the Israeli army who watched the murders and did nothing.
In the realm of warfare, which represents the total failure of the human spirit, you are morally bound as a journalist to show eloquent compassion to the victims, to be unafraid to name the murderers, and you’re allowed to be angry. The waitress who’s serving us coffee, the taxi driver who brought me here, they have feelings about atrocities. Why shouldn’t we?
Why is it an American journalist in Beirut or Cairo or Damascus who knows what’s going on and has feelings about it, instead of saying what he thinks — and after all, the readers want to know what he thinks, they’re paying for the newspaper which is paying him — he rings up some idiot in the Brookings Institute, some “tink-thank” as I call them, some “tink-thank” in Washington who maybe has never even been to the city, to get a quote?
The National Post this morning (November 24/05) had an example of this. In a story on Iraq, the reporter quoted Lee Edwards, an “expert on the U.S. presidency,” at the Heritage Foundation! Doesn’t the reporter know something about the U.S. presidency?
Here is a story I have been using at lectures. It is from the Los Angeles Times, November 16. It is a story on Zarqawi, if indeed he exists, and how he is “masterminding” the insurgency. The sourcing for the story? Unnamed “U.S. officials,” with the phrase “U.S. officials” coming up 21 times, in a story of two and a half columns. I just picked this up in a café in LA. You don’t have to look for examples like this to find them.
Podur: If war is the total failure of the human spirit, if it is not about victory and defeat but about suffering and death, why do so many people do it?
Fisk: Because they don’t know what it’s like. Most soldiers in the Iraq war haven’t been to war before. They’ve been totally changed in their personalities by it. They weren’t prepared for it at all, they just have Hollywood. I mean, Saving Private Ryan is pretty close to what I see, but it’s only imaginatively that you can see it, you can’t see it on TV, they won’t show it to you, because to do so would be real, pornographic, obscene, you couldn’t take that with breakfast, could you?
I have to take it with breakfast, lunch and tea, but not you, you’re protected by these nice guys in London and New York and Washington, these editors. They don’t want to dishonour the dead. It seems as if it is okay to kill Iraqis, just not to show them afterwards, at which point we’re so worried about their honour. We have so much compassion when they’re dead that we can’t show the picture. When they’re alive, though, let’s go! “WAR IN IRAQ, EPISODE FIVE”… so you can cash in and have a war movie, but after you kill people they get compassion and honour.
But of course there are also conniving politicians who want to present war as a bloodless sandpit in which people, if they die — you know you can show a picture of a dead Iraqi soldier if he’s been obliging enough to die in one piece against the horizon — “The price of war, a dead Iraqi soldier lies in the desert south of Basra.” But you won’t see the guy with his eyes blasted out or flies crawling over him.
There isn’t a single member of the present Bush administration that has ever been in a war. [Colin] Powell was in Vietnam, but he isn’t in the administration any more. There is not a single member of the Blair administration that has been to war. A few Labour Members of Parliament have been to Northern Ireland as soldiers but that’s not the same. The politicians who run the countries have no experience of war.
Podur: If you believe, as you do, that war is a total failure of the human spirit, does that not make it harder to explain why it happens, which you also think reporters should do?
Fisk: Is there such a thing as a just war? When the Archibishop of Canterbury claimed that the U.S. liberation of Kuwait was a just war (something he didn’t say about Bosnia, maybe because there was no oil there, I don’t know), I thought I would be sick. I mean, are we still going to have religious divines telling us about just wars? Give me a break.
War is an immoral act. I open chapter 15 of my book with a quote from Tolstoy’s War and Peace:
“… war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.”
What more can I add?
The Great War for Civilization
Podur: What do you hope to accomplish with the book?
Fisk: I didn’t know the answer to that when I was writing it, but now I do. I want readers to reject the narrative of history laid down by their presidents, prime ministers, generals and journalists. Challenging the narrative of history, or monitoring the centres of power, to use Amira Hass’s phrase, means we have to reshape our own view of the world unencumbered by clichés and dead words like “war on terror,” “terrorist,” “Islamic terror,” surgical strike, good and evil, them and us, “they hate our freedom,” “democracy” — “democracy” delivered by Abrams tanks and swords and Apache helicopters.
We are always threatening the Middle East with democracy. And Arab Muslims would rather some of the democracy, human rights, and freedom, off of our western supermarket shelf. But there is another kind of freedom they would like, and that is freedom from us. They’d also like justice and no one ever talks about that.
The book covers ground not covered in this way before, by someone who’s been there a long time, an eyewitness. It brings together all the history, including vast, historical, epic subjects, and brings it right up to the occupation of Iraq. For 100 years we, the West, have controlled the Middle East, appointed dictators, and unless you can see what we’ve done in that region you will not understand 9/11.
Podur: Since this is a Canadian interview, let me ask you about Canada in Afghanistan and Canada’s increasing alignment with U.S. foreign policy.
Fisk: The problem with Canadians in Afghanistan is schizophrenia. ISAF, the Interim Stabilization Force, is seen by Afghans as, if not benevolent, certainly not malevolent. The attitude is that here are these Germans, Turks and Canadians, helping to keep the peace. If they weren’t there, there would be widespread robberies. I think they like that there are Germans on patrol at midnight, and so do I. And better the Canadians than the Americans.
But there is also a different side. The Canadians have attached themselves to the U.S. in the south, in Kanadahar, playing an aggressive role, and they are increasingly identified with U.S. military projects in the Middle East.
In this way Canada paints itself white in Kabul, and I believe it should be there, I’ve got nothing against ISAF, and I wish it was on a bigger scale with same mandate. But if you attach your troops to the Americans, and you have Canadian officers starting to talk like Americans, then you have gone across, and committed yourself as a belligerent in war.
Afterwards you cannot turn around and say “why did they want to hurt us?” I’m not predicting attacks on Canada, but once you engage in this way like Blair has, like Spain did under Aznar, you can denounce any crime against humanity on your soil, and you should, but you can’t be surprised.
We have had this habit after World War II of thinking that wars happen far away: in Kenya, Yemen, Malaya, Palestine — you might send soldiers there, you might even have coffins coming home, but you and the farm and the cottage, the railway tubes and planes, were safe. That’s finished now. We need to realize if we participate in wars abroad we are no longer protected from the effects of those wars. You can say “we fight by the rules of war and they don’t” but if you go to war, you can’t express surprise or vainly try to suggest there’s no connection, as Blair did between the July 7 bombings and Iraq.
Another argument relevant in Canada is that the immigrant communities — even though everyone’s an immigrant, aren’t they? — the new communities were so small in previous wars that their opinions didn’t count. I mean there were air raid wardens in the battle of Britain who were Black — but it was such a small population that it didn’t matter.
Now in Germany, you have a large Muslim community, in France, in Britain, or here in Canada, you can’t ignore that community when you decide on an intervention. Muslims in Britain are outraged by the war in Iraq. And there is a more direct connection between a British citizen of Pakistani origin who is a Muslim and the pictures of Iraqi Muslims dead or wounded that that person is watching on TV. You can’t ignore this when you go to war. Part of your community will have emotional religious connections to the region. We haven’t yet taken that into account.
Podur: Maybe that is a good thing, that will make it harder to go to war?
Fisk: Don’t cross your fingers.
Justin Podur is a Toronto based writer.