Robert Fisk Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

'Foreign Correspondent' in the Middle East:
Conversation with Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, The Independent; December 14, 2006 by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Mr. Fisk, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

At a town called Maidstone in Kent, southeast England, about thirty miles from London. My father was a local city accountant/treasurer. My mother was the daughter of local café owners. My dad came from the north of England, much older than my mother. He was a soldier in the First World War. My mum joined the RAF in the Second World War. My father was too old to fight. I was born in '46, just after the war was over.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Well, a lot. When I was ten my father and mother took me on my first trip abroad, which was to France. My father wanted to go back to the Somme and find the places where he'd fought and of course almost died, and to find the house which he spent his first night of peace in, on November 11, 1918. He did find the house and he didn't look in. He was too shy. I went back later with a film crew, many, many years later, and knocked on the front door, and the granddaughter of the old lady who looked after him is still living there. So, he introduced me to the history of the twentieth century, the terrible twentieth century.

I grew up as a little boy at home listening to the radio news which my father would listen to every morning, which was usually about news of British colonial withdrawal, wars in Cypress, Kenya, and Palestine. The constant trips back to France -- my father went back again and again to the western front, and he went to Dieppe, and he went to Verdun, the colossal, terrible French-German battle. By the time I went to school I knew that the Archduke Ferdinand's assassination had begun the First World War, I knew that the Second World War began in '39, that Germany invaded France in 1940; I had listened to the speeches of Churchill. So, my father's almost obsession with war, not in an unhealthy way but certainly in quite sometimes a disturbing way -- a huge picture of Churchill sitting in Downing Street, a photograph, hung gloomily over our fireplace year after year. Only after he died my mother asked if I thought it was cruel to take it down. I said, "No, take it down. Put up a watercolor of a river in Kent."

So I became very interested in history. My father was fascinated by books in history.

Why didn't you become a historian?

Well, what do you think this book is here?! I'm doing my best!

But at a certain point you decided to become a foreign correspondent.

No, I'll tell you what it was. I think that if you're a foreign correspondent you are a kind of historian. What made me become a journalist: at the age of twelve we had a black and white television at home and once a week it showed a movie. The rest of the time it was boring plays and concerts you wouldn't want to listen to. One afternoon on Sunday they showed Hitchcock's creaky old, slightly humorous, paranoid movie "Foreign Correspondent," in which Joel McCrea plays an American reporter, Huntley Haverstock, who is sent off from New York just before the beginning of the Second World War. He uncovers the top Nazi agent in London, he's chased by the Gestapo through Holland, witnesses a political assassination, is shot down by a German pocket battleship over the Atlantic, and lives to not only file a scoop to New York but wins the most gorgeous woman in the movie. And I thought at age twelve, "I wouldn't mind having this life!"

Of course it didn't actually turn out to be quite like that, but the fact of the matter is that this was the film that made be believe that to be a foreign correspondent would be a very adventurous and exciting life. I didn't realize it could be such a depressing or dangerous life. In movies, of course, the hero always lives. One of the tragic things about journalism is a lot of my colleagues have died because they arrived in wars with no experience except Hollywood, and thought the hero would live. Of course, that's not always the case. But that was the film that struck me.

My father wanted me to be a doctor, he wanted me to be a lawyer, one of the professions, and in despair one afternoon he invited one of those fake uncles we always have, the family friend who's called "Uncle Tom." There are a lot of fake uncles around. Uncle Tom arrived and said, "Robert, if you were in a law court and you saw the lawyer making his case before the judge, and you saw the reporter in his green eyeshade, which would you want to be?" I said, "The reporter, there's no doubt." I was about fourteen. And he turned to my father and said, "Your son is going to be a journalist."

What sort of education did you pursue before you hit the ground running?

Unfortunately it's not that simple. I went to English public school, which in England means private school, of course, which was brilliant at teaching Latin, extremely brutal -- I got beaten for reading a book on Czech history at a football match, Czech history being much more interesting than English football. I went to my first university and I did my BA in Latin and linguistics at University of Lancaster in the north of England. I had already started working (because I didn't think I was going to get a university place) on a local paper in Newcastle upon Tyne, which was a tough, drunken seaport, coal mining area in the northeast of England.

I then starting working, after my degree, on The Sunday Express in London, running the diary column where I was chasing lord mayors who'd run off with starlets. It wasn't bad; it was good training for covering the Middle East and asking nasty questions of politicians, American and British. I then joined The London Times before Murdoch took it over and destroyed its integrity, and I went to Northern Ireland for four or five years as a correspondent, my first conflict, a real one but nothing compared to the colossal bloodbaths I've covered and witnessed in Bosnia, Algeria, Middle East. There was a stoppage on the Times for a year, a trade union/management stoppage, during which time I started and completed a Ph.D. at Trinity College, University of Dublin. That Ph.D. was political science, but the subject was Irish neutrality in the Second World War, which enabled me to go through a lot of German and British World War II papers, which once again renewed my interest in that, and at the same time gave me a very critical historical background for the Middle East, because of course so much of Middle Eastern history that I'm watching results directly from my father's First World War/Treaty of Versailles, and the Second World War, the Jewish Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel.

So in a way, this university education, plus my father's memories and upbringing, gave me a quite horrifying view of the twentieth century. I was born in the first half of the twentieth century. I'd have to add that my father was born in 1899, so I can say that my father was born in the century before last, and there are not many sixty-year-olds that can say that, by the way. But anyway, once this combination came together so that back in the Middle East (I'd already been in the Middle East before I did my Ph.D.), I suddenly found that I had this literary/historical interest that was locked into me. My Ph.D. became a best-selling book in Ireland on Irish history and it's still read in schools. In fact, I still lecture in Ireland on modern Irish history as Dr. Fisk, the academic, not Robert Fisk, the foreign correspondent. For that reason, I began to see more in my work than I'd ever seen before. I don't mean in what I was writing, but what I was witnessing and seeing.

As the years went by I switched to The Independent from The Times. The Independent had just begun, which was a bright, new, left-of-center paper and a paper which, very fortunately for me, has an editor and always had editors who believed that they should print what the journalists write, not what the owner wants. The owner wants the journalist to write what he wants too, which is a wonderful, sort of magical situation. Let us hope it always remains that way.

But that's basically what happened, that was my upbringing and entry into journalism, and unlike most correspondents I had the good fortune, or immense misfortune, depending on your point of view, to stay in the same area, doing the same job. In British newspapers we don't have this American tradition of sending a reporter there for three years and then just when he's begun to get the contacts and understand the language and history, move him somewhere else so he has to start all over again. I'm against this system. I think it allows you to know everything about nothing and nothing about everything. To smear journalists with the old line, "He's gone native," is rubbish. You don't go native in a war zone, it's far too dangerous. So, I've ended up and I'm still, for just over thirty years, based in Beirut.

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