by Linda S. Head
Ever since the Independent’s man in the Middle
East Robert Fisk sympathized with enraged Afghans
who beat him over the head when their village was
bombed, he’s become an icon for the anti-war
movement. At the time he said the incident was
symbolic of the “hatred, fury and hypocrisy of
this filthy war”. Over the year’s Fisk has become
an expert on filthy wars. He’s covered at least
six of them and lived to tell the tale. Today he
is the world’s most decorated foreign
correspondent, a successful author and a
sought-after speaker. Is he ready to hang up his
notebook and materialize his dream of retiring to
Ireland? Linda Heard recently caught up with him
in Cairo where he was promoting his new book “The
Great War for Civilization” to find out.
I’ve long wanted to meet Robert Fisk, who the New
York Times describes as “the most famous
correspondent in Great Britain”. What is it about
this intrepid news-digger who proclaims to hate
violence of any kind that would propel him to the
world’s most dangerous hotspots dodging missiles
and bullets, and stepping over bodies?
My curiosity was assuaged when I finally came face
to face with Mr. Fisk at the trendy Diwan bookshop
in Cairo, although I had met him briefly the day
before when he gave a two-hour lecture to a large
audience of devoted Egyptian fans. They hung on
his every word. Every mobile phone was dutifully
switched off and certainly no-one dozed off.
So why do you do it? I asked. Do you have a love
affair with the Middle East?
“No” he responded firmly. “I hate journalists who
say they have a love affair with the Middle East”
– [Oh dear! That’s me in his bad books] – “It’s
all about the journalism”.
It soon became apparent that Robert Fisk eats,
sleeps and breathes journalism. He does envisage
one day retiring to Ireland but admits a call from
Beirut to say something big was happening might
trigger a quick dash to the nearest airport.
I asked whether he ever takes a holiday and he
looked perplexed for a moment as though I was
talking about an extraterrestrial being. But then
he recalled a “holiday” in Brazil, which came to
an abrupt end when he inadvertently found himself
on the scene of a breaking story.
Robert’s career path was mapped out at the age of
12. It was inspired by “Foreign Correspondent”, an
Alfred Hitchcock film whose hero was a young
American reporter sent by his New York paper to
cover World War II in Europe.
“He goes to Europe, witnesses the assassination of
a Dutch politician, is chased by the Gestapo in
Holland, captures the biggest German spy in
London, is shot down by a German battleship over
the Atlantic, lives to file his scoop, and he wins
the most glamorous woman in the movie,” says Fisk.
“And I thought, at age 12, that this sounds like
the job for me”.
Fisk doesn’t say whether he ever got the woman but
it’s clear he’s had enough adventures to fill the
pages of several best-selling fictional novels or
block-busting movie scripts.
His first assignment in the Middle East came when
he was 29 and interrupted his coverage of
Portugal’s 1974 Carnation revolution on behalf of
The Times of London [“before Rupert Murdoch
destroyed its integrity by buying it”, he says]
He still keeps the letter from the Times’ Foreign
Editor, saying the paper’s correspondent in Beirut
had just married a German billionaire and didn’t
want to start her married life in a war. “It will
be a great adventure and there will be lots of
sunshine,” it promises.
For many years Robert believed the job of a good
foreign correspondent was “to be the first witness
in history; the only impartial man on the
battlefield”. But his mind was changed following a
conversation with the Israeli journalist/columnist
Amira Hass, who told him this.
“Our role is to monitor the centres of power,
challenge authority, especially when they go to
war and we know they are going to kill people”.
“This is the finest definition of a foreign
correspondent I’ve ever heard,” says Fisk.
Fisk also admires Seymour Hersh, a veteran
investigative journalist with the New Yorker who
broke the Mai Lai Massacre and Abu Ghraib stories.
Hersh had apparently predicted the invasion of
Iraq long before the rest of us, including Fisk
himself. So now when Hersh speaks, Robert Fisk
He is more scathing about the New York Times
Foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. “I’ve
heard that Thomas Friedman now charges US$ 65,000
an hour for lectures,” he says. “I charge nothing
but I would pay US$ 65,000 an hour not to have to
listen to Tom Friedman”.
Alan Dershowitz, who regularly defends Israel’s
policies, and Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a strong
protagonist for the invasion of Iraq, obviously
don’t appear on his favourite people list either.
Fisk is heavily critical of reporters who file
stories from Iraq as though they are on the scene
when they never leave the fortified Green Zone for
fear of being kidnapped or killed. He empathizes
with their concerns but believes they should tell
their readers the truth rather than putting their
by-lines on news garnered by Iraqi colleagues.
He freely admits that the situation in Iraq has
become so dire that his own reporting is what he
calls ‘mouse reporting”, consisting of a quick
dash to the scene, a few minutes chat with
witnesses, and then back in the car, which is
usually already attracting a grim-faced crowd.
Fisk will shortly be heading back to Iraq. His
choice, he says, explaining that he always gets to
choose his own assignments.
Fisk is opinionated and often controversial and
for that reason he is either loved or hated,
rarely ignored. The Internet is jam packed with
praise for Fisk as well as derogatory comments,
some unprintable. But he seems almost unaware of
the rumpus he’s caused in cyberspace, mainly
because he’s determinedly eschewed the Internet.
For instance, when I mentioned he had inspired a
new word in the English language “Fisking” –
defined by the Observer as savaging an argument
and scattering the tattered remnants to the four
corners of the Internet - he wasn’t at all
impressed. He considers such blogosphere slang
There is nothing remotely childish about Robert
Fisk although he’s not the stereotypical
tough-talking, brusque war correspondent either.
Indeed, he’s charming, approachable and very easy
to talk to.
I also sense a lot of underlying emotion. He
frequently refers to his father, a soldier in WWI,
whose prize possession was his campaign medal. On
the back of the medal was written “The Great War
for Civilization”, an inscription that became the
“ironic” title for his book.
In the months subsequent to end of the First World
War, the victors, primarily the French and the
British, redrew the borders of the Middle East he
says, adding, “I’ve spent my entire career as a
journalist watching the people in those borders
For more than 30 years his home has been Lebanon.
In his dispatches he frequently mentions his
trusty driver Abed and his apartment that gives
out onto the Mediterranean. “Every morning in
Beirut I see the palm trees waving on the corniche.
I see the sea and I think where will the explosion
His opinions and predictions on Lebanon, Iraq and
Palestine are fascinating but they are too complex
and convoluted to go into here. So if you want to
tap into the thoughts of this old school war
correspondent then buy the book.
He says he found it depressing to write. “It’s a
story of the Middle East and torture, betrayal,
invasion, dictatorship and a total lack of
individual freedoms and human rights”, he says.
There is one light moment though, which comes at
the beginning of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq
War. At the time, Fisk was in Basra together with
Jon Snow, a British television broadcaster. Snow
heard that there was a British ship marooned in
the Shaat Al-Arab with Iranian and Iraqi missiles
whizzing past it.
Fisk and Snow approached an Iraqi commander to
help them rescue the crew. He and his men obliged,
so while Snow swam off to the ship together with
the Iraqi commandos, Fisk was left to help pull in
the lifeboat using a rope.
As it happened most of the crew had come from
Dubai where they had been buying up duty-free
televisions, which they insisted on loading into
the life raft. Before getting out of the boat they
would first hand Fisk their new colour TV. Imagine
their surprise when he promptly threw their
precious cargo back into the Shaat Al-Arab.
In his book, Fisk writes “So that is the end of
the sweet stories”.
Fisk acknowledges his life has been fraught with
dangers but he told me that if he could go back in
time to the point when he received that letter
from his editor offering him a Middle East
assignment, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over