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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Wartime Journalism

In looking at your career as it has evolved over the thirty years and covering all these wars, talk a little bit about how the work has changed you.

Me?

Yes. Did your writing become better? Was there one parti--

Yes. It became a lot better.

And was it the commitment to what you were doing, and you had so much to tell, and working long hours ... ?

No. It was because what I'm seeing was so terrible that it gave me an absolute determination to write more freely, to tell it how it is in the best tradition of American journalism as opposed to the worst traditions which we see now. You know, I was thinking the other day as I was flying here from Beirut, something that Seymour Hirsch told me. I like Hirsch. He's a mate of mine. We don't see much of each other, we talk on the phone occasionally. He said, "You know, there's no kudos in American newspapers these days, breaking a big story that's going to be controversial. They want safe journalism." And he said, "You know, I was a street reporter in Chicago." I started off as a street reporter in Newcastle upon Tyne, I understand exactly what he meant.

I think that's a problem. An awful lot of journalism in the east coast of America now is graduate school journalism, maybe degrees that don't count in journalism -- I mean, degree in English history or politics, yes, but not journalism. I was very struck by the fact that reporters are supposed to be obedient now. Look at the reporting of the West Bank, where American journalists keep referring to occupied territories as "disputed territory," where the wall is called a "fence," where a colony is called a "settlement" or a "neighborhood," or an "outpost", where [there is a] constant desemanticizing of war to make it safe journalism so you won't be called controversial. Heaven spare you if someone falsely accuses you of being anti-Semitic. This kind of journalism breeds internal laziness, and it's lethal, because if a public is presented with pictures of the Middle East in which there are "fences" and "disputes," a fence like the bottom of your garden, a dispute which you can solve over a glass of water, cup of tea, and a court case, then the use of violence becomes generically violent, it becomes mindless, and thus the Palestinians, for example, who may throw stones, or whatever, become a generically violent people. In fact, if there are walls and if there are people occupying your own land and keeping it -- I'm against all violence for all reasons whatsoever, but at least you can understand what it means.

We desemanticize and make war more lethal in the same way as television, for example, will not show you the worst scenes that we see. I remember once a crew coming back from Basra in the Iraqi/American war, not embedded -- they were on the Iraqi side of the line -- and they came back to Baghdad with terrible pictures. A kid had its hand blown off, a woman is shrieking with shrapnel sticking out of her stomach, and they sent these pictures across to London, to the Reuters bureau, and I remember this haughty voice coming back, "We can't show these pictures. Don't even bother to send anymore." You know: "We're going to have people puking at breakfast time. We -- we -- this is pornography!" You see? And then the worst quote of all. He said -- and I remember his words, I read about it from Baghdad during the war -- he said, "You know, we've got to show respect for the dead." And I thought, "You bloody well don't show any respect for them when they're alive, but when they're in bits we've got to respect their bodies." Heaven spare me.

I always say to people -- on the road, Basra in '91, I saw women, as well as soldiers and civilians, old men, torn apart by British bombs as well as American. And dogs were tearing them to pieces to eat, it was lunchtime in the desert. I tell you, if you saw what I saw you'd never support a war again. But you won't show that on television. And by not showing that on television we present the world with a bloodless sand pit. We pretend war is not that bad. It's "surgical," always "surgical strikes." Surgery's a place where you're cured in the hospital, not where you're murdered or killed or torn apart. Thus, we make it easier for our leaders -- our generals, our prime ministers, our presidents -- to sell us war, and for us to buy into war and go along with that. That makes us lethally culpable and potentially war criminals in a very moral sense of the word -- or immoral sense, I should say.

So, this lack of visibility about what war is really about is conducive to the changes in military strategy which say, "We can do it all by computer, we can go into a place like Iraq and bomb the place, and then leave immediately." So, there's a fit between what's happening in the culture and the kind of war American leaders, at least, want to wage.

The culture of journalism and war hasn't changed an awful lot. Reporters during World War II with Western armies were pretty much on the side. And why not? We all knew ("we" -- I wasn't alive yet) that Hitler's was an evil, wicked, terrible regime, but they were able to tell quite a lot about the blood and the splintered bones and the civilians. It got out just as, of course, the concentration camps, the extermination camps, when they were liberated, rightly got out. But pictures -- you see, film cameras were not the same then. Vietnam was undoubtedly a turning point. You did see a lot of blood and gore in Vietnam -- not as much as there was, but you saw quite a lot.

And it became a political problem?

Exactly. And rightly so. The problem now is that at the end of the day, television will not push any limits. We've got to have access, we've got to have pictures, we've got to have pictures. And at the end of the day, every time, every time, television journalists, crews, companies, have been confronted by the military saying, "You may not, you will not," they said, "We've got to, we'll get a high court writ, we'll go to court, freedom of the press," and [then] they cave in and they do what the military wants. The military know they're going to do what they want.

At the moment, it's almost impossible to travel anywhere in Iraq, and the American military's very happy with that. We can't investigate the bombing of villages, we can't go to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, because we'd be killed. My colleague, Patrick Coburn of The Independent wrote a very finely written piece the other day in The Independent. He said, "The worst thing about listening to Tony Blair say that things are getting better in Iraq is that if we went there where we could prove him wrong, we would have our throats cut, because it's getting worse." You see? But [Blair] can say because we don't go there, it's getting better. See?

The culture of not covering war correctly is going to ride along, but you always find a way around it if you want to, if you want to. I don't have a camera -- well, I carry a still picture camera. I still use real film, by the way, I'm not digitalized yet. (But then again, I don't use e-mail or the internet.) But I can wangle my way and talk my way, I know enough people in that region to get where I want to go.

Looking at your extraordinary career --

It isn't extraordinary, actually. It's a pretty depressing career.

It's extraordinary in comparison to the way many reporters cover these situations, if they cover them at all. But I'm curious, was there one event, one war, one incident, one village destroyed, where you did a second take and it brought you to a new level of understanding war?

Oh, yes, yes.

And what was that?

The massacre at Sabra-Shatila, from September 16 - 18, 1982, when Israel's Phalangist Christian Lebanese allies were sent into the camp and massacred up to 1,700 Palestinians. I got into the camp with American and Norwegian colleagues and the murderers were still in the camp, you could still hear the shooting. And we found piles of bodies. We had to climb over them on our hands and knees, corpses rotting in the sun.

We should explain to our audience that this was the Israelis allowing the Christian Lebanese ...

No, they sent the Christian Lebanese militias into the camp. They sent them in to destroy "Palestinian terrorists." There weren't any armed men in the camp, of course. And what was terrible about it, as the Israelis later disclosed in their official account, is that the Israelis watched this happen and did nothing. I was very struck by this because when I was in the camp I could see the Israelis watching and doing nothing. They saw and they did nothing.

I remember once I ran with my American colleague. We heard the murderers coming down the street, and we ran into the back of this house, this backyard of this house, and closed the door gently and waited, hoping they wouldn't find us because we thought they were just going to kill us too, we were witnesses. I looked down out of the left-hand side of my eye and I saw this young woman lying on her back with her head up towards the sun, the hands spread out, with a halo of clothes pegs around her head. She'd been putting up the washing. And from behind her back was running this ant's track of blood across the yard. She'd just been murdered. As we came through the backyard, the murderers were obviously leaving through the front door. And I remember watching this woman, thinking, "She'll get up. She'll get up and say, 'I've got a pain in my back.'" She was dead, of course. That night, I went back to the AP bureau. It was a Saturday and we didn't have a Sunday paper on the Times then. I didn't have to file until the next day, and I sat there in absolute distraction that this had happened. I'd never seen killing on this scale, this cruelly, watched by a "civilized" army.

I wrote that night with a freedom of anger and passion I'd never felt before, because there were victims on a massive scale. A very fine Israeli writer later compared it to the Ustashi killings in Bosnia in the Second World War, which the Germans watched. That wasn't saying the Israelis were Germans, which is rubbish, they're not, but that's what he compared it to.

I remember watching the AP bureau as phone calls came in from New York, "Well, can you really call this a massacre?" I remember saying to the editor of AP -- I was working from his bureau, I said, "When is it a massacre [rather than] a crime against humanity? And when do you [define it as] a massacre? Are you really getting involved in this? Haven't you seen the pictures?" And the picture editor of AP was saying, "I can't believe this. This is a war crime, and a war crime is like producing dirty pictures out of an envelope." You know?

I remember discussing afterwards this particularly with American television reporters. (They were using first videotape then, of course, footage. It was very difficult. They had to take the videotape to Damascus, have it satellite up to -- it wasn't just having a little machine in those days.) And we all agreed that we now had a freedom to speak about the Middle East wars, and to speak about Israel, which we never had before. Later, of course, a new generation of journalists came and many of them went back to reporting things the old way where you had to talk about "disputed" instead of "occupied" and "fences" instead of "walls," or whatever. But that's what changed me.

After that -- I remember distinctly people telling me -- my mother, who was still alive then (my father and mother are dead now), that "You really write quite differently now." Quite a lot of my colleagues did too. David Hearst of The Guardian -- I noticed the way his writing changed and became harsher, and became much more passionate and intense. I believe journalists should be [that way]. This business where we've got to give 50% of the story to one side and 50% to the other in order to be "impartial," absolute rubbish. We should be partial. We should say who the bad guys are. We should denounce the Syrians when they commit murder in Hamra, and the Iraqis when they gas people, and the Israelis when the massacre refugees on the roads of southern Lebanon. If we were covering the slave trade, would we give equal time to the slave ship captain? No, we'd talk to the slaves, wouldn't we? If we were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, do we give equal time to the spokesman of the SS? Forget it. We talk to the survivors and talk about the victims.

When I was in Jerusalem in August of 2001, that's when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a pizzeria full of women and children. I went and wrote about the children I saw dead in front of me, Israeli children, of course. I didn't give half my story to the Islamic jihad spokesman. The same at Sabra-Shatila. I didn't write about the IDF, I wrote about the victims. We should have a side, and it should be a moral side to us. We may get it wrong occasionally, but if we're not going to write like that, what the hell's the point of being there and taking the risk and sending a correspondent all over the world?

I'll give you my perfect example of what's wrong with journalism at the moment, the degree to be "safe" and quote someone else. Patrick Coburn, my colleague again, was in Baghdad and he was on the balcony of his room and there were bullets flying around outside. There are all the time now, it's a hell disaster. And he saw an American colleague crawling out on his balcony, putting up his sat-phone and talking on it. He thought, "My God, there must be an exclusive story to take that kind of risk." And the guy came back in the room and later that evening he said, "By the way, that was very courageous of you, to take that risk. What the hell were you filing?" He said, "Oh, no, I was ringing the Brookings Institute. I needed a quote about what was happening in Iraq."

[laughs]

That's what's wrong with American journalism. That's what's wrong with journalism, full stop. Actually I should say -- you know, we're talking about other journalists -- the French are very good at getting to the scene and reporting the reality. I know France doesn't have a very clean reputation in American politics at the moment but by goodness, they've got good journalists. You read a translation of Liberacion, Figero, Le Monde -- they've got it. I work at lot with French -- I normally work on my own, but if I work with other reporters, I tend to report with Italians or the French because my goodness, they get to the war front.

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