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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Being a Journalist

I think it would be interesting for our audience, which is both the public and students, to ...

They're the same thing, aren't they?

Well, yes.

You're making this very snobby academic thing about how the students are a little bit different than "ordinary" members of the public?

No. The interview is actually used for courses, but that in fact, both the undergraduates and the public need things explained in ways that academics often don't do.

We call them readers.

But readers, academics use jargon that ...

Unfortunately they do.

And so, the purpose here is to meet these dual needs.

Anthropologists use this sick language to exclude people from their "discourse," as they call it. I've written about them from Beirut.

I should say to our audience -- and I'd like to show the book. Chalmers Johnson once criticized me for not showing the book enough. I want to show your book again. Your book is beautifully written. You could be a novelist but you're actually on the ground. So, I think it's important for our audience to explore what's involved in doing what you do.

Well, it's full of footnotes and references and bibliography. It's fully academically referenced.

Yes. So, what are the skills required to do what you do, if somebody wants to imitate what you do?

[laughs] First of all, don't try to do what I do because it's a dangerous, lonely life, unless you really want to. And it can be a very depressing life, believe me. There was a former Sunday Times Middle East correspondent who tragically died in the 1973 war. He was killed on the front line on Golan. He once wrote with bitter irony and great humor that all you need to be as a foreign correspondent is have a few facts, a passible knowledge of English and rat-like cunning. And unfortunately (it's one of the reasons I laugh always at this) it has a good deal of truth to it.

What you have to do, and it's something that my editors have let me do, and if they didn't I wouldn't work for them, is you've got to feel passion. You've got to read. Read War and Peace. It's an extraordinary book about the reality of war. I remember in Sarajevo being with a Russian soldier who was in the UN force, under fire with him, shells are falling around us, and we were discussing Tolstoy's description of the Battle of Borodino and how it was exactly the same as what we were in now. You've got to read Anna Karenina, about lost love and betrayal. You've got to read novels about the First World War, you've got to read World War I poetry. Be fascinated and always carry history books in your back pocket. I read and read all day, sometimes eighteen hours a day. I work sometimes twenty-five-hour days, hard work being a foreign correspondent. But you've got to be able to write with passion and you've got to have the freedom to write angrily and to point out the bad guys. If I see a massacre I don't hesitate to say who's done it and why I think they did it.

Simon Kelner, who's my editor now at The Independent, describes our newspaper as a "views-paper," and he wants his correspondents out on the frontline saying what it's like and saying who the bad guys are. Usually it turns out they're all bad. Maybe the reporter is too, but certainly most of the -- I remember once, Ed Cody at the Washington Post who was then on the AP (still working in Peking for the Post now), was taking me around Lebanon for my first battle in the civil war in 1976. He said, "Bob, a lot of people will tell you the Israelis are right, or the Syrians are right, or Palestinians are right, or the Christians are right, or the Muslims are right in Lebanon." He said, "Believe me, they're all bastards." Of course you can take lots of issues with that, but what he was trying to say was there are no good guys in war. And he's right, they're aren't. Movies give you the idea that war is about victory and defeat, heroism and cowardice. It's not. War is primarily about the total failure of the human spirit. It's about death and the infliction of death. And if you don't realize that, you'll die in a war. You really will. Forget Hollywood.

One of the things that stands out in your work is that you go to places where few people dare to go, and you listen and you see, and then you write ...

That's the excitement of journalism and writing. That's the excitement of watching history as it happens. If you're going to spend your time at presidential press conferences, off-the-record briefings with embassies, ambassadors, defense attachés, write worthy analysis, calling up hopelessly boring people in what I call "tink-thanks" in Washington or New York or London, why be a journalist? You can live in County Mayo or Denver and do that. With a mobile phone and the internet (which I don't use actually, but that's a different matter), you don't need to go [abroad]. It seems to me that our only role at the moment is to be out there on the street, in the battlefield, with soldiers, with civilians, in hospitals particularly, and record the suffering of ordinary people and talk to them.

A colleague of mine, an Australian, came back from Southern Lebanon the other day very moved. She said people had just lost their daughter who died in a cluster bomb left over from the Israeli invasion, and she said they were people who spoke with such nobility. I see a lot of nobility in ordinary people. I'm not really interested -- I mean, I'm interested in why people go to war, why Bush went to war.

Before the Iraq war, because I travel to the States a lot to give lectures, I was at Harvard on September 12, when Bush gave his General Assembly lecture on the worthlessness of the United Nations. I didn't believe there was going to be an invasion of Iraq. I couldn't believe it. My editor didn't believe it but my foreign editor did.

I went down to the United Nations; I'm accredited to the UN, so I went and I sat very close to Bush. I'd never seen him in the flesh before. TV gives this flat, bland impression. And I saw Bush and there was a kind of -- I remember what the Iranians always referred to, and I never believed, understood it: the Iranians always talked about the arrogance of power. [mimicking Bush] "The people of the United States of America..." -- he always looks from side to side, two cues, of course. And I realized, "He's going to go to war, he's going to do it." I walked out of the General Assembly and called [my editor]. I said, "Leonard, I'm sorry, I was wrong. There's going to be a war." Then by pure chance I was back in the States lecturing on the east coast when Colin Powell made his famous February 5 statement in the Security Council. So, I went down to the UN again, in New York, back this time into the Security Council. And again, astonishing. There was Tenet sitting like Ernest Borgnine, behind Colin Powell ...

Or Peter Lorre? No, Ernest Borgnine ...

No, no, no, Ernest Borgnine. Gangster with a cigar. He does look at bit like Borgnine actually, Tenet. And from the corner -- you didn't see this on television -- in came little Jack Straw, our foreign secretary, in a massive power suit, and he looked around, caught sight of Colin Powell and ran with his little feet, got this big American hug, you know. It told you a lot about power and why Blair does what Bush wants. And then Colin Powell started producing this -- again, you have to be there on the scene. Watching on television was not good enough. The first thing that they showed was this big artist's impression. Colin Powell told us that the Iraqis were now using mobile chemical weapons laboratories -- [non-verbal sound] - difficult with a test tube on the train, right? And there was a picture of a train with a cross section and a scientist in a long white coat holding a test tube, of course, of course, right? And this was supposed to be the mobile weapons lab.

I looked at this and I thought, hang on a minute. Whoever drew this in the State Department or the Pentagon has never been on Iraqi state railways. They come off the track all the time. With sanctions the railway line is no good. You couldn't possibly have a -- even the basic system was wrong. And then they had some quotes from a Republican Guard allegedly talking to another on the phone intercept in which one said, "Whatever you do, don't let them see this!" And the reply was, "Consider it done, sir." Now nobody actually gave us the Arabic of this, which I would love to have read, but I just watched this and I said this is bullshit -- forgive me -- this stuff comes out of the rear end of a bull. This is rubbish.

I wrote the next day that the New York Times will take this in its usual sober way, and sure enough, it did, with Judith Miller beside it on weapons of mass destruction. Ahh, American journalism!

But you had to be there to have the confidence to say it's not right and analyze it. Being there, you know, a few meters from Powell, rather than just sitting in London and watching it on a satellite TV, sitting in Beirut and watching it on satellite TV. So, it's being there that is what is important. If I can't be there, I don't want to be a journalist anymore.

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