Patrick Cockburn's obituary of Robert Fisk; the Angry Arab has another view

A close colleague at the Independent in war correspondence from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, Patrick Cockburn, reflects on the character and work of Robert Fisk. Lebanese scholar As`ad AbuKhalil, a professor at CSU Stanislaus, has another view. All we know about it is that Fisk reported from the front of the battle while AbuKhalil opined from Turlock. -- wmh


November 17, 2020

Robert Fisk had True Independence of Mind, Which is Why He Angered Governments and Parts of the Media

by Patrick Cockburn

Robert Fisk and I often used to discuss the merits and demerits of responding in print to personal attacks on us filled with provable falsehoods. The temptation to refute such falsehood is hard to resist, but we recognised that therein lies a trap because even the most persuasive refutation of a gross lie necessitates repeating the untruth and giving it greater publicity.

It was also self-evident that partisan critics were not going to apologise and retire in embarrassment if their mendacity or misinformation was exposed, but would simply replace one set of lies with another. The effectiveness of this brazen disregard for truth is demonstrated daily by Donald Trump who almost won re-election despite repeated exposure.

Robert, who died on 30 October, spent almost half a century reporting war and civil wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. He understood that people who are trying to kill each other will not hesitate to lie about each other, and about anybody, notably about journalists, whose information – particularly if it is true – they deem not to be in their interests.

It was all too easy to be demonised as a pawn of Saddam Hussein in 2003 if one said, as Robert frequently did, that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq would end badly. Similar denunciations of partiality were directed against anybody who wrote about the Syrian conflict post-2011 as a genuine civil war, described the armed Arab opposition as being mostly jihadis, and suggested that Bashar al-Assad was likely to stay as leader, given the balance of power between those fighting each other.

Governments and other proponents of such views do not like to be contradicted and will put great energy into seeking to discredit those who do so. Robert knew this very well, writing that “armies at war – like their governments – are best observed with a mighty degree of scepticism, even cynicism. So far as armies and militias go, there are no good guys.” As a reporter, he worked on this grim assumption. He did not mean that he believed that good people did not exist, but he knew that they are almost invariably to be found among the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

Robert was obsessively energetic in investigating the truth about what was really going on and stuck to it, even when what he was writing was contradicted or ignored by other journalists. Probably it was this independence of mind which annoyed so much of the media. Over the years, I became used to listening to reporters spluttering with indignation over another front-page exclusive by Robert. At first, I used to keep silent, reflecting that hell hath no fury like a reporter scooped, and recalling the words of a distinguished American journalist friend who dismissed such bad-mouthing of Robert as “80 per cent envy”.

In later years, I would become irritated or bored by such venomous tittle-tattle, and started to ask those who expressed it to justify what they were claiming. Almost invariably they would look alarmed at being challenged and then repeat some third-hand piece of gossip, or say that they had been where Robert was and had not witnessed what he had seen. But when I probed further, it usually turned out that they had not been quite as close to the front line as he was and they had not stayed there for as long as he had.

None of this malicious gossip matters very much and falls into the category of partisan criticism that Robert and I counselled each other to ignore. Some of it surfaced in the obituaries of Robert, though most laud him as a magnificent reporter and historian. Certainly, he was the best journalist I have ever known. But there are some obituaries, negative in tone, which I nevertheless found interesting because they openly express a vision of what good journalism should be that is wholly contrary to what Robert practiced.

At the heart of this was relentless and meticulous eyewitness reporting of events, a refusal to see complex conflicts in terms of black and white, while not surrendering to moral indifference and keeping a sense of outrage when confronted with real evil. Above all, perhaps, he showed an unbending refusal to back down when what he said was being denied, denounced or ignored by politicians and the media.

Such an approach seems to me to be obviously right, but it is very different from the approach to journalism which is conveniently exemplified by an obituary of Robert appearing in The Times, for whom he worked for 17 years until joining The Independent in 1989. It cites, as an example of his partiality for victims over perpetrators,  his account of the massacre of over a thousand Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. It quotes his description of an “old man in pyjamas lying on his back on the main street with his innocent walking stick beside him, the two women and a baby shot next to a dead horse”. In one of the first eyewitness reports of this hideous slaughter, he wrote of the bodies of women who had been raped before being killed and “the armies of flies, the smell of decomposition”.

“The tragedy for Fisk was that this experience changed his perspective forever,” is the surprising conclusion of the obituarist, adding that when Robert went to Northern Ireland as correspondent in 1972 – the year of Bloody Sunday in which thirteen civilians were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Derry – “perhaps naively, he was shocked at the treatment of protesters by British soldiers”. In point of fact, it was outrage at such killings, another being the Armenian genocide of 1915, that motivated Robert and should surely motivate all journalists.

It is curious – and depressing – to find commentators who are still shocked by a journalist who criticised government policies at the time that they were being implemented, even when they have since become thoroughly discredited. Robert reporting from Iraq in 2003 was highly critical of the invasion and led, according to The Times, which appears to consider this a weighty point, to the long-forgotten British defence minister of the day, denouncing Fisk’s reports as showing him to be “a dupe of Saddam Hussein’s regime”.

Robert had great physical courage, something that is sustainable in short bursts, but is much more difficult to keep up over long periods of isolation and danger. Derring-do in times of war usually gets good notices from the press and from public opinion, but moral endurance is a much rarer commodity, when the plaudits are replaced by abuse, often from people who see a world divided between devils and angels and denounce anybody reporting less than angelic behaviour on the part of the latter for being secret sympathisers with the devil.

Real journalism is a simple business, but exceptionally difficult to do well. Its purpose is to find out significant news as fast as possible, disregard all efforts by governments, armies and media to suppress it, and pass that information on to the public so they can better judge what is happening in the world around them. This is what Robert did and did it better than anybody else.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).


Consortium News

THE ANGRY ARAB: Robert Fisk & the Decline of Western Reporting on the Middle East

December 1, 2020

Just because Fisk was brave against Israel and opposed Western intervention in the Middle East, it should not stop us from pointing out his incompetence, especially on things Lebanese, writes As’ad AbuKhalil.

Consortium News asked As`ad AbuKhalil, our Middle East columnist, to write an assessment of the recently deceased correspondent Robert Fisk. AbuKhalil did not wait until Fisk could no longer respond to criticism, as others have. He started criticizing Fisk’s work in a series of blog posts dating back to 2005.

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

Robert Fisk was, until his death last month, the most famous Western correspondent in the Middle East for many decades.  This fact is not so much a testimony to his gifts or qualifications, as it is a reflection of the deterioration of standards for Western reporting from the Middle East and other developing countries.

Western correspondents in the region used to be actual Middle East experts who had studied its politics and learned its languages (I am talking about people like Peter Mansfield, Patrick Seale, Arnold Hottinger and Eric Rouleau among others).  Today, Western newspaper and media correspondents in the region are not even expected to have taken a college course on the Middle East.  

Most start their careers covering other beats with no connection to Middle East politics and culture.  Sometimes, serving in the U.S. military is considered a plus, as is the case with, say, Dexter Filkins (formerly of The New York Times and currently The New Yorker).  Shooting at Arabs may constitute a better qualification than studying their culture.

Fisk acted, and wrote, like old-style Western correspondents in the Middle East but without their qualifications.

He never formally studied the Middle East and never learned its languages.  People assumed he knew Arabic but he did not, and when he would invoke Arabic words in his dispatches he often embarrassed himself. 

But Fisk, far from conceding his shortcomings and limitations, posed as an academically trained Middle East expert, and would throw in those Arabic words to impress his Western readers.  For instance, as I first wrote in February 2012, he once cited the famous Ba`thist slogan “Ummah Arabiyyah Wahidah” (One Arab Nation), but confused the word “mother” with the word “nation.”

Too Close for Comfort

Walid Jumblat. (Lebanese Ministry of Information)

Fisk was too close to the people he was writing about, especially when those people were corrupt despots, tycoons, or war criminals.  I wrote about this in December 2005. He was famously close to the Lebanese sectarian warlord, Walid Jumblat, and avoided writing about him critically, regardless of Jumblat’s political oscillations and opportunistic shifts — not to mention his notorious war crimes and human rights violations during the civil war years (and even after).  

Jumblat dispatched one of his trusted bodyguards to serve as Fisk’s driver.  Those who read Fisk’s dispatches over the years remember the times when Abed, the driver, is quoted as a source: Abed for Fisk was what a cab driver is for Thomas Friedman.

Fisk referred to the late, Lebanese billionaire prime minister, Rafiq Hariri as “my friend” and Hariri offered him a private jet to return to Pakistan from Beirut (Fisk maintains that he turned him down but that did not stop him from praising the “impeccable” dining table of Hariri). 

His reporting after Rafiq Hariri’s assassination was indistinguishable from Hariri’s media office releases.

How could Fisk write on Lebanese affairs while admitting close friendships with the two people who are most responsible for Lebanon’s financial and political collapse in the last two decades? How could one trust his judgment on Lebanon, or elsewhere for that matter?

Fisk is not alone; the landscape of Western correspondence in the Middle East is no longer what it was. In the past, there were individual correspondents who did the leg work themselves, and who relied on their own training and knowledge to navigate through the political maze of the region. 

Not anymore. The Western correspondent now arrives at an office of a Western newspaper which is already staffed with local stringers, translators, drivers, fixers and bodyguards.  The work of most Western correspondents now constitutes the management of emails, watching YouTube (a major source for Western coverage of the Syrian conflict), and communication with local journalists who are politically convenient. (Western correspondents in Beirut, for instance, rely exclusively on people who support Hariri’s March 14 alliance and Syrian rebels). 

Did Not Lack Principles

Raqqa Internal Security Forces receive initial issue of equipment after training in Ayn Issa, Syria, July 31 2017. (U.S. Army, Mitchell Ryan)

Fisk’s coverage of Syria changed over time (i.e., sometimes sympathetic to the regime and other times critical of it). Early in the Syrian conflict, Fisk was seen as a champion of the rebels, and in later years, he was attacked as an apologist of the regime.

But it can’t be said that Fisk was a man without principles. He was, to be sure, consistently courageous in defying Western standards on Zionism, and also refused to serve as a cheerleader for Western wars. Unlike most Western correspondents in the Middle East, who never met a U.S. war that they did not justify and glorify, Fisk was critical early on of all Western military adventures in the region. 

However Fisk, in December 1993, wrote a glowing profile of Osama bin Laden, failing to see at the time that religious fanatics employed by the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani axis of reaction were no more than obscurantist terrorists.

Errors of History

Fisk’s writings contain a plethora of errors and mistakes about basic Middle East history.  His book, The Great War for Civilization, had many mistakes, as I wrote in 2013: he mistook the birthplace of Jesus (it was in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem); mistook the Arabic word for catastrophe, “Nakbah” — a key term in contemporary Arab political terminology signifying the occupation of Palestine in 1948 — with “nakhbah,” which means “elite.” 

No student of Islam could miss the century — the century and not the year — of the death of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin (Fisk had it in the 8th century), or that Baghdad was an Umayyad city when it was founded after the demise of the Umayyad empire.  He even thought that the 1958 revolution in Iraq was Baathist, when that took place five years later.  In the Great War, Fisk also erroneously reported that it was Napoleon’s troops who burned Moscow in 1812, rather than the Russians.

Fisk once claimed that the AK-47 on Hizbullah’s flag represents the letter “l” in Allah, perhaps thinking that L in English is the same as L in Arabic, although the gun has no letter signification in the flag. In one article, Fisk distinguished between “Sunni Muslim Sidon” and “Shia Muslim Southern Lebanon,” not knowing that Sidon is located in South Lebanon. 

Fisk’s lack of knowledge was reflected by the extent to which his reporting seemed to be colored by the last person he spoke to.  I wrote in 2005 that “this most critical, cynical, and skeptical reporter has stopped being cynical about the place where cynicism, skepticism, and criticism are most required and most needed if one is to understand the politics of the place, and if one is not to serve as a willing or unwilling propagandist outlet for this or that side.”

Less Than Reliable

The problem with Fisk was not his political biases or even his friendship with corrupt politicians, who he was supposed to be critically covering. The real problem was Fisk’s unreliable reporting. 

I first wrote about this in March, 2012:

“…the leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani noted that ‘if you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk.’

Indeed you do. ‘It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift others’ work without attribution and embellish it,’ writes Jamie Dettmer, another former Middle East correspondent, in his review of [Hugh] Pope’s book [Dining with Al Qaeda]. ‘I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.’ Of course, I have heard such stories for years and this is why I don’t believe Fisk even when he tells the truth.”

He once reported on a supposed conversation in 2010 between then Lebanese Prime Minister Sa`d Hariri and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fisk’s story was widely reported by the Lebanese press.  But how would Fisk have been privy to that private conversation? It seems he most likely made it up.

He also claimed that the intellectually-challenged and poorly educated, Sa`d Hariri — and I know that first-hand from his professors at Georgetown, where he was admitted thanks to the generous donation of his father — would know the title of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  On top of this, Fisk portrayed Hariri (a key ally of pro-U.S. despots) as a champion of freedom.

Not satisfied with reporting about the private conversations of Hariri and Ahmadinejad,  Fisk went on in this same piece, to report on details of Ahmadinejad’s conversation with Syrian President Bashshar Al-Asad.  This was quintessential Fisk: he was everywhere wherever there was a political event, and he was always — he wanted us to believe — the first to arrive at the scene, even when he filed dispatches from the U.K., with a byline from Beirut (according to reliable sources).

“Fisk — I dare say — flatly lies about Lebanon but not with malice. He mechanically reports all sorts of lies that he receives from his friends in March 14,” I wrote at the time in 2010. “Just because Fisk is brave against Israel and Western Zionists should not stop us from pointing out his utter incompetence and lack of credibility, especially on things Lebanese.”

Geraldo Rivera in 2011. (Mark Taylor, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Fisk was, in sum, a sensational correspondent who substituted hard work and knowledge for flare, exaggerations, and sometimes, outright fabrication.  People forget that Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera was  a  correspondent in Lebanon in 1978 and 1983 for ABC news, and  specialized in glamorizing the pro-Israeli militia of the Lebanese Forces. 

Geraldo befriended Bashir Gemayyel, the war criminal, and promoted him as the answer to Lebanon’s problems.  In his reporting, Geraldo always inserted himself in the event, or the bombing to appear as an event-maker or first-hand witness and not just a correspondent. 

Robert Fisk reminded me of Rivera from those years past.  But Fisk was not an aberration in Western reporting of the Middle East.

As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil