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A conversation with Robert Fisk

The world-renowned war correspondent was in Ireland this week. He spoke to TheJournal.ie about matters Irish and international, and why Vladimir Putin is his dream interviewee.

Image: BBC

HE’S A MAN who should need little introduction.

One of the most decorated journalists the world over, 68-year-old Robert Fisk has spent the majority of the last 40 years in the Middle East documenting the sort of horrors you or I can only imagine.

He has reported from hotspots like Lebanon (he still lives in Beirut where he works as Middle Eastern correspondent for the London Independent), Israel, Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Holder of 12 honorary degrees, a seven-time winner of International Journalist of the Year, and author of such best-selling books as Pity The Nation and The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk is also the only man to have interviewed Osama bin Laden three times.

His foreign correspondent career began with the Times of London in 1972, reporting on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Fisk2 Fisk and old friend Pat Carey, Enniskerry, 2014

He’s also an unfailingly polite and interesting man.

This week he was in Ireland briefly and TheJournal.ie caught up with him for a chat, to hear his thoughts on…

IRELAND AND THE 1916 COMMEMORATION

I was in Ireland when an invitation for Queen Elizabeth to the 1916 commemoration was first mooted, and remember thinking ‘is that wise?!’ I mean, is it far enough from 1916, from the Troubles to go that far? Obviously now it’s not going to happen but I was amazed it was even considered. Figurehead or no, Queen Elizabeth is the head of the United Kingdom and the British Army – it was her grandfather who presided over the Rising executions. When the Queen bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance to remember those who died fighting for Ireland I remember watching in Beirut and thinking ‘that’s good, but that’s enough for the time being!’
The 1916 centenary is a hugely important moment in Irish history (Fisk’s father actually fought for the British in 1916). But for the British 1916 was just another part of World War One.
One thing you learn living in the Middle East, those who want peace want to head there at a million miles an hour, on Concorde. I’ve learned that when you’re heading in the right direction, you need to take your time.

CHARLIE HEBDO

I view this with rather more Middle Eastern eyes than European ones. All the crimes against humanity in the West, from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo, the problem with all these events is journalists want to know Who and How, but never Why. The moment you ask Why you’re abused for endorsing terrorism, for seeking a context that most people don’t want.
When 9/11 happened I was on a plane, on an aircraft phone, and my immediate thought was ‘this is what happens when history bites you’. Really, I was surprised on 9/11 that it hadn’t happened much, much earlier. I had known for years there was going to be an explosion in the Middle East, because when you live there you can feel it. You read in Arabic as well as English and you realise something is very, very wrong.
That doesn’t mean the dead of 9/11 or Charlie Hebdo are anything but innocents, they were completely blameless. But the fact remains that if you cause trouble in the Middle East it will come back to haunt you. If you bomb Syria or Iraq, you will pay the price. It’s inevitable.  And, if after that you then go and mock the religion of the people who have died in such numbers, well then some people are going to be very angry. 
Basically, if you don’t pay attention then your government will take decisions that will come back to haunt you.
We in the West provide a moral gloss to everything we do, but it hurts just as much to be killed by our bombs as by theirs believe me.

Charlie Hebdo magazine shooting David Cameron joins the Charlie Hebdo march through Paris on 11 January, 2015 Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

The aftermath of Charlie Hebdo was very disturbing – we saw a march through Paris led by people with blood on their hands, a Saudi diplomat from a country which chops off heads, an Israeli prime minister whose country had slaughtered children the previous August, what were they marching for?
To really understand you have to do something that we don’t like to do: if you have a crime that isn’t political, the first thing a policeman does is look for a motive. When you’re dealing with terror attacks we are conditioned as Westerners that the one thing we must not look for is motive, and therein lies the problem.

ISIS AND THE MIDDLE EAST

The big problem with the Middle East is to get people to see it from a different perspective; to stop accepting the American version of reality, i.e. ‘terror terror terror’, and instead look at the question of injustice. Seeing a different perspective, that of people who suffer for example.

PAKISTAN ATTACKS INJURED JOURNALIST Fisk in 2001 after being beaten by Afghan refugees. He absolved his attackers of all blame claiming 'their brutality was just a product of others' Source: AP/Press Association Images

I am one of the few journalists who puts inverted commas around ‘Islamic State’. They can produce as much currency and social networks as they like, they are not a state, they are a cult.
They are as dangerous, as flamboyant, as horrible, and as ridiculous as other cults that have existed all over the world. We can not legitimise these people because they claim they’re a state (even though they don’t believe in international borders).
We have allowed the Americans to hijack the nonsense that ISIS put out. We have the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff calling ISIS apocalyptic – what is he talking about? It’s fairly clear to me that ISIS emerged from the brutality, cruelty and sectarianism that followed the Western invasion of Iraq. In the years that followed I would go to a mortuary and see bodies coming in without heads, with slit throats, I remember hearing of one body that had a dog’s head sewn on in place of its own – that was the beginning of ISIS.
And like all cults it will split. I was talking to a Syrian army intelligence officer recently, his army has lost 46,000 men, many of them killed by ISIS, he seemed the man to ask ‘what is ISIS?’. He replied: “You know Robert, I have a kind of dream, that one day I will wake up and it will have splintered into a hundred different bits, and you Westerners will be deciding who the moderates are.”
We’ll choose the ones we’ll talk to, as we always do, because we sure aren’t going to bomb them out of existence.

ISRAEL, GAZA, AND BENJAMIN NETANYAHU

Nothing ever changes with the Israeli elections when it comes to Palestinians. For 40 years I’ve sat in Beirut after elections and said things will change, for good or ill, but nothing ever does and colonies for Jews and Jews only continue to be built on Arab land.There is not going to be a Palestinian state. Most Israelis don’t want it to happen. Many do, very bravely, and are cursed by their own countrymen for saying so.

Fisk1

Israel’s long-term security is in danger if there isn’t a Palestinian state, for two reasons: if you occupy three million Palestinians and don’t give them a vote, or if you annex territory from Israel to the Jordan river and still don’t give them a vote, well then you’re an apartheid state. That’s not criticism, it’s reality.
On the other hand if you do give them a vote then the Arabs are in the majority and it won’t be Israel any more.
Gaza? Gaza is a prison, but for the most part there aren’t any Israelis there.
As Netanyahu said hours before the final votes in last week’s election (where Netanyahu was re-elected), there will be no Palestinian state. For once he was telling the truth I think, and if you go to Israel as I do, you know that there isn’t going to be one.

VLADIMIR PUTIN

Analysing Putin is like analysing the head of Hezbollah, or ISIS or Netanyahu or Avigdor Lieberman (who said disloyal Israeli Arabs should have their heads chopped off with an axe).  It comes to the point when journalists should write humorous stories about these guys rather than taking them seriously.
Putin’s an interesting guy: the three men in history I would like to interview are Conrad Black, Mussolini, and Putin, because of their importance as historical figures not for who they are or what they represent.

Russia Capital Return Source: AP/Press Association Images

Putin I’d still like to speak to because he has immense political power, he has a big brain and many people are very frightened of him, and that means he’s someone we should know about, and not as some depiction as the next Hitler made by NATO guys who couldn’t find Ukraine on a map.
Putin represents a people that have been deeply humiliated, their great power status collapsed around them and not because of war but because their economy collapsed.
Osama bin Laden once said to me he helped to bring about the fall of the Soviet Union, because he contributed to them leaving Afghanistan, and that really was the beginning of the end for their military might.
Now, Putin is trying to restore it. When a country implodes all kinds of strange and charismatic people (Putin is certainly strange) pop up.
After the French revolution and the implosion of their state, up popped Napoleon, and next thing anyone knew he was advancing on Moscow.
That’s the context we have to view Putin in really.
If you look at Putin’s policies, he had no time for the president of Ukraine who ran away in the face of revolution, but al Assad in Syria never ran away, and Putin respects that. He likes strong military leaders.
He certainly doesn’t think much of Obama!  At the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Obama was very neatly dressed on the left of the stage, and on the right Putin was slumped in jeans looking like a man who’d been out on the town and would much rather be at home asleep in bed. That was Putin describing his opinion of Obama in silence.

THE KILLING OF BORIS NEMTSOV

Russians should be worried, but the best people to advise the Russians about Nemtsov are the Russians, not Western powers who did everything they could to interfere in Russia’s revolution in the first place.
Who did it? I have absolutely no idea. We’ve got enough assassinations on my beat without worrying about the Kremlin!

MODERN JOURNALISM

The transition from paper to screen doesn’t mean we need to lose any value in writing, quite the opposite, or that we should lose the ethics of writing or cease to observe the laws of libel. Online journalism should mean an alternative to bad writing, that is people not being paid for writing rubbish.
Most newspapers that have lost circulation, particularly in the States, it’s not because of the internet, it’s because those newspapers were simply no good.  When I go to San Francisco the coverage of the Middle East in its papers is frightened, cowardly, pathetic, there’s no serious foreign coverage at all.

3167575006_b2a00d64d4_b Source: Torrenegra

Newspapers themselves are to blame for the deterioration in their readership. I read the New York Times when its free, period, it doesn’t deserve to be paid for. It’s not worth it.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s online or not. If a paper’s not worth buying you’ll read for free online regardless.
The print side of journalism is very much its own victim. If you don’t produce a product worth reading, it won’t be read.

SOCIAL MEDIA

It seems to me that a problem of the internet is it allows anyone to dispense with the ethical rules of journalism – they being: getting it right, being fair, and absolutely not being abusive. People will say the most outrageously obscene things when cloaked in anonymity. And that’s why I see the internet as a sort of addiction.
The freedom it gives… If I call someone a liar journalistically it’s off to court with me, but when you say it on Twitter… I would see Twitter as a version of what we used to call ‘poisoned pen letters’. Journalists are held to rigorous standards, and those who would wish to attack us are not. This is a problem.

2511539541_e5d5d8720d_o Source: Carrot Creative

And those of us who have lived and worked in the Middle East who were used to being personally abused for many decades before the internet came along, now we find things are even worse. I mean, anonymous people are wishing me to die and have my head chopped off! Now that might be ok in small-town Ireland, but in the Middle East someone very may well chop your head off.
The lack of human responsibility among users of social media is a huge problem, because you can drive people to the grave doing this.
I’m not a Luddite, I’m not against technology, but I think when we’re faced with the wonders of technology we need a critical faculty, i.e. how are people going to use this, if they don’t use it fairly what’s the mechanism to stop it? If you’re not a millionaire you’re at the Internet hate-man’s mercy.

PAYING FOR CONTENT

When I’m told by someone in America, ‘I don’t want to pay to read your articles’, my reaction is “I agree, but the problem is the next time I have to fly to Cairo who will pay for my air fare?” But then they’ll be the first to say ‘why isn’t Robert Fisk in Cairo?’ Money doesn’t grow in the garden, we live in a capitalist world and, unless we’re subsidised by governments which means we’ve surrendered already, you have to turn a dollar if you’re producing serious writing, it’s as simple as that.
And you will always need somebody to be able to get on a bus, get on a plane and document what’s actually happening in the world. How I was raised, sitting at home and reading the news – that wasn’t good enough.

This interview was made possible with the kind assistance of Pat Carey and Enniskerry Heartsavers - a group that campaigns for the provision of public-access defibrillators in their area and around rural Ireland in general. 

Read: How and why did the west change its view of Gaddafi?

Read: Bahrain to sue The Independent over ‘one-sided’ reporting

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