The loss of an outstanding journalist

One of the UK’s finest and most controversial journalists, Robert Fisk died suddenly in a Dublin hospital on Sunday 30 October. Although born in Kent in July 1946, he later became an Irish citizen.

His career with the nationals began at the Sunday Express, (after learning his trade at the Newcasle Chronicle see: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-top-hack-blasts-local-rags-9196235.html ) but he first distinguished himself in 1970s Belfast, having become the Northern Ireland correspondent for The Times in 1972. “I was astonished to see that I was reporting a war,” he said of his time reporting in Belfast. “I always refer to Northern Ireland as a war and not the Troubles.”

He subsequently went to Portugal at the same time I was there in summer 1975 just over a year after the revolution of 25 April 1974. It was a truly inspiring time. Over thirty years later he wrote in a blog for The Independent:  “Oh, how many years have passed since the revolution! The Carnation Revolution, I mean – the real Portuguese one – whose aftermath I covered more than three decades ago in a Lisbon sprouting red flags and a thousand newspapers, its walls thick with every leftist and Marxist exhortation to overthrow fascism. The very last right-wing dictator in Europe, Mr Caetano, had gone, and bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” (Well not quite, Franco was still going in Spain until November 1975 BW.)

“Well, maybe. There was the infamous Red Major, Otelo Carvalho, who was going to turn Portugal communist – or so Ambassador Carlucci and his lads at the US embassy would have us believe. His first name lent him credibility – the ‘green-eyed monster’ was capitalism – but there was also the laid-back socialist academic Mario Soares, who would become prime minister, and then there was the mysterious Ramalho Eanes.”

“The Times, for whom I then worked, asked me to interview all the presidential candidates but I refused after meeting Eanes. He would become president, the young and arrogant Fisk told his long-suffering foreign editor, because he had been a senior intelligence officer in the Portuguese army in Angola. The Americans liked him. Ergo, he would become president. The reputation of a young and pig-headed reporter was saved when Eanes duly took over Portugal.” (See https://theunpeople.blogspot.com/2008/12/robert-fisks-world-back-to-portugal.html .)

As I recall it on 25 November 1975 Colonel Eanes ordered military operations against the far left activists in the Army, the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) and the civilian radical left, who it was believed were planning a coup against the left social democratic government. But that’s another and disputed story.

Fisk, a pacifist, subsequently moved to the Middle East reporting on civil wars in the Balkans, Lebanon and Algeria, the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian Revolution. In 1982 he was one of the first reporters to enter Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon where more than 1,000 people were killed by Lebanese Christian militiamen who entered the camps, watched by occupying Israeli forces who were ‘guarding’ the locations

Based in Beirut, he studied Middle East history, politics and culture, and wrote a number of books which included: The Point of No Return: The Strike Which Broke the British in Ulster (1975), Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (2001), The Great War for Civilisation—the Conquest of the Middle East (2005), and The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays (2008).

He joined The Independent in 1989 after a row with the Murdoch owned The Times who spiked one of his stories. He later wrote “I didn’t believe in The Times any more – certainly not in Rupert Murdoch”.

In his long and extraordinary career, this award-winning journalist believed in telling truth to power and has left us dozens of quotations, a few of which I will conclude with.

Some sayings of Robert Fisk.

On journalism

“It’s a journalist’s job to be a witness to history. We’re not there to worry about ourselves. We’re there to try and get as near as we can, in an imperfect world, to the truth and get the truth out.

The biggest problem I have in journalism is being quoted or misquoted and then being asked to defend something I haven’t said.

And I think, in the end that is the best definition of journalism I have heard; to challenge authority – all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.

One of the reasons why I think people have gone from reading mainstream newspapers to the Internet is because they realize they’re being lied to.

On War

“Once you start fighting in a war, of course, you are immediately complicit in a form of mass murder.”

The Americans may think they have ‘liberated’ Baghdad but the tens of thousands of thieves – they came in families and cruised the city in trucks and cars searching for booty – seem to have a different idea what liberation means.

On journalistic ethics

I’ve never been embedded with American soldiers or British soldiers or Iraqi soldiers or any other.

I do not make stories up, full stop.”

2 thoughts on “The loss of an outstanding journalist

  1. An expert on Middle East politics and history (along with Patrick Cockburn who also writes in The Independent). I admired the way that he exposed Western hypocrisy in the Iran-Iraq war when he covered the chemical attacks on the Iranian troops and the consequent poisoning of young Iranians who had obviously been exposed to mustard gas (like the Iraqi Kurds) – all provided to the Iraqis by the West. His theme in this article was that the stench of the gas did not mask the stench of hypocrisy of the nations that had sold Saddam Hussein the chemicals. He also distanced himself from the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003 and invented a “title” for Tony Blair of Lord Blair of Kut! A brave journalist.

  2. The obituaries tell us about the man and also something about the media that they appear in!

    The Independent is fulsome in its praise. The Guardian writer obviously admires Fisk but has to inject a little bit of criticism, by quoting anonymous others, to satisfy his management.

    The Times writer similarly quotes criticism (rather a lot more) by others but starts with the line “Robert Fisk did not believe in telling both sides of a story”. Well that’s certainly something that wouldn’t go down well in a Murdoch newspaper!

    Even The Economist can’t bring themselves to rubbish him completely, but fairly bluntly say that “his peers” thought badly of him, that “he was a braggart”, and that he told “tall tales”.

    Brave indeed. A journalist who was brave enough to write in a way which didn’t fit the “authorised” narrative.

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