An Evening With Robert Fisk

I drove to Clonmel last night at the invitation of a good friend.

Come on down, he said.  I have a spare bedroom.

He didn’t need to ask again.  Robert Fisk?  The journalist who stands beside John Pilger in my pantheon of the greatest living reporters.  I’m there.  You don’t have to twist my arm.

This is one of the people who truly educated me, in a way that no college lecturer ever achieved.  Indeed, some would argue that no college lecturer managed to educate me on anything and my academic record is firm evidence in support of that, but Fisk did it and so did Pilger.

Before reading these guys, I didn’t understand the nature of engaged reportage.  I thought it was all about gonzo journalism, thanks to Hunter S Thompson, or more respectably, Tom Wolfe’s notion of the New Journalism, in which the reporter, astonishingly, becomes involved personally with the events taking place.

Very cool, very hip and very self-regarding, as Thompson proved when he infiltrated Sonny Barger’s Hell’s Angels and promptly got the shit kicked out of him, although he did manage to redeem himself with the arse-festeringly funny Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, sadly done to death later by a dreadful movie.

These guys — Thompson, Wolfe,  Gay Talese, Joe Esterhas with his chilling Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse and of course Truman Capote, redefined journalism, dragging it out of the hidebound, worthy tradition of the Fifties, and creating a new, less-stiff way of looking at things.  Suddenly, the reporter had permission to be part of the action, but still there was a barrier of sorts between the observer and the action.

Even Thompson contrived to set up a boundary based on drink, drugs and insanity.  The only writer I can think of who was getting beyond the emotional boundary was Gitta Sereny, interviewing Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor for the astonishing Into That Darkness, and even then, it wasn’t contemporaneous journalism, following events as they happened and commenting on them.

David Dimbleby is the outstanding example that disproves my thesis.  His words, as he describes the discovery of Bergen Belsen concentration camp, resonate with outrage and disgust.  Perhaps it’s to the quintessentially British Dimbleby  that Fisk owes his professional lineage rather than the parallel American evolution of journalism.

As I listen to Dimbleby bearing witness to the Belsen horrors, I can hear Fisk on the Late Late Show talking about his experience in Sabra and Chatila after Israel’s proxy killers, Major Haddad’s SLA, slaughtered Palestinians in the Lebanese camps.  I’ll never forget, all those years ago, how Fisk described climbing on a mound of earth to get a better view of the camp, only to realise that the mound was moving and was made of human bodies.

That sort of image does not go away easily, but more to the point, it draws an arrow-clean parabola between the horrors of the Nazi regime and the events that took place in  1982 outside Beirut.

I’ll come back to this, because it bears on an inevitable question — a question that deserves an answer.

For now, I’ll just tell you that the two books by journalists I took most to heart in the last couple of decades were Fisk’s Pity the Nation and Pilger’s Heroes but tonight we’re concerned with Fisk, and not exclusively with Israel.  Fisk is far too erudite for that and his vision is too broad to be so parochial, but he does possess a profound understanding of regional politics, every word of which I hung on last night, like the avid student I never was in the old days.

It’s not difficult to listen when the speaker is such a fluent, engaging and funny man with such an effortless grasp of language and a strong emotional intelligence.  What’s not to like?

Fisk laughs at himself and in doing so, makes his message all the stronger.

Somebody suggests that he might lack balance and he bristles.  Balance?  What’s this talk of balance?  We hear so much of this nonsense in Irish journalism that everyone immediately grabs onto his point and even though he risks Godwin’s Law destruction, Fisk nails it with the Nazi analogy.  Not an easy trick to pull off.

If you were doing a report on Bergen-Belsen, he says, would you try to balance it by interviewing the camp’s commandant?

We get it but of course, we always did.  The problem is that those influential in our public broadcaster and in some national papers, although they too might get it, are in fear of the big finger accusing them of bias.  For no good reason.

We continue.  Balance.  Is Fisk balanced or is he biased?

Fisk is unequivocal.  I’m biased, he says, on the side of those who suffer.

Echoing a song I know, he muses that there are no good people in war, and I find myself muttering a line from Leonard Cohen : there is no decent place to stand in a massacre.

War changes people.  It turns them from normal family men to stone cold killers, as we saw in Croatia when the Krajina Serbs took up arms, terrified that the Ustasha were on the way back, and in Bosnia when Ratko Mladic led his army on a rampage of destruction, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre.  Mladic was a fine soldier until he gave in to the ethnic poison infecting his soul.

We saw it a few years ago when well-educated, civilised Israeli officers found it possible to bombard civilians in Gaza, the world’s largest concentration camp.

We see it today when similarly sophisticated Syrian military leaders find no difficulty massacring hundreds of thousands of their own people.

This is what happens, though I must confess, I don’t understand it, since the word NO exists in all languages.

Robert Fisk is an engaging speaker who tries to understand all sides.  When the inevitable question comes up, as I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t shirk the answer.

Somebody asks, as I have often done myself, why are the Israelis so indifferent to Palestinian suffering, considering what was inflicted on Jews?

His reply is more charitable than mine might be: when you’re in pain, you don’t care about the fellow in the next bed.  Well and good.  That makes sense and perhaps it explains the intransigence of Ariel Sharon or Menachim Begin.  Or even Bibi Netanyahu.

But it does not explain the insouciance of the Israeli teenagers I personally witnessed treating Auschwitz like another Disneyland, and frankly, that’s much more sinister than the violence of men who have experienced oppression at first hand.

This is a move from enmity to indifference, where your former enemy is now just vermin: the untermensch, an obscene  concept we thought we’d never experience again.

The conversation turns to language and the way the compliant media reports things but there isn’t enough time to go into the weasel words like regime versus government.  There’s not enough time to talk about the western reporters in the Baghdad Green Zone reporting the war from a hotel while their Iraqi stringers risk their lives.  There’s no time to discuss the fact that GW Bush had no reason at all to invade Iraq.

It’s over too soon and all you want is another two weeks with this extraordinarily-experienced, compassionate man

By my estimate, about 400 people attended the talk, and I thought all the questions, apart from a single individual, were well-informed and well-researched.  Fisk was unfailingly patient and courteous as the conversation ranged from Egypt to Turkey, from Tunisia to the Armenian genocide and through it all, one thing comes across.

This man cares.  You might agree with  some of his analysis and you might disagree with more, but who’s right all the time?

Am I?  No.

Are you?

The important thing about Robert Fisk is that he’s passionate. It comes from the soul, and he shows no sign of stopping.

It would be a poorer world without this sort of man.

15 thoughts on “An Evening With Robert Fisk

  1. Religion and politics may be the two filthiest of human endeavors and Fisk reports on the activities of both pursuits superbly.

  2. Bock, I would like to offer a comment on your Lenard Cohen quote above:
    “There is no decent place to stand in a massacre”. There is actually, but it is very costly to do so and very few of us,(including myself), would be able for it.

    At Woeste Hoeve in Holland in 1945, 116 Dutchmen were executed by firing squad in reprisal for a mistaken assault on a high ranking Nazi Police official followed by usual hecatomb for such actions.

    The old roadside memorial commemorated 117 victims altogether, the 117th person being actually a member of the firing squad who refused to participate, his name being
    Helmut Seyffards.
    This is a highly unusual example of “standing in a decent place during a massacre”

    (My attention to this incident was first drawn in a well researched British WWII history magazine “After The Battle” No. 56).

  3. Just a correction to the previous comment: “…….very few of us,(including myself)……” seems to imply that I would be found among the few ! To reverse the sense of the statement, I actually mean that I would NOT be any hero.
    If I was a member of that firing squad, I think that I would have just gone ahead and just “performed my duty” however much of conscience I were to have afterwards.

  4. Wonder what Fisk would think of this; our Freedom of Information right is to be abolished in the coming weeks without the electorate even aware. Thanks to Labour. The right to knowledge in the public realm to be quashed – outrageous.

  5. The photo of the israeli teenagers troubles me. You say you witnessed insouciance and I have no doubt that photographs don’t always communicate the prevailing atmosphere; however teenagers are notoriously gauche and their reactions in awkward or challenging situations may seem inappropriate or insensitive–teenagers may not wish to be seen to be upset by their peers and may put on a false bravado. I’m not condoning indifference, I think people particularly the young cope with stressful situations in different ways. I had Fisk written off as hopelessly anti Jewish, a perpetual apologist for the Arab cause; however his recent writings on some of the apalling human rights’ atrocities particularly against women in the Arab world would seem to bear you out–i’m sorry I missed his talk but I am glad you posted this—nicely written–btw–what was the question asked of Fisk that was ill informed/researched?

  6. I’ve learned over the years running this site. There was a time when I would have attacked that person, but now I feel sorry for him. Everyone present shrivelled in embarrassment at his ignorance and maybe we should leave it at that. Fisk was dignified as always.

  7. Robert Fisk is a brave man and a fine reporter. I first met him in Lebanon in while I was serving there as a Policeman in 1979, again in 1982, and many times in the following years. Only for brave men like Mr. Fisk, Ireland, and for that matter the rest of the world would not know what went on in South Lebanon at the time.
    I didn’t see too many RTE ‘war reporters’ in the Leb during my years there, nor did I notice much Irish interest in Lebanon in the 1970s/80s or indeed Gaza (where I also served with the UN in 1989/90) back then. (Except for those of us who served there, of course, and we were seldom asked for our opinions back home!)
    Now, all of a sudden, it seems to be the fashion for us Irish to to care about the Middle East, mostly by folks who couldn’t find the place on the map.
    Present company excluded, of course.

  8. When Eamon Dunphy was on The Last Word, he regularly had Fisk on as a guest. Always interesting and knew what he was talking about.

  9. But is Fisk being wonderful all we really need to remember?

    Some of us are deeply troubled by the above comment about “a fun night for the left-wing intelligentsia of Clonmel”.

    We’re all sensitive people, as the great Marvin Gaye might sing.

    And the anthropological significance of an intelligentsia existing in Clonmel, a left-wing one at that, is disturbing.

    No one is suggesting that the left-wing Clonmel intelligentsia don’t gather regularly to discuss the weightier topics of the day

    But deep in our psyche a part of us (the Paddy gene) imagines that some of these ideological southpaws are not really serious, that they secretly long to be at large – on the side of the road – drinking “tay” out of flasks and “ating” hand sangwiches out of the boots of their cars?

    Going forward.

    Do the left-wing Clonmel intelligentsia still indulge in these ancient Hibernian customs, or have they adopted – so-called – more enlightened ways?

  10. Fisk’s reporting kept my faith in humanity alive while I witnessed America being fed propaganda which ate without question. What an honor to have met him. Thank you for sharing this!
    The Irish language does not have a word for No. Trivia :)

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