This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The late Robert Fisk was as close to a celebrity as it is possible to get for a foreign correspondent. I vividly remember the moment I met him after a lecture in Beirut in 2010: for a young journalist in the first few months of my career, it was almost like meeting David Beckham. I also remember the words he said during that lecture: “The Middle East is not a football match. It’s a bloody tragedy, and the journalists have a responsibility to be on the side of those who suffer.”
It’s an analogy I have used many times in my own life. Robert Fisk, who worked as a foreign correspondent first for The Times and since 1989 for the Independent, had the most influence of any journalist on my career. But it wasn’t because of his charismatic speech in 2010, or because of the many articles I had read that had influenced my understanding of the Middle East as a student.
Fisk did not speak fluent Arabic, not even after living in the Middle East for more than 40 years
It was because learning for myself that Fisk was a fraud, a fabricator and a fantasist was fundamental to my understanding of the very concept of journalism, and the responsibility that this profession is supposed to carry. He was guilty of the same “propaganda campaigns” he accused the Western media of conducting.
The veneration of Fisk, in his obituaries and throughout his career, serve as an indictment of a British foreign press that continued to indulge a man who they knew was violating not just ethical boundaries, but also moral ones. In a way, the glowing obituaries, free from the constraints of the normal journalistic practice of fact-checking and evidence, were a fitting tribute to Fisk. Like him, they preferred to tell a story that was not true, because stories are often far more comforting than the reality.
So let’s separate the myths from the facts. Fisk did not speak fluent Arabic, not even after living in the Middle East for more than 40 years. Leaving aside the testimony of Arabic speakers who worked alongside him, his lack of basic knowledge of the language is contained multiple times within his own work, such as his inability to tell the difference between the words “mother” and “nation” in a well-known Ba’athist slogan.
Fisk’s reputation among scholars and journalists in the Middle East was destroyed by years of distortions of the truth in his work on Syria. But even before he started embracing pro-Assad conspiracy theories, Fisk’s relationship with the truth was widely scrutinised. It is a monumental absurdity that we have a word, “Fisking”, in the Cambridge English Dictionary derived from his surname, without any mention of him.
The frequency with which falsehoods can be found in Fisk’s work wasn’t so much an open secret as a widely shared joke
The dictionary defines it as “the act of making an argument seem wrong or stupid by showing the mistakes in each of its points, or an instance of doing this.” The frequency with which falsehoods can be found in Fisk’s work wasn’t so much an open secret as a widely shared joke understood by all who worked in the industry.
Fisk got away with it because he always got away with it. The falsehoods he published were often tolerated, excused or dismissed because people agreed with the stories he was telling. But our job as journalists, especially in the Middle East, isn’t to tell stories — it’s to tell the truth.
Following Fisk’s passing, away from the newspaper obituaries, an entirely different narrative was expressed by those who saw him up close. Syrian journalist Asser Khatab wrote an excoriating article for the online platform Raseef22, sharing his experiences of working alongside him in Homs, including his lack of Arabic and his reliance on a translator connected with the Syrian mukhabarat (secret police).
“Fisk talked about places we did not visit and incidents that we did not witness,” Khatab said. “His interviews with officials, including the governor, were full of long, eloquent and expressive phrases. I do not know where they came from.”
Lebanese journalist Joey Ayoub also condemned the praise Fisk received for his reporting. “Robert Fisk chose to embed himself with the murderers of the 2012 Daraya massacre [when more than 300 people were killed by Assad’s forces], chose to traumatise survivors, and chose to invent a story to sell to his Western papers, a story denied by the Local Coordination Committee and witnesses,” he said on Twitter. “None of Robert Fisk’s editors and certainly none of his admirers ever bothered to ask the Local Coordination Committee or the survivors about the massacre he whitewashed. “I have met survivors, and I will never forgive him,” he said. “His previously good work on Lebanon does not excuse him.” Fisk was not just adding false colour and quotes to his articles, he was engaged in perpetuating outright falsehoods, spreading regime propaganda and absolving mass murderers of some of the worst atrocities of the twenty-first century.
The fact that fabrications can so easily be found in Fisk’s work destroys the legacy of decades-worth of award-winning reporting
His perpetuation of the lie that opposition groups were responsible for the Daraya massacre is just one of many shameful examples of his false reporting on Syria. His approach of embedding with the regime, relying on regime minders and uncritically repeating whatever falsehoods he was spoon-fed by the mukhabarat became his modus operandi.
Fisk repeated the same routine in Douma, where he dutifully regurgitated more pro-regime lies, this time about a regime chlorine bomb attack that killed more than 40 people.
Fisk’s claims that he couldn’t find anyone that could corroborate the attack collapsed immediately. A CBS crew who were on the same regime-escorted press junket as Fisk did find eyewitnesses, even under the immense duress they must have been under. In this instance, it’s not that Fisk failed in his attempt at objective journalism: it’s that he went to Douma, fresh after the massacre of dozens of civilians, with his mind seemingly already made up.
The work that he was widely praised for in the past needs also to be re-examined. If Fisk was willing to spread falsehoods in Syria, how can any of his previous work be trusted? Speak to enough foreign correspondents, and most have at least one story about him.
“When I was in Zagreb, the foreign desk sent me his piece from rural Croatia,” said former Telegraph journalist Francis Harris. “I said that’s impossible. No one could do that journey in a day, and I’d seen him at breakfast and dinner.
“A decade later, when I was on the foreign desk, an angry young correspondent said the same — that Fisk’s trip from Kabul to Kandahar was impossible. Journalists had died trying to drive down that road. And I told him what my deputy foreign editor had told me in ’91: ‘Sorry old son, you’ve been Fisked’.”
The fact that fabrications can so easily be found in Fisk’s work destroys the legacy of decades-worth of award-winning reporting. This was no accident. Fisk’s latter-day atrocity revisionism was the logical end of a career unburdened by the responsibility of telling the truth at all costs. But as with Walter Duranty before him, Fisk’s plaudits and awards won’t be rescinded.
That the true state of his reputation is admitted only by foreign correspondents, but not the newspapers that employ them — that is the indictment against us: a British foreign press more interested in convenient and colourfully worded stories than in truth.
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