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Remembering Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk was a rare voice in journalism who told the truth about the West's role in the world and challenged its power. His death leaves a void that is unlikely to be filled in today's media environment.

Robert Fisk, who has died of a stroke at the age of seventy-four, did not always get it right, although he mostly did. He was in the right places, at the right times – but it was not just luck: he contrived to be there. If he made mistakes, as all such prolific journalists will, we can be sure they were honest ones, not the result of bribery or browbeating from the rich and powerful.

Having braved the sectarian battles of Belfast, Fisk was prepared for the bitter conflicts he covered when he reported from Beirut over so many years. He brought a sense of history that Western media pundits on drop-in visit tend to lack, the cable and internet sock-puppets pontificating from faraway studios. Not least of his assets was that he lived in the region and spoke Arabic – and did so directly to ordinary people. A consummate beat reporter, he cultivated local sources even as he listened carefully to what official sources said.

To report on the region, he advised, “we journalists have to fight the Trumps as well as the Arab dictators, the pro-Israeli lobbyists and the Muslim factions and sometimes, yes again, tolerate the anger of our colleagues.” Indeed, while herd immunity might be a myth, media herd mentality, whipped along by fears of standing alone against editors and proprietors, is a proven reality – as anyone watching the current bovine stampede against Jeremy Corbyn can see.

But Fisk was always the maverick, prepared to blaze his own trail. He would not profess the spurious objectivity so often honoured in the breach by the media of record. He said that  journalism must “challenge authority, all authority, especially so when governments and politicians take us to war.” When most of the media were being rounded up to support the Iraq War, Fisk was among the who not only saw the transparent absurdity of the WMD evidence, but also detailed the massive support Britain and the US had given to Saddam Hussein – which is why, he suggested, the Iraqi leader was quickly hanged to prevent him revealing his persecutors’ complicity.

One of his first scoops was an accidental taxi-ride into the centre of the Syrian city of Hama in 1982 to see it being shelled by Hafez Al-Assad’s tanks. Despite later accusations of being soft on the Al-Assad dynasty, he pointed out the hypocrisy of Western governments decrying and threatening to bomb Syria over the clan’s current atrocities while nurturing the butcher of Hama, Hafez Al-Assad’s brother Rifaat, in luxury in London.

Beirut and the Middle East was indeed clearly the location for him to exercise his distinctive defiance of the official line, but even before this in Belfast he had defied British military attempts to embed or muzzle him to the extent that MI6 followed him to Dublin. Lest we forget, the British police and military were assassinating the awkward squad at the time, or at least facilitating the efforts of various sectarian death squads. The past is prelude to the present.

That he died in the week that Keir Starmer suspended Jeremy Corbyn is telling, since both of them suffered the accusations of being soft on terrorism in Ireland and the Middle East for speaking to combatants before the official peace process – and before a wave of journalistic and political figures would feel sufficiently comfortable in their own career prospects to do so.

While his reportage was fact-based, he tried to put those facts in context and draw conclusions. For example, he regularly wrote about the motives of Western leaders and about their inherent duplicity in lecturing others about their ethics. In speaking truth to power, the media should indeed expose hypocrisy – above all the hypocrisy of their own power brokers. But occasionally in his analysis Fisk showed signs of adopting the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Following the logic through he was often too apologetic for the Milosevics, Putins and Assads of this world.

Sometimes genocidaires are indeed mass murderers, even when it is their fellow mass killers, Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, who make the charges. Earlier he was more nuanced. Even as Fisk admitted Hama’s Islamists massacred Baathists, he denounced Damascus’s murderous way with the citizens of the town. Even as he denounced the Western assault on Iraq, he recalled Saddam’s poison gas attacks on Shias and Iranians. But by the end he gave more benefit of the doubt to Bashir Al-Assad  than the latter’s record merited.

Perhaps his finest hour was when he reported on the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, for which an Israeli government commission held then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon personally responsible. Fisk’s attempt to remind people of this behaviour by Netanyahu’s political mentor, lauded by Biden and Blair at his funeral, led to the usual flurry of complaints. One critic wrote to him that “in this case, you have an anti-Israeli bias. This is based solely on the disproportionate number of references you make to this atrocity.”

Like Hama before, Sabra and Shatila has been erased from the collective memory of a media that, unlike Fisk, does not take time to research their beats. As he said, “No international or world leaders visit the mass grave… on the anniversary of the massacre of the Palestinians.”

But that wasn’t true for everyone. Jeremy Corbyn did go the massacre site for the 30th anniversary (with Gerald Kaufman) and later remembered “the Labour Party… until 1982, had a position of uncritical support for Israel… The 1982 Labour Party conference at last woke up to the reality of Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians after the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and condemned them.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that Corbyn paid heartfelt tribute to Fisk yesterday as a “brilliant man with unparalleled knowledge of history, politics and people of Middle East.” Luckily for Fisk, his reputation kept his position at the Independent which badly needed big names in the course of its decline.

I strongly suspect that it will be some time before any Western media will repeat that “mistake” of allowing someone to report truthfully and fearlessly on the Middle East. Especially not when this involves the inevitable descriptions of Israel’s pernicious role and the unprincipled support of Western governments for the Palestinians’ oppressors.

About the Author

Ian Williams is the president of the Foreign Press Association in the United States. He is a United Nations correspondent and the author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations as well as an associate professor at the Bard Center for Globalization and International Affairs.