One of the greatest journalists and commentators of his time

Mike Phipps


Robert Fisk, who died last month, was in my view one of the greatest journalists and commentators of his time. He worked for The Times through much of the 1970s and 1980s, before falling out with proprietor Rupert Murdoch and moving to The Independent.

As an international correspondent, he covered the civil wars in Lebanon, Algeria, and Syria, the Iran–Iraq conflict, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic revolution in Iran, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. He even interviewed Osama bin Laden on three separate occasions.

But it his analysis and commentary that made him such a substantial figure.  I have in front of me a photocopy of his piece from The Independent on September 12th 2001, which I made at the time, because I was so impressed by its grasp of what had happened, and was about to happen. It is worth quoting at length:

“But this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps…

“And there will be, inevitably, and quite immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind yesterday’s firestorms. We will be told about ‘mindless terrorism’, the ‘mindless’ bit being essential if we are not to realise how hated America has become in the land of the birth of three great religions.

“Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September – the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and state-sponsored executions … all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday’s mass savagery.”

It was brave to write this in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, and Fisk was deluged with hate mail. But, although he might have denied it, Fisk was a brave man, risking his neck to get the truth – he was once physically attacked and badly beaten by Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and suffered permanent hearing loss after exposure to heavy artillery during the Iran-Iraq war.

He was one of the first journalists to enter Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, after a massacre by Lebanese Christian militants who slaughtered 2,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians while Israeli soldiers stood by. “I’d never seen so many bodies,” he later said. “I climbed over corpses.”

He was highly critical of what he called “hotel journalism” emanating from some foreign correspondents for western papers who rarely leave the safety of their hotel rooms.

He was equally critical of a pliant media that accepted western government narratives about conflicts in the Middle East and refused to show the truth of war. He gave a telling example in an interview in 2005:

“In 1991 I was driving up the main road towards Basra, the so the-called highway of death, further up, with a crew from ITV, British commercial channel. And we stopped at a place where there were large numbers of Iraqi soldiers dead in the desert. And hordes of desert dogs had appeared. And they were ripping the soldiers to pieces and eating them. Dragging off an arm here with its hand, cruelly going along through the desert, eating through stomachs, gnawing away at cheekbones of dead soldiers. The ITV crew got out and started filming. I said, ‘What are you filming this for? You’ll never get it on air.’ He said, ‘No, it’s just for the archives.’”

On another occasion, responding to the Israeli killing of Hamas militia leader Ahmed al-Jabari in 2012, he castigated his journalist colleagues:

“We journos are writing like performing bears, repeating all the clichés we’ve used for the past 40 years. The killing of Mr Jabari was a ‘targeted attack’, it was a ‘surgical air strike’ – like the Israeli ‘surgical air strikes’ which killed almost 17,000 civilians in Lebanon in 1982, the 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, in 2006, or the 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in Gaza in 2008-9, or the pregnant woman and the baby who were killed by the ‘surgical air strikes’ in Gaza last week – and the 11 civilians killed in one Gaza house yesterday. At least Hamas, with their Godzilla rockets, don’t claim anything ‘surgical’ about them. They are meant to murder Israelis – any Israelis, man woman or child. As, in truth, are the Israeli attacks on Gaza.”

Fisk did not just cover the most dangerous assignments, he joined the dots to connect foreign conflicts to western policy. In his massive 2005 book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, over 1,300 pages long, he wrote extensively about the horrifying slaughter in Algeria where an estimated 100,000 were killed  – by Islamic extremists, state forces, state forces posing as Islamists…

Reviewing it at the time, I wrote: “Much of the killing – a schoolteacher stabbed to death in front of her class, entire villages exterminated, babies included – seems random. In a truly terrorised country, scores can be settled with impunity, either directly, or by denunciation to the police, who torture prisoners with electric drills and rape their loved ones before them, as a means of extracting confessions prior to extra-judicial execution. One Algerian who made it London to escape the carnage was refused asylum, returned in handcuffs and murdered by security police two weeks later. In 2004, US Special Forces started working alongside these uniformed butchers as part of the ‘war on terror’.”

He exposed the role of western hypocrisy consistently. In a piece for The Independent in November 2009, entitled “America is performing its familiar role of propping up a dictator”, he wrote: “Could there be a more accurate description of the Obama-Brown message of congratulations to the fraudulently elected Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan? First the Palestinians held fair elections in 2006, voted for Hamas and were brutally punished for it – they still are – and then the Iranians held fraudulent elections in June which put back the weird Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whom everyone outside Iran (and a lot inside) regard as a dictator. But now we have the venal, corrupt, sectarian Karzai in power after a poll far more ambitiously rigged than the Iranian version, and – yup, we love him dearly and accept his totally fraudulent election.”

Fisk did not mince his words. He once referred to a 2011 speech by President Obama on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands as “pathetic, humiliating”, a “grovelling performance”. As the Arab Spring burst out in Tunisia a decade ago, Fisk wrote:

“What was Hillary Clinton doing last week as Tunisia burned? She was telling the corrupted princes of the Gulf that their job was to support sanctions against Iran, to confront the Islamic republic, to prepare for another strike against a Muslim state after the two catastrophes the United States and the UK have already inflicted in the region.”

Fisk covered the conflict in Iraq over many years. In his 2005 book, he details the hideous brutality of Saddam Hussein, but equally the eagerness of the west to pay court to him – for example, French President Chirac in 1975 expressed his “affection”. Unsurprisingly, it was those who had exposed and condemned the dictator’s crimes, yet were opposed to the 2003 invasion – Fisk among them – who were then accused of being supporters of Saddam, – usually by governments, the US included, which had militarily aided the regime in the past.

The US occupation was extremely brutal. One academic survey estimated that more than 37,000 Iraqi civilians were killed between March 2003 and October 2003. These numbers increased sharply with the widespread deployment of US air strikes over civilian areas. As the occupation ran into serious resistance, western government s began to peddle a new narrative: that their troops were being kept in Iraq to head off a rise in sectarian tensions and the danger of the country descending into civil war. Fisk, interviewed, in 2006, responded perceptively to this:

“The real question I ask myself is: who are these people who are trying to provoke the civil war? Now the Americans will say it’s Al Qaeda, it’s the Sunni insurgents. It is the death squads. Many of the death squads work for the Ministry of Interior. Who runs the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad? Who pays the Ministry of the Interior? Who pays the militia men who make up the death squads? We do, the occupation authorities.”

In 2010 leaked documents were published by Wikileaks. Hundreds of incidents of abuse and torture of prisoners by Iraqi security services, including rape and murder, were documented. US forces were alleged to have colluded in these activities, as well as continuing to abuse prisoners after the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004. US forces operating helicopter gunships were further accused of killing 14 unarmed civilians in a series of previously unreported incidents. British forces were also implicated in abuses.

In response to the revelations, Fisk was excoriating:

“As usual, the Arabs knew. They knew all about the mass torture, the promiscuous shooting of civilians, the outrageous use of air power against family homes, the vicious American and British mercenaries, the cemeteries of the innocent dead. All of Iraq knew. Because they were the victims.

“Only we could pretend we did not know. Only we in the West could counter every claim, every allegation against the Americans or British with some worthy general… to ring-fence us with lies. Find a man who’d been tortured and you’d be told it was terrorist propaganda; discover a house full of children killed by an American air strike and that, too, would be terrorist propaganda, or ‘collateral damage’, or a simple phrase: ‘We have nothing on that.’

“Of course, we all knew they always did have something. And yesterday’s ocean of military memos proves it yet again.”

Fisk believed it was the job of journalism “to challenge authority- all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war”.  “War,” he wrote in The Great War for Civilisation, “is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.”

When he wrote these words, Robert Fisk had received more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. But his lasting legacy, I believe, will be his exposure of the rotten motives underpinning western military intervention – and for this, he may well be remembered as someone who contributed significantly to world peace.

11 Nov 2020

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