The Life of Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk. (UCTV).

In this interview, International Scholar Richard Falk provides his personal recollections of Robert Fisk. Falk explains how Fisk provided the world with well- informed perspectives that offered critical thinking and grim realities of the acute struggles stirring throughout the Middle East region. Falk comments on Fisk’s “unsparing exposure of Israeli abusive policies and practices toward the Palestinian people” indicating that his “departure from the region left a journalistic gap that has not been filled.”

Falk also discusses how the study, coverage and understanding of the Palestinian cause has shifted over the years from one of “exposing the hypocrisy and greed of the powerful” to more political and activist-centered solution based forms, within geo-political coverage. Despite this, Falk praises Fisk for “his commitments to peace, self-determination, and neutrality.” 

Daniel Falcone: I can recall being amazed by Robert Fisk’s researching capabilities and stamina. In order to read both Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilization it requires the reader to get through over 1,700 pages. Can you comment on Fisk’s reporting over the years in general as a Middle East correspondent?

Richard Falk: Fisk was a vivid writer with a startling ability to observe, comment, and interpret. In this sense, unlike the others I have mentioned with the partial exception of Gloria Emerson, Fisk could be read for literary satisfaction as well as for a kind of episodic journalistic autobiography that brought together his experience of contemporary wars and strife. What his published books establish is the extent of Fisk’s illuminating understanding of turmoil in the world, and the degree to which the blood being spilled can be traced back to European colonialism and forward to American imperial ambition in both Asia and the Middle East.

Daniel Falcone: Can you explain how in your view Robert Fisk’s reporting and writings shaped understandings and perceptions of the Middle East? Do you recall any professional and personal interactions with him over the years? How do you categorize his journalistic reputation and writing style?

Richard Falk: Robert Fisk was one of the few journalists in the world relied upon to give first-hand reports from the fields of strife on the conflicts occurring throughout the Middle East. His reportage seemed guided by an overriding commitment to truthfulness as to facts, brashness and vividness of reporting style, and an interpretative understanding that got it right from perspectives of human consequences.

He was given the most dangerous combat assignments in several of the most challenging hot spots in the world, including Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Lebanon (declaring Beirut as his home) during its decade-long civil war, and Afghanistan during the period when the West was arming Afghan extremists to oppose the Russian presence. In the latter role, he was badly beaten by Afghans enraged by the Western interventions and yet Fisk explained to the world while still bloody that he empathized with Afghan anger as their villages and homes were being devastated by U.S. air attacks and a combat role that escalated the violence.

Specifically, in the Middle East, Fisk gave the world a truly independent, informed, and critical understanding of the struggles occurring throughout the region, including an unsparing exposure of Israeli abusive policies and practices toward the Palestinian people. Fisk’s departure from the region left a journalistic gap that has not been filled. It is important to appreciate that there are few war correspondents in the world that combine Fisk’s reporting fearlessness with his interpretative depth, engaging writing style, and candid exposures of the foibles of the high and mighty.

Fisk never sought refuge by hiding behind curtains of political correctness. On the contrary, he prided himself on a commitment to what might be called ‘judgmental journalism’ in his professional demeanor, which is best understood as portraying reality as he saw and experienced it, which in Middle East contexts meant stripping away the geopolitical delusions peddled by powerful government to hide their true motives. He was particularly controversial in recent years by depicting the U.S. anti-Damascus combat role in Syria as not really about the future of Syria or even counterterrorism, as Washington claimed, but was mainly motivated, with prodding from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, by anti-Iran, anti-Shi’ia containment and destabilization goals.

This assessment was confirmed by my two personal interactions with Fisk that illustrated his approach to truth-telling in two very different contexts. The first occurred a bit over 20 years ago. I was interviewed by a Libyan film crew who were surprised by finding Princeton police at my house at the same time due to some death threats I received after supporting Palestinian grievances during an appearance on the BBC program ‘Panorama.’

The young Libyan filmmakers were making a documentary on the evolution of Israel/Palestine relations. After finishing with me they left for Beirut to interview Fisk, conveying to him that my house was guarded as I was living under threat. This exaggerated the reality of my situation, and prompted Fisk to write a column for The Independent without ever contacting me describing my situation as emblematic of Zionist efforts to intimidate critics of Israel by threats of violence.

As a sign of his worldwide impact, I received more than 100 messages of solidarity, many of which said that they were praying for my safety. The drama past, but I cannot imagine another prominent journalist willing to go out on a limb to show concern for someone in my circumstances. At the same time, I cannot imagine writing such a piece without checking the facts with the person in question.

This latter point goes to the one widespread criticism of Fisk’s flamboyant approach, which took note of his impatience with details, and willing to craft his articles around truths he firmly accepted as descriptive of reality. In my case, he didn’t really care if the Libyans were reliably reporting as it was a helpful anecdote for making the underlying argument that he correctly believed to be descriptive of reality—namely, Zionist tactics of intimidation to quiet or even silence voices of criticism. This is an interesting issue raising questions about the distinction between core and peripheral reliability.

Whereas the journeymen journalists are wary of going against the prevailing consensus on core issues (for instance, they slant reality in pro-Israeli direction, and would have described me as an extreme critic of Israel or even someone accused of being ‘anti-Semitic), the Fisks of this world embellish peripheral matters to engage their readers while being reliable forthright on core matters even when offensive to the societal majority. Although Fisk did this in a progressive vein, others take similar factual liberties to feed the conspiratorial and reactionary appetites of their right-wing followers.

My other equally illuminating contact with Fisk was during a West Coast visit a decade ago, when he came to California to give a university lecture. I was approached by the organizers to act as his chauffer during the visit, which I was thrilled to do. It gave me the opportunity to confirm Fisk’s reputation as highly individualistic, irreverent, and provocative self that was on display whether he was reporting from a war zone or talking to students on a college campus. The large turnout and enthusiastic audience reception made clear that Fisk’s influence spreads far beyond readers of his columns in The Independent.

He was recognized throughout the world as a colorful celebrity journalist whose words mattered. There are almost none who have his mixture of bravado, insight, and commitment, and still manage affiliations with mainstream news outlets. In my mind Fisk is a positive example of a celebrity journalist, which for me contrasts negatively with the sort of liberal punditry that issues from the celebrity pen of Thomas Friedman. Whereas Fisk is comfortable in his role of talking truth to power, Friedman relishes his role as the self-proclaimed sage observer who tenders advice to the rich and powerful as to how to realize their goals, combining an arrogance of style with faithful adherence to the pillars of Western orthodoxy (predatory capitalism, global militarism, special relationship with Israel).

Daniel Falcone: What special qualities did Robert Fisk possess that made him so influential and memorable, and perhaps the most distinguished journalist of our time? What did Fisk think of the other styles of journalism that perhaps differed from his own?

Richard Falk: For perspective, I recall my contact, and in these instances, friendship with three other exceptional war correspondents whose traits somewhat resemble the qualities that have made Fisk’s death an irreplaceable loss: Eric Rouleau of Le MondeGloria Emerson of the NY Times, and Peter Arnett of Associated Press. Each of them shared a flair for adventure, a pride in their stand-alone journalistic style, a fearlessness in the face of extreme danger that endeared them to combatants, and a sensibility that hovered between the sadness of loneliness and a love of solitude.

These qualities were accompanied in each instance by fiercely independent personalities that gave their home office minders both pride in their stellar reporting and anxious fits as they breached the red lines of establishment thinking. By their nature, such individuals were mavericks who eluded managerial control. They also each shared contempt for what Fisk described as ‘hotel journalism,’ that is, the practice of leading journalists hiring locals to give them stories from the front lines of confrontation while spending most of their days sipping martinis at the hotel bar.

I never observed Fisk at work, but feel confident that his working style resembled that of these others. I did have the opportunity to be with Eric Rouleau in Tehran during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, heard accounts of Gloria Emerson’s comradery with American soldiers in combat situations, and was with Peter Arnett in Hanoi while engaged in accompanying three released American POWs back to the United States in the last stage of the Vietnam War.

Although distinct and different in personality and interests, each shared this sense of wanting to get to the bottom of what was happening in the field while listening to the views of leaders, however controversial, in one-on-one. Both Fisk and Arnett were among the few Western journalists who interviewed Osama Bin Laden in the late 1990s. It is reported that Bin Laden was so impressed by Fisk’s approach that he invited him to become a Muslim since he already displayed his devotion to truth.

Fisk’s famously reacted at the end of 2001 to being beaten nearly to death by a mob of angry Afghan refugees living in a Pakistani border village who recognized him as a Westerner when his car broke down, and vented their anger by a brutal attack that was halted by a local Muslim leader. Fisk’s words, which included disapproval of such violence, were also atypical for most, but characteristic for him: Of the attacker he said “There is every reason to be angry. I’ve been an outspoken critic of the US actions myself. If I had been them, I would have attacked me.”

Daniel Falcone: How did Fisk cover the Palestinians? What is his legacy on the coverage of the conflict? Are there any journalistic outfits, think-tanks, organizations or academics that you consider to cover the plight of the Palestinian people well while providing context the way Robert Fisk did?

Richard Falk: Fisk took for granted his support for the Palestinian struggle, his disgust at the tactics of control relied upon by Israel, while condemning America’s use of its geopolitical muscle contributed to the prolonged struggle of the Palestinians for breathing space in their own homeland. This should not be understood as Fisk adopting a blind eye toward Palestinian wrongdoing and diplomatic clumsiness. He was almost alone among influential journalists in voicing skepticism from the outset of the Oslo peace process initiated on the White House Lawn in 1993. Fisk, above all, blended his passion for core truths with an undisguised judgmental approach toward wrongful conduct, regardless of the eminence of the target.

There are many initiatives that try to present the Palestinian ordeal in a realistic way, and I have dealt from time to time with many of them. I would mention, first of all, Jewish Voice for Peace, which has done its best to express views that acknowledge the violations of Palestinian basic rights, including imposition of an apartheid regime that oppresses, fragments, and victimizes the Palestinians as a people whether through occupation, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and denial of elemental rights of return. Palestine Legal has been courageous and highly competent, providing expert guidance and involvement in legal cases and controversies involving issues bearing on Palestinian rights.

In journalistic and academic circles there are a few bright spots in the United States. As online sources of information, insight, and reportage sympathetic to the Palestinians I would mention Mondoweiss, Middle East Eye, and the Electronic Intifada, each well edited, online publishers of quality material. Among individuals who have been outspoken and influential I would mention Marwan BisharaPhyllis BennisNorman FinkelsteinNoam ChomskyIlan PappeNoura ErakatLawrence Davidson, and Virginia Tilley.

Over the years, I have had little patience with the tortured reasoning and moral pretentiousness of ‘liberal Zionists’ who jump at any partisan olive branch so long as it leaves Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital and doesn’t require giving up most of the unlawful settlements in the West Bank. However, the recent abandonment of such a posture by the most eminent of liberal Zionists, Peter Beinart, is both a refreshing realization that Zionism is not reconcilable with a sustainable peace and a signal to American Jews to rethink the format for a political compromise that shifts away from the two-state mantra.

In Israel and Occupied Palestine there have been perceptive and brave NGOs that have been outspoken in their criticism of Israeli tactics. In Israel I would mention B’Tselem on violations of human rights, Badil on questions bearing on the treatment of Palestinian refugees and residents of Israel, and Israel Committee Against House Demolitions. Several Israeli journalists have been outspoken critics of Israel behavior toward Palestine, and I would express particular admiration for Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.

Among intellectually inclined progressive activists, Jeff Halper shines, writing several important books, including War Against People: Israel, Palestinians, and Global Pacification (2015). He has an outstanding forthcoming book, an exceptional example of ‘advocacy journalism’ insisting that one democratic state with equality for both peoples is the only path to a just and sustainable peace. If it is to be achieved it must include accepting certain views: the reality of Israel as a settler colonial state, the non-viability of the Zionist project to establish and maintain an exclusivist Jewish state, and the dependence on a grassroots collaborative political process of Jews and Palestinians seeking a just peace through democratization and basic rights.

In Occupied Palestine, Mohammed Omer acted as a brave war correspondent under the most difficult conditions, and endured harsh physical abuse by Israeli security forces. In relation to human rights, Raji Sourani an outstanding lawyer, has for many, many years documented abusive Israeli behavior in Gaza, including identifying its criminal character, while serving as Director of the Palestine Centre of Human Rights in Gaza. He has been imprisoned several times by Israel and arrested on at least one occasion by the Palestinian Authority.

I have had the opportunity to know and work with almost all of these individuals and groups, and have admired their courage, perseverance, and dedication to justice. Their ethic has had an advocacy, solutions-oriented character that never seemed an integral part of Fisk’s contributions that were more focused on exposing the hypocrisy and greed of the powerful, than finding solutions for bloody conflict beyond the anti-imperialist advocacy of withdrawal and peacemaking, although he never made a secret of his commitments to peace, self-determination, and neutrality.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Daniel Falcone is a PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He also teaches humanities at the school of the UN and resides in Queens.