Robert Fisk Interview Hyatt Auckland 9/9/08 by underground

A couple of years back I finished my BA in History and Sociology and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Disillusioned, I spent two years working full time in a book store. I flirted with the idea of secondary school teaching until I read Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation. People had suggested I look into journalism as a career before, but it was not until I read Fisk’s book on the history of the Middle East that I felt compelled to get into journalism. I loved the passion with which he writes with, the attention to detail, the sympathy he has for those who suffer in the troubled region. His knowledge on the area is unparalleled. I found his reporting inspiring. I feel I owe Fisk a lot, so imagine my delight when I was given the chance to interview my hero for Te Waha Nui.

This is the transcript from my 45 minute interview with the Independent’s Robert Fisk. Please forgive any grammatical errors – it took me eight hours to transcribe! Enjoy.

Robert Fisk interview

Hyatt Hotel Auckland 9/9/08

Paul Harper: I saw you on television last night speaking with John Campbell…

Robert Fisk: Yeah…I did not! I can’t remember the interview! No when you’re very tired you don’t remember what you… I can come out of a lecture and start signing books and have no idea what you’ve said for the last hour. Anyway, So you saw it yeah?

PH: You said even with a change of President (in America) you didn’t have much hope for the Middle East.

RF: It doesn’t make a difference, I think that America’s um, total commitment and unconditional commitment to Israel is not going to change. And you know we always go through the same cycle. The presidential candidate has to go to Israel in order to make sure he gets the Jewish vote, which isn’t always the case; they always want the Jewish vote though, that’s the idea. And then he (Obama) always said, “I believe in the unified capital of Israel”, which is the annexed part of Jerusalem, which is internationally illegal, its not meant to be part of the state of Israel. It’s always…what did he (Obama) do? 45 minutes with the Palestinians and 24 hours with the Israelis. That shows you what’s going to happen. And then the officials always say “but no Bob, its not like that, he’s got to do this, but later it’ll be fair”. Right? And then there’s going to be… whoever gets to be President there will be some sort of conflict, war with Hezbollah or someone, Iran or whatever, and then the Americas will call on both sides to exercise restraint, but will continue to funnel billions of dollars and weapons into Israel, and will not worry about, um, you know, issues like the security of Arabs, um by all means be concerned about the security of Israel, but the security of Palestinians doesn’t matter very much, or doesn’t appear to. And then of course by the time we’ve got through that crisis, it is time for the mid term elections again. So it is back to the Wailing Wall and Palestinians and so and so forth. I mean, I’ve no objection for any, you know, what objection could I have, I think that American Presidential candidates should go to Israel and should go to Yad Vashem (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority), but they should also spend equal time with the Arabs and realise that they also deserve security. Um, you know, Obama’s got those two hopeless old has-beens of the Israeli peace process. He’s got Madeline Albright, who once said that Israel was under siege, as if we were seeing tanks in Tel Aviv, and he’s got Dennis um what’s his name, former official of Aipac, it’ll come back to me, because I am tired, um, and you know, he has got two advisers who are known to be totally pro-Israeli, um, and as far as the Republicans are concerned, it speaks for itself. It’s not going to make any difference. It is not going to make any difference.

I’ve spent 32 years in the Middle East and every time there is to be a change in President, all the Arabs say, “oh, maybe it will make a difference, maybe they’ll be fair this time”. And the bombs keep falling as they always did. You know, it doesn’t make any difference. Um, and Obama can’t just pull out of Iraq like that, he’s going to be committed for reasons of commercial and oil and so on. Um, and Afghanistan is lost. We’re losing; it is not going to work.

First we had all the troops in Afghanistan, then we bled them away and put them in Iraq and now we claim Iraq’s okay, which it isn’t, so we’re going to put them all back in Afghanistan again. I mean, it’s hopeless. But, um… What’s his name um Dennis, ah, god I must get it right for you… ah…sorry its just coz I’m tired.

PH: I can look it up… (Dennis Ross)

RF: Yeah, it’s in my other book (Great war for civilisation), actually, in it’s my bag. But anyway, no it’s not going to make the slightest bit of difference.

PH: With your writing, you come to the end of it and you get a sense of hopelessness…

RF: Yes, yes it is.

PH: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

RF: When people realise it is hopeless, maybe we can do something that will be hopeful. But, they’re all constantly telling us, “things are looking up; Iraq is getting better, there will be peace with the Palestinians…” It is not. Iraq is worse. There is no hope for a Palestinian state at all and the Israelis are continuing to build settlements for Israelis and Israelis only on Arab land. Forget it. And Israeli settlements are continuing to be built right round east Jerusalem so that there can’t be East Jerusalem as an Arab capital. And if its not, there is not going to be a state for Palestine. Um, Afghanistan is a hell disaster, Pakistan is now a hell disaster, um we’re now in… ah… how many…Our military forces are now in, you know, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan to some extent, um Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Saudi (Arabia), Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar. What are we doing? Soldiers… I mean, I calculated… I don’t know if he said in his programme (Campbell Live?), I calculated for our Sunday magazine not so long ago, that we now have 22 times as many military personal in the Muslim world as the crusaders had in the 12th Century. It’s not going to work. It’s not our land. We’ve got to leave. I mean, our military forces have got to leave; we can have, you know, cultural relations, political relations, social relations, religious, anything we want, but not soldiers. We can’t… you know… the Egyptian army is not in Paris, the Jordanian army is not in London, the Syrian Army is not in Wellington, you know, we mustn’t be in their countries. It is not ours. And we are.

PH: Considering what you have witnessed and what you catalogued in your books, how do you cope?

RF: (Laughs) The coping matter! “How do you come to terms with it?” We move forward! (Sarcastically)

Yeah, look, I think that is bullshit. The only thing that matters when you ask me those (sorts of questions) is how do the poor people cope, who have pariah passports and can’t get visas and spend their entire lives trying to keep their families alive. How do they manage to get through life? That’s the thing. Um… you know…

Waiter: Would you like to order something?

Could I have a pot of tea please?

Waiter: Which tea would you like?

I will just have English tea, if that is possible. I’d like some toast, on white bread…

Waiter: White bread toast?

Yeah toast and butter. And you want… they just wanted some water.

PH: Yes thanks.

You want a sparkling water.

PH: Just a regular water thanks.

Ordinary water thanks.

Um, sorry, where were we? Where was I, sorry?

PH: The old “coping question”.

(laughs) Old coping question! Don’t use words like cope on me!

Look journalists, um, we’re not millionaires, but we’re moderately well paid, if we don’t want to cover wars, or we find it is getting on top of us, or whatever words you want, um, we can fly home club class and drink a glass of Champaign, we’re free, you know. If you choose to cover wars and if you choose to watch this litany of massacre, betrayal, torture, secret policemen, cover stories of dictators, invasions, um, that’s the choice you make. And if you want to cover the history of the Middle East, and cover it properly, you’re going to see terrible things. And that’s it. And I think you have to be tough to work in a place like the Middle East, and you have to take the sticks and stones. Sometimes literally.

PH: How has war reporting changed in your time in the Middle East?

War reporting?

Um… well… um…well it has got much more dangerous. Partly because of the lethality of weapons, partly because politicians, even in the West, care much less about the death of journalists then they used to, partly because of the willingness of the various belligerents to deliberately shoot journalists. I mean, um, British journalists were shot dead in Gaza, Israelis didn’t care very much, “very sorry, but you shouldn’t have been there”. “Blame it on Hamas”. They admit their soldiers shot him and the guy was wearing all the right clothes, in fact a big thing saying “press”, they weren’t even allowed to talk to the soldier who did the killing. They (Israel) did an inquiry, which exonerated the Israelis. When you do that, it’s easier for us to be killed by someone else. You know, the next time Syrians shoot one of us, they’ll say “well the Israelis shot one and the Americans, well, the Americans are shooting journalists in Iraq, what’s the big fuss?”. So it’s the increasing lethality of weapons, you know, they weren’t using a lot of cluster bombs in 1976, they were in ’82, um, these deep penetration bombs were not being used on this scale, I didn’t see much phosphorous being used in the early years when I was in the Middle East, um, so you’ve got increasing use of much more lethal weapons, in much more civilianised areas. People shred civilians to pieces without caring, so they are going to do the same to us, and as I say, um, you know, people care less about our deaths, and then on top of that we are targeted. There have been 60 (inaudible?) in Iraq; we’ve lost more people in Iraq than Vietnam. I think the other thing you must remember is there are many more journalists floating around and the new ones who come in, you know, we are all new to war at some point in our lives, the ones who fleet in from Denver on their first trip abroad, their only experience of war is, like that of Mr Blair and Mr Bush, who defended America in Texas from the sky, didn’t he, was um, is of Hollywood, where the hero always lives. And the hero doesn’t always live. And if you come in wearing your new Bouchy(?) jacket or whatever, it doesn’t mean your going to survive. And ah, we had a big problem in the beginning of Bosnia, um, where the reporters from the Middle East were not covering Bosnia, so they were bringing in people from London, Washington and New York who had never been in a war and they lost more than 30 in one year. Which is a terrible toll. And they were being hunted as well, shot deliberately, but they simply did not know how to stay alive and learn about it. Of course you’ve got to learn sometime, but they were all coming in, and had this Hollywood theory about war, same happened in Kuwait in 1991. And I remember a guy who arrived from Denver, I can’t remember now, he’s in one of my books, he rushed into Kuwait. And he’s got this camouflage clothes on, he’s got camouflage boots, don’t you remember that?

Yeah, I remember that.

With leaves painted on them! Where do you go from there! And these people are a danger to themselves. So when you have a large number, many more journalists, particularly young inexperienced ones, um, you’re going to have more deaths. So war reporting has got more deadly. That’s what has happened.

I mean, In terms of equipment we use, um, well I used to have to use a telex, which was pitiful, or dictate by phone. Now I’ve got a mobile phone and I can send from my laptop. But I don’t use email and I don’t use the internet at all. But, you know, the technology has improved. But the flip side is, you know, it happened to me once, I was using my laptop in a Bosnian forest in the snow, with a satellite feed, suddenly it says up the top “total disk failure”. Now, when I was using telexes, I did a two-day course…

(Tea comes) Thank you very much. I did a two-day course, um… There’s two waters coming up?

Waiter: Oh yip

And there’s two cups…nevermind. I did a two-day course at the post office in Dublin on how to mend telex machines and you know, when I went to Kabul or Libya and [someone says] “telex machine no work”, [he’d says] “okay, let me have it” and I could take it to bits and put it together again. But I don’t know how a computer works and nor do you or me, neither of you do, nor I. And if you have “total disk failure”, that’s it. And if it happens to you in the forest near Sarajevo, that is it. You’re out. So we are also prisoners of the technology when it breaks down, you see. When my mobile phone goes, I can do nothing. Um, it did go the other day actually here, in Christchurch. But that’s another problem.

There are many more reporters than there were. I mean, you can’t, If there is a press conference, as if you can see the people giving them anymore for all the number of TV crews, 85, you know, banked TV crew cameras, you have to crawl through their legs to even see anybody. You never get the chance to ask a question and the TV questions are garbage. Its just do they can be seen on TV asking a question. (Puts on American accent)…Condoleezza Rice or whoever…“Eh tell me Miss Secretary of State, eh tell me Secretary of State…. How do you see the situation in Lebanon?” Christ, we all know what the situation in Lebanon is, we want to ask her why is America giving extra weapons to so and so. And, um, in a sense, the hermitically sealed leaders of our countries not only have they been bubbled when they’re in Washington or London, but the press help them remain in their bubbles when they’re cruising around the area talking peace or ceasefires or war or whatever they’re talking about. Um, and there was a very good example before the invasion of Iraq, Cheney did the rounds of Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf, and he wanted their support. And I mean, I do the rounds of Arab leaders in the Gulf too, and I knew they were regarding this Iraq invasion as an absolute catastrophe to come. And Cheney would come out, “we’ve had very good talks, very forward looking talks, and I’ve explained the American position and so he entirely understood,” and then people would say to Cheney, “well the Emir has just said he is against the war,” and he’d say “well that’s what he says in public”. Well, no one was there, I mean, I was, but that’s what he is saying in private too! You know, and they get away with it. One face to the world, one face to the… you know. And “he has to look after his domestic opposition”. It’s bullshit. The Arab Gulf leaders and Emirs, corrupt though they are, and supported by us as they are, are saying the3 exact same thing to Cheney, or in even stronger words then they would say in a press conference. Um, but you can’t get to them because there is this bank of American TV cameras and all these state department journalists asking all these sheep-like questions, You know, they might as well go “baaaaaaa” and that’s the equivalent of, you know, what they ask. So you’re out. That’s what has changed too. And in the early days we could get at them easier, much more easier. Um, but at least occasionally get into a press conference in the Arab world where they can’t um, where they can’t stop you asking a harsh question. I got Warren Christopher once when he was Secretary of State, when he came to Beirut and I got to the front because I’ve got a Lebanese press pass, I’m accredited to the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Army you see, so I got right to the front. (Christopher impersonation) “ryrtyaryrayryryrayra”, you always had to have subtitles for Warren Christopher, and I said “Mr Secretary, Robert Fisk of the Independent”. “ryaryayrayayr”. “Why is America so frightened of Israel?” (laughs) and there was a long silence, and some of the American journalists started clucking their tongues, like they were working for the State department. (laughs) I waited, and the Lebanese were in fits of laughter, you know, and it was all live on TV of course, live on CNN as well. “I don’t think I understand” (Christopher impersonation) and he started giving me a history on the state of Israel since 1948, you know. And my point, of course, was that America will never contradict anything America ever says. And he knew that. But he just didn’t know how to deal with the question, because he is not asked those questions. But there’s the problem basically nowadays, if you’re a leader you can be hermetically sealed off with a wall of soft sheep-like journalists, so you’re in your bubble when you’re out there, as well as when you’re in Downing Street, you know, the Quai d’Orsay, Elysee Palace, or in Washington or wherever.

Um, how much longer do you think you will continue to report from Beirut?

Christ, why do people ask this? I have plans at all to leave Beirut. No, I know what you’re saying; it is because I have been there a long time. I have, you know, I’m not even thinking of that question. Somebody put out on some “blogopop” you know I don’t read the internet but they said I was retiring or something, and I spent, oh, hours of my time telling people no. “But it says so on the internet.” Yeah, but its not true! “But why don’t you refute it?” I don’t even use the internet, it’s not true, don’t…But. One of the problems I have now is telling people to stop reading internet trash. Read the newspapers, read books, you know, go and see things for yourself. Other journalists too, go out on the streets they we used to, like I have to and do. I had a guy from… Boston Globe? I can’t remember now, he came to my home in Beirut and sat on my balcony and I gave him coffee, he said (American accent) “Bob, you should be reading the internet. By 12 o’clock midday I’ve read the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Star, the New York Times, the LA times, the Washington Post, the London Times”. I said by 12 o’clock midday I’ve done three interviews and I’m writing a report for my newspaper. And I’ve been out, you know, in the car, going to places. And what’s the point of sitting there, who wants to read all the American crap newspapers everyday, you know? It’s ridiculous. But it’s this idea that you are completely clued up and then when your editor calls and says (American accent) “well if you look at the editorial in today’s Chicago Tribune…” Who cares? It’s even more sheep-like journalism. Um, that’s a problem. What’s happening for me is by keeping to the old rules of going out I can write with, I hope, a power and a colour and a passion that you are not going to get by calling up something on a screen and glancing at something from a CNN press conference. Um… but there you go. It’s very exhausting to still do the same job in this way, because you have to work harder when you do. On top of that there’s the fact you always have this idea when you’re twenty that when you get to sixty your life is going to be quieter, when its not, you do much more work. I’ve just done all these interviews and lectures, yes, and I’ve got heaps I’ve got to do tomorrow, and then I’m flying 30 hours back to Beirut through Dubai and the next day I’m going to Pakistan for three days, via to Dubai, then I come after three days I’m going to Norway for one day, go back to Beirut for one night and then I’m back to Toronto. Um, so it’s quite hard. And that’s while lecturing, doing book tours and still working for the paper. It’s quite hard, yeah. Oh, and in Pakistan I’m flying from Islamabad to Peshawar and then I’m going in helicopter to Kashmir and back again. You can just about do it. (laughs) But you’re riding on aeroplanes you’ve got to work on planes.

How do you respond to accusations you are biased? See, I gave your Great War for Civilisation to my granddad… who was in Iraq in the 90’s…

In the 90’s – So when Saddam was there?


Well Saddam is one of the persons who is totally implicated in my book in massive atrocities and war crimes. Mass graves, torture, rape of women… it’s all there. So what did he say? He thought I was soft on Saddam?

Soft on the Arabs, basically.

Arafat gets the worst condemnation in my book, more than any other English language book in the world. Apart from Sharon, who was definitely responsible for Sabra and Shatila, I don’t think there is, the America’s certainly get hit badly, but I don’t think the Israelis do. I’m not soft on Arabs at all. All the Arab dictatorships are scorned in my book for being satraps of the West. Which they are. And I… well that’s just not true. You can’t do anything if people say… I mean, I had a review in America saying, you know, “Fisk is as usual is praising Arafat and Saddam”, well that’s totally untrue. But you can’t say you didn’t do something you didn’t do. You can’t prove it, can you? Um, but you know, I had a review in the Economist for Great war for civilisation, I’ve always regarded the Economist as being a half cocked paper that is either half right or half wrong, that way its safe, and the review was the same, it went on about the book – it just described it – and then in the middle of the review there was a brilliant description of the Israeli army entering Beirut in 1982, which is very nice, except that was in Pity the Nation, 10 years earlier. Right author, wrong book. And by the time this gets into the internet it bears no relation to anything anyone has ever written. So there’s no point trying to do anything about it.

Look, I think we should be objective and unbiased – on the side of those who suffer. That’s our job. If I see Palestinian corpses heaped up, I am not going to be fair on those who kill them. No, why should I be? You know, if you go to journalism school, I didn’t and I don’t advise anyone to go to journalism school… are you at a media studies centre? Sorry.


Anyway, yeah okay…

A graduate Diploma…

No, you should do politics, or English, or Latin, or you know, whatever…you can do that later…

I’ve done a history and sociology degree…

Okay, that’s fine, you’re okay, you’re all right – you pass! Journalism school – oh, you’ve always got to be 50/50, half your report has to be on one side and half on the other, right? Well that’s okay if your covering a football match, or a public inquiry into a new highway around Auckland, but the Middle East is not a football match, it is a massive human tragedy. And you must realise that if you have a people that are occupied, crushed and are not given their land and the land has been taken, objectively you must tell their story with immense passion. You can say that Arafat is a corrupt fool and that the Palestinian leadership… it is, and I’m always condemning suicide bombers, there are executioners, they see the kids they are about to kill. But, you know, if you are covering the slave trade in the 18th Century do you give equal time to the slave ship captain? If you are covering the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp do you give equal time to the SS spokesman? NO! You interview the survivors and you talk about the victims. Ah, when I was in Jerusalem in August 2001, the clock already ticking towards September 11, you know, a Palestinian walked into a pizzeria in King George’s St, and I was just down the road, he killed 16 Israelis, more than half of them children, he saw who he was killing, he didn’t have to push the button, and I was just down the road, and I came up there and there was a woman with a chair leg through her and a kid with no eyes. And my story was all about the victims and the survivors. I didn’t give equal time to the Islamic Jihad spokesman. Sabra (and) Shatila I was climbing over dead bodies, up to 1,700 dead, killed by Israel’s Lebanese allies. I did not give equal time to the Israeli Army who sent the killers into he camp. No. If that is being biased, then I plead guilty. But we’ve got to objectively be on the side of those who suffer and the victims.

Do you think it is because you ask why (he gets accused of bias)?

Yes. Yip absolutely. I don’t need to repeat… you’ve read the book!

You must ask why. And most journalists don’t want to. They want to ask how and who. And then (they say) “we will let the reader decide”. But the reader is not bloody well there. You know? And if you are going 50/50, the reader is not left to make his mind, he’s left as fucken confused as he was the first time. Thanks very much. So who won the match?

If you’re going to have a foreign correspondent who is going to run 50/50 journalism in Afghanistan, he’s not worth the money. He is the nerve ending for a newspaper. I mean, at our paper, our editor says we’re not a newspaper, we’re a viewspaper. And I think he is right. And we should be, that’s our job. The days when you… I mean, all over America the newspapers do 50/50 journalism, all their circulations are plummeting, they are going out of business, and what are they doing? They’re blaming the internet, they’re blaming the economic crisis, they’re blaming the fact they can’t get younger readers. Younger readers will not go to a newspaper that doesn’t write properly, and tell them what’s going on. And you can have three pages of the Associated Press from around the world, and you’ll know nothing. I mean, you can turn on the radio and listen to an earthquake in the Philippines, that’s not necessary. That’s not going to work. That journalism is finished. Having said that, the Independent is losing millions of pounds worth of money (Laughs), but we’re still in business.

(I gesture to him to drink his tea. It must be pretty cold by now!)

I will actually if I may. So I’ve got…hold on… no toast yet. I’m sure it will come. But I’ve got one extra cup. Who wants it, you want some tea?

No, I’m okay thanks.

(Talking to host from Amnesty International) No problem, the toast has not yet arrived.

You’ve got some jam (actually honey) here though.

That’s for… hold on a sec. Let me see what’s in here. (Looks in pot) No that’s really tea. Real tea, its ready and rolling. What they haven’t brought is any sugar. That’s clever isn’t it? Do you see any sugar?

Maybe it’s the honey?

(laughs) Is that honey.

Cameraman Wes Monts: No its jam. (It’s honey.)

Jam? They’ve bought jam, no toast, no butter, no sugar. That’s great.

This isn’t reflective of New Zealand…

This is Auckland!

Wes: I just have a quick question. Does your…

(Talking to host from Amnesty International) …and no sugar! (laughs)


Wes: Does your message change depending on the audience your talking to? Would you be… if you’re talking to an American…

No, no, no, it’s exactly the same. I mean, I don’t, nowadays I don’t script a lecture. I think audiences don’t want to be lectured at they want talked with. Um, I do an hour and a half lecture without any notes, well I use quotations and I use videotape of, you know, my coping with the Syrian secret service (laughs) and places like that in Lebanon. Um, no, not the slightest, in fact, I can give you a perfect example. I went to George Mason University on the first anniversary of 9/11, or let’s call it the 11th of September. Ha, 11/9 we should say, shouldn’t we? You don’t use the American version? No you don’t. The Canadians don’t either.

PH: No one does.

(Laughs) thank god for that. So I went there, I went to George Mason University, going to give a talk, I did, about 9/11. I was very harsh. I said I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier. I was surprised how restrained Muslims have been. And I’d given this talk in Lebanon, and elsewhere, Brazil as well.

(sugar comes) Thank you very much. And there’s some toast coming, isn’t there?

Waiter: Pardon? Toast?

Toast and Butter?

Dadadumdede. It’s like those, when you used to have those comedy films on the television in the old days the music used to go “Babababumbaba”, and then you had to laugh. (laughs)

Anyway, I went in and um, the principal of the university in his gown welcomed me and said, “look, I should let you know that we have in our audience tonight some relatives who lost their loved ones at the Pentagon”. George Mason was only about 12 miles/minutes (inaudible) away. “And you may wish to ameliorate your lecture.” So I thought, oh, how do I deal with this? So I sat down for a couple of minutes, I didn’t change anything, didn’t touch it, and I just went out and, I had some notes for this one, because I wanted to remember the dates and get everything right. I went out and, was a huge audience, you can get 1000-2000 people in the states, and I said “ladies and gentlemen, as I walked in here tonight the principal told me that, at which point the principal was like this (hands over face) I could see him down there, the principal told me that there were relatives of those who lost their loved ones at the Pentagon a year ago… and I want to say to them, that not only does my heart go out to them, but that it is an immense privilege to have them with us tonight. The principal also said, that I might like to ameliorate my lecture because of their presence.” Well I said, “I give this lecture in Beirut, where many of the audience have also lost their loved ones, and I think it would be a shameful thing if you did not hear what I say in Lebanon and I think you deserve to hear the same lecture I give.” And everyone burst out (clapping), except the principal. So yeah, it’s the same lecture, I don’t change anything. Oh, if I’m lecturing in France, I’m talking French, but it is still the basic same material.

What languages can you speak?

Arabic, French, Swedish (laughs) um, I can read Swedish quite well and I understand Italian very well because I did Latin, and I did an Irish course so I can Irish, but that’s not much use. I did an Irish course, I did my PHD in Trinity College, Dublin, the actual subject politics was, my thesis was on Irish neutrality in the second world war, and De Valera at the time decided that many of the cabinet minutes would be written in the Irish language so if the British invaded Ireland, which they did expect as well, Churchill was threatening it, or the Germans arrived, it would take them a long time to work out what the cabinet had been saying! Of course, in fact is, there were lots of Brits who could speak Irish and an awful lot of Germans who could speak Irish too, because they had a Celtic studies department in the Nazi, who cultivated Celtic ideas. But it would have held them up for a day or two anyway! But I, of course, had to go to Gaelic course in order to learn Irish to read the cabinet minutes and cabinet documents. But it is of no use to me now. There is a column called “Tulrish corren” (or something!) in the Irish Times and I can read it, but I’m not really interested in it. It’s not much use. Although sometimes you get an Irish-speaking Irish soldier with the United Nations in Lebanon, and so we can talk to each other and no one can understand us.

Why did you get into war reporting?

I’m not a war reporter; I’m a Middle East correspondent. Um, I mean, well I think the beginning of Great War for Civilisation tells the story, I always wanted to be a reporter, ever since I saw Foreign Correspondent, the Hitchcock movie, I don’t know if you remember I wrote about it. You know, he gets sent to Europe, sees the assassination of a Dutch politician, chases the Gestapo, or gets chased by them, uncovers the top Nazi agent in London, gets shot down by a German pocket battleship over the Atlantic, lives to file his scoop, gets the most beautiful woman in the movie and I was aged 12 and thought it sounds like the sort of job for me. And I never wanted to be anything other than a reporter. And then I went to join the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle upon Tyne, which is in this (Age of the Warrior) book, which is “hack blasts local rag”, I write about it in there, you’ve read it, and it tried to teach us how to write in clichés, and then I went to the Sunday Express, then I went to the Times, who sent me to Northern Ireland, then I got sent to cover the aftermath of the Portuguese Revolution and while I was there I was asked if I wanted the Middle East. So I went, in the pre-Murdoch times, to the Middle East. And that’s how it happened. From the age of twelve, all I wanted to do ever was be a reporter.

Speaking of clichés, what is one the worst war reporting clichés that are thrown around nowadays?

What is the worst? Oh, that truth is the first casualty of war. It doesn’t have to be. We may allow it to be or journalists may fall in line as they often do with their army. I mean, one of the strange things about 1990 – 1991, which we now call the first Gulf War, although actually the first Gulf War was the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988, was the way in which colleagues of mine who were quite rational normal people, you know, we’d have a gin and tonic if you met them in a bar in the airport or somewhere, suddenly they were putting on uniforms and became super cheerleaders for war. I remember one colleague of mine, you know, who would normally be quite cynical about the war, and wouldn’t be a good idea, (said) “I don’t know how you can possibly suggest this, I mean, Saddam is a wicked man, he’s like Hitler, don’t you understand this!”, “Hang on, come down Charles, it’s all right”, you know. And he went on a pool, in those days that is what we called embedded. The fact they accept the word embedded astonishes me. And you see he went on this pool, with our men you see. Afterwards, when the war was over, he clicked back and became normal, he said “argh, it was not worth it, they tried to censor us all the time and we didn’t see anything”, you know. I saw lots of things because I wasn’t in a pool. I got in with the Kuwaiti army, but um, it was like, there used to be, what’s the phrase, the Americans used to use a phrase? They transmogrified, that they, the moment the war was about to begin, Click! And when the war was over they went back to being normal guys you could have a drink with. And they would be really abusive to you if you disagreed with their views. I mean, I think Saddam was a complete bastard, of course, but you know, I was always saying, “what are we getting involved in”. I used to say, “if we’re going to go to Kuwait and fight the Iraqis later we will go on and fight the Iraqis again”. And we did. (impersonation) But “Oh we’re never going to do that, that will never happen”. And before Iraq (2003) I said it was going to be a disaster and people were mocking me, even during the Iraq War, you know I was being pillared on the BBC. And then suddenly, when it all went wrong, it stopped. And I went on saying “well here we go!” But the day the Americans crossed the Tigris river in May 2003, and the Americans pulled down the statue, the Iraqis couldn’t pull in down, and I wrote that night in the very last paragraph, you can look up the paper and read it, I said “the invasion of Iraq is now over, and now the real story, the resistance battle against the American occupation is about to begin”. And that night, some guy on the BBC said, “this was the most preposterous journalism I had read in my life”. And when course when it all went wrong the guy went silent. Nobody sort of went “ah, Bob sorry I…” never no, nor do I expect them to. Because the nature of journalism is very transitory, they hope people forget, well I don’t forget, but I keep all my clippings! (laughs) Um but there you go. But there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t say, well I’ve been in this business long enough, I make mistakes, but you can get it right if you’ve been there a long time. If you know your subject, like if you’re an academic and you know your subject, whether it be, you know, the life of Sir Thomas Moore, you will know the life of Sir Thomas Moore after years of studying it, won’t you, and you tend to get it right. You know, I said Afghanistan was going to be a complete fuck up and it turned out to be. I said, you know, America is going to invade Iraq to bring democracy to Iraq – that’s preposterous! And there you go. Um, and I think that if you do get it right, that makes you more hated then if you say so before hand. The first thing is to say something that is not part of the narrative set down by the President and the Prime Ministers and the Tom Friedmans of the world and the second thing that is even worse is to be right. You know, that compounds the sin. Um, but basically, as long as you have an editor like I have, you know, who loves you work and prints it all and doesn’t change it, you’re okay. Of course you mustn’t make a real faux pas, you mustn’t make a cringing error. Um, you’ve got to get it right.

Have you ever made such a faux pas?

Oh, I can think of a few funny ones! At the beginning of the Civil War in Lebanon, I did a story about hashish growing in the Bakar Valley in Lebanon, and I mixed up the crop with the product. The product is like that (shows small quantity with hands) and crop is a bloody big… with leaves all…and the Ministry of Information, it was still functioning in the middle of the Civil War, the guy said we really would be grateful..

(toast comes) Oh, we’re moving in the right direction, thank you very much. Just one more request, is it possible to have one more butter? That is an awfully little amount for all four pieces. I’m a very great toast and butter eater.

Waiter: That’s all right, I’ll try…

No we are getting there. Thanks.

He said to me, “you do realise, Mr Fisk, that if your story was correct, it would need two things. A super tanker carrying hashish out of the port of Tripoli every day and secondly it would mean that every man, women and child in Lebanon would weekly be earning the gross national product of this country since 1932?” and I said, “I surrender!” (laughs) So I did a piece of grovelling Fisk! I don’t make that mistake now. I mean, there are errors like that.

I mean, in 1990 I thought that 1991 liberation of Kuwait would last much longer than it did. I mean, if you take the whole bombing campaign before it, it did last a long time, much longer than, they keep calling it the 33…

(Butter arrives, whole order has now arrives, no less than 30 minutes after order!) Thank you so much.

You know, the 33 hour war, it wasn’t it was something like the 3 week war. Wasn’t it? If you take in the blasting of Baghdad and Basra and so on. But they cut that bit off, they changed the narrative, made it only when the Americans went in on the ground did the war begin. Not for the Iraqis it didn’t. Um, but I thought it might go on for several months, not because I thought the Iraqis would fight hard, but I thought the Americans would get trapped. And they did in some places, but not in the scale I imagined. So there’s an example. Yeah. But I did say they would go on further later on, and I knew it would be a disaster, and they did. That’s exactly what they did. I mean, George Bush senior was right, he said… no there was one very good article, no it was some state department guy said if we go onto Baghdad we will be trapped in a massive insurgency and never get out. Ouch. And that’s quoted in a footnote in Great War for Civilisation. Some Americans got it right, but no one paid any attention to them. Same old story. Um, I can… what have I got wrong recently? Sometimes you get complaints from people, but it’s about, you know, bad taste to talk about bodies and things like that, but that’s not the same. Um, can’t think of anything recently, I’m very careful about things like quotes and dates. The advantage is, as well, when you’ve been there a long time you’ve actually covered the story, you don’t have to put alleged in front of it. I noticed that someone put the alleged Sabra and Chatila massacre, I said, “I was climbing over the bloody bodies, what do you mean alleged!” but because they had been nine years old when it happened and they couldn’t get the cuttings and couldn’t find it, that’s how history slips out the window. Um, I haven’t made any huge… but I mean…there’s eleven errors in Great War for Civilisation in the first edition, there are none now. I got a reporters name wrong in Kuwait, I got a… what else did I do, I got the distances between some towns wrong, mainly coz it went from miles to kilometres and I didn’t put it back into miles for the other edition, the French edition it goes in kilometres. I mean, when you are trying to proof read various books, the American edition, the British edition, the French edition, and then I can’t proof the Dutch, because I don’t speak Dutch, or South Korean, I mean, forget it. You know, all kinds of gremlins creep into pages. You can’t write 1,300 pages clean, it’s clean now, there aren’t any errors. And sometimes you spot errors in the index, which you can’t do anything about because you didn’t do the index, and you have pages and pages of index, I can’t go through on the proof stage and check every page. You’d spend weeks doing it.

(Fisk told he must go soon by AI host) I’m glad I didn’t go to my room; you wouldn’t have had an interview at all. Excuse me; I’m going to be a pig. (Finally starts eating toast)

Wes: If someone was interested in getting into war journalism, how would you recommend going about it? Or just stay away?

Foreign correspondent or what?

WM: Yeah.

Go and live in a city, work for the local English language paper and start to string (?) for one of the national papers in countries. English language. Do you speak any other language but English?

WM: No, but I…

Come on you can learn. Go to a place like Cairo, work for the grotty English language papers, or be an intern at a news agency like AP, and slowly build on your knowledge and just to bring in some dollars and pay the rent. Or the first thing you should do, if you plan to go to a city, go on holiday there and see if you like it there first.

(random conversation)

The worst thing is I’m still writing for the paper. I’ll get up at one or two in the morning, write and file at three.

It is not appreciated in London, where journalists believe the whole world is on Greenwich mean time, and the sun is up and goes down in the same places same time round the world. No but Independent is very nice. The editor could ask what I’m doing swanning around in New Zealand when I am supposed to be covering the Middle East today. He never has actually, but there has always been the danger that he might. No he wouldn’t but… that’s why I always cut the trips as short as I can. I don’t… no more sugar? Oh there is. I say, don’t give me three days in the Alps, I’m here for talking, selling a book and getting out again. Signing the book.

Do you get much holiday time? Genuine holiday?

No foreign correspondent really gets a holiday. You’re always liable to be rung up “Bob, have you just heard that Mubarak has just died.” “Argh!” And then of course you do want to write about it because you know your subject. No actually, when I am writing a book, I go to Ireland to write, I find I fall into a very nice sort of get up at six, cup of tea, listen to the rain, read the Irish Times, start work at 8.30, work through to X and so on, and go for a walk at lunch time, have a cup of tea, get back to work. Its very interesting, because you learn a lot about what you’ve done, because you work on a daily thing at a paper, its only later that you think, “Oh god, that’s why he made that decision, and that’s the same guy who did that”, you didn’t realise that you meet them in two different places and you didn’t realise they were the same guy. Um, so in that sense, it is very interesting, you learn a lot, read books in bed and so on. So that’s a holiday in its own way.

I don’t think it does you a lot of good to do this all the time, but on the other hand I think that if you were… I used to have this rule, that whatever city I went to to give a lecture in, anywhere in the states, or Paris or wherever, I would go to one art gallery, and I did it very religiously, even in Sao Paulo in Brazil I did it, but it is just too much, all you want to do is fall asleep at the end of the day. So I don’t do it anymore, I should, but…

Or a concert or something. So I could say, “while I was in Toronto…”

(Some more random conversation)



Robert Fisk profile to be published in AUT’s Te Waha Nui.


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[…] Robert Fisk Interview Hyatt Auckland 9/9/08 […]

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