From Belfast to Beirut: an appreciation of Robert Fisk

“My editor at The Times had safely received the whole report and duly printed it all except for one paragraph which recorded how Gavin (Hewitt) and I came across a tribesman outside Jalalabad standing on a box and sodomising a camel. This was a bit too much for Times readers he felt.”

Such is the life of a foreign correspondent. Robert Fisk reported from the Middle East for 40 years during which time he earned a reputation as one of the finest journalists of his generation. I was surprised that his passing in October went unreported in Slugger especially bearing in mind his excellent investigative work in Northern Ireland in the seventies and his attachment to Ireland in general. For many years Fisk’s journalism has informed and shone a much needed light on the darkness of Middle Eastern politics.

Robert Fisk cut his teeth with the Newcastle Chronicle before coming to Northern Ireland as a correspondent with The Times. Of his time there he says “But above all in Northern Ireland – preparation for what was to come in the Middle East, which I could not then have imagined – was the experience of confronting government officials and British army colonels, when they lied and I tried to hold them to account.” His former wife Lara Marlowe (Paris correspondent with the Irish Times) has said: “His experience in Northern Ireland imbued him with a profound mistrust of authority.”

The sort of investigative work he did in Northern Ireland became Fisk’s bread and butter. This type of journalism was Fisk’s bread and butter. He believed in going to the source, often putting himself in danger. It was where he differentiated himself from most other journalists – the “embedded” reporters, the ones who covered stories in comfort away from the epicentre, the ones who too readily accepted official government statements.

His great book “The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East” is awash with harrowing tales of slaughter and brutality. How someone could devote their life to reporting events from this region is, to me, hard to understand. It also brings home to readers from this part of the world that, notwithstanding the brutality of our own “Troubles”, the Middle East is on a different level of suffering. He himself said that “The transition from Belfast wasn’t from the frying pan into the fire. It was from imaginable violence to unimaginable cruelty on a mass scale. I am thankful for those years in Northern Ireland. I think they helped to keep me alive in later years.”

It is hard to believe that his life came to an end in a Dublin hospital and not in a Middle Eastern war zone. Indeed in 2001 he came within inches of losing his life after being set upon by a mob of refugees on the Pakistani/Afghan border. In 2005 after the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who he counted as a friend, he wrote the following: “In the days that followed, I could only feel depressed. Death seemed to possess the Middle East and haunt my own life. Page after page of my contacts book would have little notes beside names: Died 2004, Murdered 14/02/05, and so on.

What did Robert Fisk, the man who interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times, make of the most cataclysmic event in the western world since WW2 – the attack on the twin towers? He has no difficulty calling it an international crime against humanity. In trying to understand how something like that could happen he lays the blame fairly on America’s shoulders. “America’s failure to act with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles to those who use them against civilians, its responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions – all this was related to the society that produced the 9-11 attackers.” Fisk himself actually traced a piece of shrapnel used in a rocket attack that killed six civilians, four of whom were children, back to the American company that made it and confronted their senior executives.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins said: “With his passing the world of journalism and informed commentary on the Middle East has lost one of its finest commentators.”

Robert Fisk was a great investigative reporter and a very fine writer.

Rest in Peace Mr Robert. *

* sic

Photo by Majorie Lipan

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