Robert Fisk: A fearless foreign correspondent who valued his Irish citizenship

By Con McGrath

Robert Fisk who died suddenly on October 30th, 2020, aged 74, devoted most of his life to reporting wars and revolutions in the Middle East. He made no apologies for his passionate descriptions of the sufferings of the victims and for criticising the roles played by the United States and Israel in these conflicts.

He was not afraid to make enemies of fellow journalists when he derided reporting which depended largely on official briefings and he coined the term “hotel journalism” for much coverage of the post-invasion period in Iraq. He often showed foolhardy courage in walking into dangerous areas with his ever present notebook and pen. He was named International Reporter of the Year numerous times and universities around the world queued up to award him honorary doctorates.

Robert Fisk

Fisk often sought refuge from Middle East strife at his home in Dalkey, Co Dublin and had taken out Irish citizenship shortly before his passing. He was born in Maidstone, Kent, on July 12th, 1946. His long relationship with Ireland dated back to 1972 when he moved to Belfast to work as Northern Ireland correspondent for the London Times at the height of the Troubles.

His impartial reporting was not appreciated by the British security forces and he once had to take refuge in Dublin to escape arrest when secret documents were planted on him. His book, ‘The Point of No Return’, described the fall of the power-sharing executive in Stormont following the loyalist strike in 1974. He later wrote a study of Irish neutrality in the Second World War, ‘In Time of War’, based on his PhD from Trinity College Dublin. His primary degree was from Lancaster University.

Robert Fisk in Syria. Photo: Blue Ice Docs

After a stint in Portugal covering the Carnation Revolution, the Times appointed him its Middle East correspondent in 1976. Over the next 44 years he was to cover a mounting series of wars, revolutions and uprisings some on his own doorstep where he lived in Beirut.

Bin Laden

His reporting of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the first of numerous visits there resulting in him being one of the few western correspondents to interview Osama Bin Laden not once but three times in the 1990s in his hideout. After the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York master-minded by Bin Laden, Fisk, while condemning the attack, was strongly criticised in the US for suggesting that the motivation of the attackers should also be investigated.

However, Fisk was frequently invited to give lectures to US universities. Fisk’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian discord, the US-led invasions of Kuwait and Iraq, the US entry into Afghanistan after 9/11, US bombing under NATO auspices of Kosovo and other US involvement in the Middle East often resulted in accusations of him being biased against American policy in the region.

It was ‘a scoop’ of his identifying a US warship, the Vincennes, as shooting down an Iranian civil airliner in 1988 that led to his parting from the Times in 1989 after the paper had been taken over by Rupert Murdoch. The paper refused to use his scoop and advised him to concentrate on more ‘balanced’ reporting. He then switched to the recently established London Independent and remained with it for the rest of his life.

In 2001, he was badly beaten by Afghan refugees in a village on the Pakistan border when his car stalled. He was lucky to escape with his life but he was magnanimous towards his attackers as they had recently been the victims of US bombing.

He used to explain his rejection of conventional journalistic detachment by saying: “If you watch wars, the old ideas of journalism that you have to be neutral and take nobody’s side is rubbish. As a journalist you have got to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer.” Fisk described his reporting as:- “I try to write as if I am talking to a friend – you won’t believe what I have just seen.”

He described himself as a “pacifist” and said he had never voted. Fisk was certainly a courageous journalist, not just for the journeys he risked, but the words he penned.  He spelled out in clear language what so many other journalists would never even dream of saying, let alone printing.

An example of such was the following piece he penned in October of 2009 about President Barack Obama:-

“His Middle East policy is collapsing. The Israelis have taunted him by ignoring his demand for an end to settlement-building and by continuing to build their colonies on Arab land. His special envoy is bluntly told by the Israelis that an Arab-Israel peace will take “many years”. Now he wants the Palestinians to talk peace to Israel without conditions.

He put pressure on the Palestinian leader to throw away the opportunity of international scrutiny of UN Judge Goldstone’s damning indictment of Israeli war crimes in Gaza while his Assistant Secretary of State said that the Goldstone report was “seriously flawed”. After breaking his pre-election promise to call the 1915 Armenian massacres by Ottoman Turkey a genocide, he has urged the Armenians to sign a treaty with Turkey, again “without pre-conditions”.

His army is still facing an insurgency in Iraq. He cannot decide how to win “his” war in Afghanistan. I shall not mention Iran. And now President Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. After only eight months in office. Not bad. No wonder he said he was “humbled” when told the news. He should have felt humiliated. But perhaps weakness becomes a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shimon Peres won it, too, and he never won an Israeli election. Yasser Arafat won it.

And look what happened to him. For the first time in history, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to a man who has achieved nothing – in the faint hope that he will do something good in the future. That’s how bad things are. That’s how explosive the Middle East has become……..”

On Ireland

Another newspaper article, this one from 2008, demonstrates so much of Fisk’s style, his use of humour, irony, and straight forward stories, all of which left the reader with facts to ponder upon:-

How Ireland exorcised the ghost of empire by Robert Fisk.’

“In November 1974, I was racing to Dublin from Belfast at more than 100mph when I was stopped at a police checkpoint. Sorry about the speed, I told the Garda officer who stopped me. “I’m going to be late for the Childers funeral!” The Garda looked at me – this was long before speeding became a serious crime in the Republic, and replied: “You will be as dead as Childers if you drive at that speed.” “…within an hour, I was sitting in the 12th-century Cathedral of St Patrick in Dublin, staring across the aisle at the tall, blind figure of Eamon de Valera.

Robert Fisk working at home

He stood as straight and tall as a round-tower, sightless behind his moon-size spectacles, depressed at his own great age; that, at least, is what his closest advisers later revealed, and he was to die within nine months. But it was the flags hanging above Dev’s head that I kept looking at. They were the colours of the long-forgotten Irish regiments of the British Army, the banners of those units – disbanded in 1920 – that fought for the Crown…”

“I guess I only realised the great, historic change in Ireland when the country first acknowledged that ambivalent, dangerous past: while Irishmen like Dev were fighting and dying for the Republic in Easter 1916, tens of thousands more were fighting and dying to protect Catholic France and to free little Catholic Belgium from the Kaiser’s, largely Protestant, Germany, alongside the Protestant 36th Ulster Division.

This Easter, the 92nd anniversary of the Rising, it is intriguing to look at the parallels that connect Ireland and the Middle East. The “Black and Tans”, whom Churchill supported when they took their revenge on Irish civilians in 1920, were later sent – again with Churchill’s support – to Palestine, where they became the “British Gendarmerie” and continued their reprisals against Arab and Jewish civilians to considerable effect.

Decades later, John Hume (Ireland’s only living statesman) wrote in The Jerusalem Post that Israel and “Palestine” should take a page out of Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement. It was all about compromise, he said.

He was wrong. Israel’s settlements on Palestinian Arab land in the occupied territories were as illegal as the Protestant settlements and the dispossession of the Catholics in 16th-century Ireland. A closer historical symbol was Fallujah. Not long after the US 82nd Airborne killed 14 Iraqi civilians during a protest in 2003, the people of Derry wanted to twin with Fallujah.

Had not the British Parachute Regiment killed 14 Irish civilians in Derry (13 on “Bloody Sunday”, another died of wounds) in 1972? The offer was never taken up – but the message was valid enough: we must deal with injustice before we look for “compromise”. The relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead received a multi-million-pound inquiry. The relatives of the Fallujah dead were twice put under US siege until their city was almost destroyed.”

Such views as displayed in above two articles are controversial to say the least, certainly not to everybody’s taste. Likewise Fisk’s views on Israel were not shared by everybody. On RTÉ 1 with Pat Kenny when discussing how Israel is supplied with weapons from America, to use in their conflict with Palestine, a member of the studio audience countered that point by asking him – what kind of a weapon does one use against a suicide bomber coming into Israel from Palestine.

Another moment which demonstrates an example of opposing sentiments to Fisk’s views was the heading which appeared in the pages of the “Irish Independent” back in 2004 entitled: ‘Robert Fisk should apologise to Jews’ penned by Tom Cooney, Faculty of Law, UCD; whose words read in part:- “The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) did not perpetrate the horror that Mr Fisk alleges.

A disciplined, restrained IDF responded to Palestinian terrorism in Jenin using proportional force. Even the accounts given by Palestinian combatants in Jenin contradict Mr Fisk’s report.” “On the Agenda programme, Mr Fisk took histrionic exception to my mentioning his misreport. In my eyes his misreport – which he stands over – is the modern equivalent of the old blood libel against Jews, hinging as it does on the falsehood that Jews take innocent blood.”

Robert Fisk’s books included: ‘The Point of No Return: The Strike Which Broke the British in Ulster’ (published 1975); ‘In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality 1939-1945’ (published 1983); ‘Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War’, (1990); ‘The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East’ (2005); and ‘Robert Fisk on Israel: The Obama Years’ (2015). In a follow-up book of even greater length to ‘Great War for Civilisation’ – which Fisk was working on when he died – which covered his life from the US invasion of Iraq to the present  – this may be published posthumously according to his second wife, Nelofer Pazira, a journalist, filmmaker, and human rights activist, who as a photographer accompanied Fisk on many of his reporting trips.

The many press badges of Fisk

Tributes after his passing

In October 2020 Fisk fell ill at his Dublin home and was admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital where he died a short time later. An Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Fisk was “fearless in his reporting, with a deeply researched understanding of the complexities of Middle Eastern history and politics”. Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, Chief of Staff at the Irish Defence Forces, described Fisk as a friend to Ireland and all in the Defence Forces. President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina expressed condolences to Fisk’s family:- “I have learned with great sadness of the death of Robert Fisk.

With his passing the world of journalism and informed commentary on the Middle East has lost one of its finest commentators,” the President said in a statement. “I have had the privilege of knowing Robert Fisk since the 1990s, and of meeting him in some of the countries of which he wrote with such great understanding.

I met him in Iraq, and last year I had my last meeting with him in Beirut, during my Official Visit to Lebanon. I knew that his taking of Irish citizenship meant a great deal to him, and his influence on young practitioners in journalism and political writing was attested by the huge audiences which attended the occasions on which he spoke in Ireland.”

Such occasions were many and varied, including his regular attendance at the Dalkey Book Festival; or speaking engagements around the country such as in 2014 when he spoke to more than 400 people in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary – as guest speaker of the Clonmel Junction Festival, held in the Hotel Minella; or as headline guest speaker at the Cashel Arts Festival for the inaugural Bolton Lecture held in St John’s Cathedral, John Street, Cashel, Co. Tipperary in 2017. Fisk was also a regular guest speaker on the Pat Kenny Newstalk show. After Fisk’s passing, Mr. Kenny paid him the following tribute on his programme:-

“On Friday I lost a friend, this programme lost a friend, our listeners lost an independent voice on world affairs and someone who could interpret for us the fractious divisions – both ancient and modern – of the Middle East. In the canon of contemporary journalism, Robert Fisk was a giant. He had his detractors but none among them would impugn his integrity. He put himself in harm’s way so many times in the course of a career which took him from Belfast to Beirut, from Afghanistan to Iran.

In spite of his analytical criticism of successive Israeli governments, he had many Israeli admirers. Others might have gone for a quite life, but not Robert: in an era of facile headlines, he was the opposite. He found a happy working home in Beirut, a cross-roads in the Middle East, which allowed him to get to trouble spots quickly. But the place where he found healing from the vicissitudes of journalism on the front line was in Dalkey, where he’s had a home for many, many years. He said that he’d found his own personal paradise here.”

Robert Fisk

No matter what one’s views may have been on the active and controversial career of Robert Fisk, there is no denying his courage in expressing his views, and his right to share them; just as it is the equal right of those who opposed his views to make known their own personal views too. Perhaps Charlie Flanagan, the Laois–Offaly TD and former Minister for Justice said it best when he tweeted:- “Saddened at the passing of Robert Fisk. Pleased to present him with Irish citizenship about which he was immensely proud.

Didn’t always agree with his views but I admired his courage among many great qualities. May he rest in everlasting peace.”

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