Five questions with… foreign correspondent Robert Fisk

The longtime Beirut-based reporter, now the subject of a new Canadian documentary, reflects on his career in the field and the stories that are being missed in the region.

By: /
November 8, 2019
Robert Fisk
Robert Fisk, as seen in This Is Not a Movie.

An exploration of Robert Fisk’s work, as new documentary This Is Not a Movie shows, is just as much a window into one man’s life as it is a chronology of international crises over the last four decades and a deep dive into the evolution of foreign reporting.

Fisk, the long-time columnist for British paper The Independent, has made a name for himself chronicling conflict by reporting directly from the frontlines, from his early days in Northern Ireland to his more recent quest to get as close as possible to the truth over gas attacks in Syria. His books, such as 2005’s The Great War for Civilisation, are required additions to the bookshelves of anyone interested in Middle Eastern history.

“When you get to know the guy, he is actually quite a humorous person, kind of lively, not boring, not intimidating,” Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, who followed Fisk into the field for the documentary, told OpenCanada.

Chang blended video of recent excursions with a large amount of archival footage for the film. The result is an attempt to hit “the reset button in how we think about journalism,” Chang said. “We’ve [gone] astray with the inundation of 24-hour news… And resetting through Robert’s reflections on what journalism is, I want the audience to take these ideas and debate them at home. Debate the Douma gas attack.”

Fisk came to Canada to accompany Chang at the opening of the documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. He sat down with OpenCanada on September 10 — mere moments after it was revealed US President Donald Trump had fired national security advisor John Bolton, and a few weeks before Trump withdrew US forces from northern Syria.

Fisk, who is currently back in Canada for a cross-country lecture tour, which began in Montreal on Wednesday and ends in Vancouver November 16, had much to discuss — from how the mood in the Middle East differs with Trump in the White House, to the state of foreign reporting, to which stories in the region are still in need of attention.

1. This documentary seems to be a love letter to the kind of journalism you do. Is it also saying, as the title implies, that doing journalism isn’t as tidy as movies make it out to be?

I’ve said many times to people on the telephone when they’ve gone to cover wars for the first time and they’ve rung me up in Beirut or wherever and ask, ‘Should I go and cover the next Iraq war?’ I’ve always said to him or her, ‘Look, keep your eyes open. It’s not Hollywood. This is not a movie. You can get killed.’

I was very struck by the fact that in the Bosnian war, which I later ended up covering a lot of, in the first few months, a lot of Western journalist got killed. Far more than should have been in an ordinary war. They were targeted, some of them, but others were just [hit by random] shell fire.

The thing I used to say to people when they rang me up is, ‘All your experience of war? Chuck it out the window. If you’ve seen movies, however bloody they look, it’s not like that. Watch out and be sensible. Don’t take hero risks — no one is going to care about you, and it won’t be recorded anyway. Usually nobody sees you killed or die… It’s not worth crossing that road. There’s no point in having an adventure — I’ve had my adventures. But the only way you can learn about war is to experience it, of course.

2. You say ‘play it safe’ but — and I don’t mean this lightly — is it not a wonder you haven’t been killed?

My wife thinks that. She says, ‘You’re very lucky.’

I remember in South Lebanon when there was a big Israeli bombardment and civilians were being killed in large numbers. I found a [United Nations] vehicle going right through the bombardment. It was a two-man patrol with one Norwegian and one Swedish. An American correspondent, a friend of mine, was there [as well], and we said, ‘Can we come with you?’ We went past cars on fire with dead women inside them and airplanes dropping bombs right in front of you. I got back to Tyre [in Lebanon] and my journalist colleague started chain smoking. The Norwegian had a heart attack and the Swede retired from the army. And I probably sat on my balcony and had a gin and tonic or two. So I’ve been through that sort of thing before. It never gets any better.

"Eighty percent of your day was security and 10 percent was journalism. The rest was trying to sleep."

The longest held [American] hostage, Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief, was kidnapped right around the corner from me [in 1985]. I went all over Lebanon trying to find him. He was six, almost seven years in captivity, [kidnapped] a kilometre and a half from my home. The night before, we were having a glass of wine with his wife and we were talking about kidnapping, because many Westerners, especially journalists, were being kidnapped, and he said, ‘Well, if they come for you, you got to give yourself up, otherwise you’re dead.’ And I said, ‘No, you must fight them. You might get a gun and kill them. It might be worth it.’ And they came for him and he allowed himself to be dragged away, he didn’t struggle. And he lost seven years of his life.

A lot of journalists got kidnapped and it became a kind of weird gamble. I’d book [travel for] myself at the airport under a fake name. It had to be “RF” because of the reservation computer so I became Rafiq Farooqi or something, because I knew the kidnappers had people in the airport who were spotting.

One thing that happened, a most chilling moment — I was in a Western news agency, which in those days were mostly staffed by Lebanese and Arabs. I went into the backroom to book a flight, I think it was to Iran. As I was booking the flight, I heard a noise behind the door. I said ‘OK, thank you,’ and I got my confirmation. I opened the door and there was just one of the staff, listening. And I thought, OK I’m going to tell people I’ve booked a flight and I’m going to forget about it. I didn’t go, of course. I learned later they waited all through the day in the heat for my car that never came. So it became a kind of gamble to try and get away with it. Eighty percent of your day was security and 10 percent was journalism. The rest was trying to sleep. You became an expert in thinking how other people thought. If you decided to go and meet someone, you left at two in the morning.

3. What is the most dangerous region or issue to cover now?

ISIS. But I can’t cross that front line. I say in the film, it’s the worst covered war. The problem is… what is coming out is a lot of mostly genuine, horrific photographs of civilians being killed by airstrikes, both by the Syrians and by the Russians. What you don’t get is [pictures of] the armed men. In other words, in television, in the West, they love the pictures, and they don’t question [or say]: ‘Hang on a second, this film is being curated by someone.’

4. Where do you think the story is, now? Where are we not hearing from but should?

Where you are not hearing from? Idlib. From any Western journalist. Because if they go there, they are going to have their throats cut. But oddly, they don’t say that. They simply show the video tape, and say, ‘Which we can’t confirm.’ But saying that now is like giving you a warning about flash photography — nobody cares about it. Where else? It’s very dangerous for Western journalists to go to Egypt, you might be disappeared. I mean, [there are] 60,000 political prisoners. Saudi Arabia — I can’t get into it but that’s ‘Surprise, surprise.’

[Places we should be hearing from?] Yemen is number one. You can get into Yemen, [but] it’s not a very sexy story. I’ve been so tied up with Iraq and Syria that I don’t have the time, or I’d utterly exhaust myself. A few brave freelancers have gone in. Some people have gone in on ships or food convoys and managed to get a few stories out. The story of Yemen is being told by Yemeni agency reporters working very often for Western agencies — but the Saudi-Yemeni story is not being told.

When I went out [in the past], there was a civil war in Lebanon. There was the Iranian Revolution in ’79. In 1980, you had the beginning of the eight year war between Iran and Iraq… and we had the Israeli invasion of ’82, which was outside my house window, so that wasn’t too difficult to cover. But there weren’t these mass revolutions and fighting. Afghanistan, central Iraq, Syria, Gaza on a massive scale — three Palestinians dead would have been front page news then, now it’s 100 Palestinians dead and it gets half a headline on the front and ‘see inside.’ Egypt, with 60,000 political prisoners? I mean that dwarfs anything [former president Anwar] Sadat did to curb freedoms in Egypt. And [former US president Barack] Obama couldn’t stop it, but I think [Donald] Trump has willfully increased the carnage.

The funny thing is, there are more foreign correspondents on the ground now [globally] than ever before. The problem is they are all underpaid freelancers. Or doing two jobs. I mean, you go to a press conference and I’ve never seen so many journalists, I can’t even see the person giving the press conference due to the number of cameras. But they are being poorly paid, under-resourced. In many cases, they’ve been told, ‘OK, don’t spend any money, just try to learn about the people.’ And what they do is they read Reuters. You can live in Greenland and look up blogs and Reuters and AP and write quite a good story. So there are more journalists than ever before but they are not going out on the story. And I don’t see how you get around that one. By and large now agencies don’t go out and Western reporters don’t go. The habit started in Iraq with the American invasion — you sent your local stringer. In Tripoli, northern Lebanon, there was a big gun battle, only a couple of years ago. I rushed up there with my car… There wasn’t a single Western reporter there. Plenty of Lebanese camera crews for other people and it was reported by the BBC from Beirut. In the past, there would be CBS, CNN, ABC. I got a great story out of it. But I am just saying, getting in your car and going, especially with 24-hour news, you don’t have the time.

5. Do you feel a difference on the ground with Trump as US president?

I do. Obama wasn’t greatly loved but — partly because he was black, partly because he had a middle name that was Muslim — there was a feeling that this was a humanitarian person as opposed to just another president. And the State Department reflected his views. But once Trump came in, [those in the region] knew they were in trouble. The Israelis were going to win all the wars — the Israelis don’t win them, they lose them all, but Trump is able to say they do win them, so it doesn’t matter, does it? Arabs see Trump as we should — and I say this — that he is mad and should be in a mental institution.

The problem now is journalism. Although the heroes of media [outlets] like CNN are constantly saying, ‘He is lying about this, he is lying about that, he is mad,’ the moment something happens in the Middle East they talk about Trump policy — as if there actually is a policy. There is nothing.

Social media has got a lot to answer for in journalism in the Middle East. The problem is that there is an osmotic relationship between journalists and power and they feed on each other. If they betray that osmotic relationship, they will be thrown out of the press pack. Not only by government but by the other journalists. You know, ‘you’re crossing red lines, you’re screwing it for all of us.’ And one of the reasons I get an awful lot of flak on the stories I write is that if I don’t keep to the general journalistic version of what’s going on, I am [seen as] betraying [others]. Or [they say] ‘Robert’s been there too long’ or whatever. I don’t even read that shit anymore.

The problem is serious now [and] social media has a lot to do with it. People believe Facebook. I got a call a couple of months ago from an urban planner in Lebanon, she’s trained in United States, an intelligent woman, and she said, ‘Is it true that Mohammad bin Salman has flown secretly to Israel for talks with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu?’ I said, ‘Come on, put your feet on the ground. Have you been injected so badly by social media that you’ve been affected by it?’ And that is very unfortunate now because a lot of journalists are getting the same thing. I say to people, ‘Read books and papers — papers also lie a lot, I mean, the British Press at the moment! — but try to cut away from this addiction.’

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.