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.
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.