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Fisk Was a ‘historian of the Present’ Who Illuminated the World
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I first met Robert in Belfast in 1972 at the height of the Troubles when he was the correspondent for The Times and I was writing a PhD on Irish history at Queen’s University.

I was also taking my first tentative steps as a journalist, while he was swiftly establishing a reputation as a meticulous and highly-informed reporter, one who responded sceptically – and rigorously investigated – the partisan claims of all parties, be they gunmen, army officers or government officials.

Our careers moved in parallel directions because we were interested in the same sort of stories. We both went to Beirut in the mid-1970s to write about the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasions. We often reported the same grim events, such as the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen in 1982, but we did not usually travel together because, aside from the fact that Robert usually liked to work alone, we wrote for competing newspapers.

When we did travel together during the wars, I was always impressed by Robert’s willingness to take risks, but to do so without bravado, making sure we had the right driver and the car had petrol that had not been watered down. One reason he had so many journalistic scoops – such as finding out about the massacre of 20,000 people in Hama by Hafez al-Assad in Syria in 1982 – was that he was an untiring traveller. One friend recalls that: “He was the only person I’ll ever know who could, almost effortlessly, make up limericks about the south Lebanese villages, while he was driving through them.”

Yet there was a deadly serious reason why he was visiting those villages. When I was a correspondent in Jerusalem in the 1990s, they were the repeated target for Israeli airstrikes, which the Israeli military would declare were solely directed at “terrorists” and, if there were any dead and wounded, they were invariably described as gunmen who deserved their fate. Almost nobody checked if this was true – except Robert, who would drive to these same shattered villages and report in graphic detail about the dead bodies of men, women and children, and interview the survivors.

Robert was suited to Beirut with its free and somewhat anarchic atmosphere, a place always on edge and with people – Lebanese, Palestinian, exiles of all sorts – who were born survivors, though sometimes the odds against them were too great. Robert had a natural sympathy for their sufferings and a rage against those who inflicted them. His sympathy was not confined to present-day victims: for decades he wrote about the Armenian genocide, carried out by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. He would publicise diaries and documents about the mass slaughter of the Armenians, stories which other correspondents felt it could be better left to the historians.

But Robert was more than a journalist cataloguing present-day developments and woes. He was a historian as well as a reporter who wrote, among many other books, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. I never finished my PhD in Belfast because the violence became too intense for academic work, but Robert did get his doctorate from Trinity college for his thesis on Irish neutrality in the Second World War. My point is that Robert was more than a person who covered “the news”, since his journalism – for all his scoops and revelations – had such depth because he was, in many respects, “a historian of the present”.

He was also, of course, a magnificent reporter who bubbled with nervous energy, often shifting his weight from one foot to the the other, notebook in his hand, as he questioned people and probed into what had really occurred. He took nothing for granted and was often openly contemptuous of those who did. He did not invent the old journalist saying “never believe anything until it is officially denied” but he was inclined to agree with its sceptical message. He was suspicious of journalists who cultivated diplomats and “official sources” that could not be named and whose veracity we are invited to take on trust.

Some have responded to his criticism with baffled resentment: during the US-led counter-invasion of Kuwait in 1991, one embedded American journalist complained that Robert was unfairly reporting on events, knowledge of which should have been confined to an officially sanctioned “pool” of correspondents. Another American journalist based in London in the early 1980s once said to me that Robert was a magnificent writer and reporter, but the American had been struck by the number of his colleagues who grimaced at Robert’s name. “I have thought about this,” he told me, “and I think that 80 per cent of the reason for this is pure envy on their part.”

We saw more of each other after we both joined The Independent, Robert in 1989 and myself in 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War. I was mostly in Iraq during the fighting and Robert was in Kuwait. Twelve years later we met in Baghdad after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and drove out together over land across the desert to Jordan. I recall that we were stopped for a long time on the Jordanian side of the border because Robert had secured, from the wreckage of some police station, in Basra in southern Iraq, a file of laudatory poems written to Saddam’s ferocious police chief in the city by his underlings on the occasion of his birthday. Some of the Jordanian officials thought that these craven offerings were hilarious, but others found the documents mysterious and kept us waiting for hours at the bleak border post while they waited for official permission to let us cross.


As we grew older, we grew closer. We had similar doubts about the beneficial outcome of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, having seen similar optimism about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 produce a paroxysm of violence. Neither of us believed that Bashar al-Assad and his regime was going to fall, at a time when this was conventional wisdom among politicians and in the media. To suggest anything to the contrary got one immediately targeted as a supporter of Assad. The sensible course was to ignore these diatribes and Robert and I used to counsel each other not to overreact and thereby give legs to some crudely mendacious tales.

Over the last 15 years we talked almost once a week about everything from the state of the world to the state of ourselves, supplementing phone calls with periodic emails. A life spent describing crises and wars made him more philosophical about the coronavirus pandemic than those with less direct experience of calamities. In one of the last emails I received from him, he wrote that “Covid-19, unless it suddenly turns into a tiger, will be seen as just another risk to human life – like car crashes, cancer, war, etc. Human’s don’t necessarily fight disease, injustice and sorrow. They just survive and bash on regardless.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Mr. Grey says:

    Robert Fisk reported on the Middle East and never thought to lecture Americans about Trump. Cockburn should follow his lead.

  2. Ronnie says:

    Many Jews loathed him because he supported justice for the Palestinians. Therefore, the bar was set very high for him. Nonetheless, he consistently vaulted over the bar when the others did not even know where the game was. He was a brilliant man with a strong sense of right and wrong who operated in a mendacious environment with many enemies gunning for him. His on-the-ground knowledge of local conditions and the players in the Middle East was second to none. His undersanding of Arabic and local history allowed him to be a unique analyst. He constantly risked his life for journalism although his bets were well sourced and researched, like his reporting. That he died of natural causes was a blessing. He will be sorely missed.

    • Agree: UncommonGround, Stan
    • Replies: @Petermx
  3. roonaldo says:

    For many years Robert Fisk’s reliable reports served to expose the lies spewed by governments, militaries, and their fawning press outlets, such as when he reported from the rubble of Douma, site of the Syrian government’s supposed “gas attack” against its own people. Rest in peace, Mr. Fisk, and may God’s grace be with you.

  4. jsinton says:

    Mr. Fisk will be sorely missed.

  5. Petermx says:

    This is an article by him that I read years ago and is one of the most informative articles on the mainstream media that I have read. Mr. Fisk explains what it was like working for Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul that now owns Fox Broadcasting Company and The Wall Street Journal among other media outlets. Mr. Fisk explains how Murdoch was a strong partisan for Israel and how he continuously nixed Fisk’s articles from being published until Fisk finally quit. His article on the Iranian civilian airliner that the US shot down in 1988 was nixed by Murdoch and Robert Fisk finally resigned.

    Rupert Murdoch has strong connections to organized Jewry and has received awards from them honoring him. His family also has close Jewish friends in high places. Although he does not identify as Jewish there is strong evidence he is Jewish. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this except that if someone reading the pro-Israel WSJ or watching the pro-Israel FOX News was aware it’s owner was Jewish, the viewer might start realizing how biased the media is and why it is so pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.

  6. vot tak says:

    Fisk’s portrayal of the Syrian government exactly matched the israeli/zionazi-gay propaganda about the Syrian government.

    Funny that, websayanim/guardianistas.

  7. Spry says:

    When I read the news of Robert Fisks untimely death I was shocked and felt so sad for a brilliant foreign correspondent that I had relied on for informed ,on the spot reporting and analysis. I am currently reading Pity the Nation .Lebanon at war and I am again full of admiration and respect at the way he carried out his duties in often dangerous and hostile environments. I have seen very little mention of his premature passing on our supposed national broadcaster, the BBC ,but I gave up on them years ago when well known Zionists were parachuted into prominent positions from Blair’s so called new Labour ! I found out about how Zionism works by reading Michael Palumbos brilliant expose of how the Israelis stole Palestine , The Palestinian Catastrophe,I was angry after reading it 16 years ago and I am still angry now. Oh, and keep up the great reporting on Antiwar . com ,I really admire Philip Giraldi and Alison Weir .Keep speaking truth to power !

  8. ivan says:

    Robert Fisk came into prominence for me during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. At that time being a 110% supporter of Israel and for long after I didn’t like his reports whether from Lebanon or Iraq or Afghanistan. But now I realise that Fisk was the most honest of reporters and the world would have done well to have listened to him.

  9. Robert Fisk pulled no punches when it came to the indisputable reality of the first modern and completely documented Armenian Genocide.He called a spade a spade regardless of the Turk denialists with their support from the jewish (khazar) lobbies and media in the AngloZio west. Indeed there is considerable evidence that the architects of the Genocide were those self same crytpos know as donmeh coming out of Thessaloniki but dating back to Shabbathai Zevi the false messiah and original donmeh convert. To us he will ALWAYS be a hero and the very definition of a courageous and thorough journalist.We deeply mourn his passing and look forward to a reunion on the happy day coming.

  10. 4justice says:

    RIP Robert Fisk. He was a larger than life person in real life. He spoke at MIT trying to help prevent the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He may have had some harsh words for Assad and bought into some Zionist propaganda to some degree (it is hard to escape that entirely, tell the truth), but he did expose the sham gas attack in Douma. He worked for truth. He respected the humanity of all. God Bless, Robert! You and your work will be missed but not forgotten.

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