Eating Media Lunch: Anita McNaught IVs Robert Fisk
ROBERT FISK INTERVIEW
Transcript from Eating Media Lunch
Interview by Anita McNaught
Anita McNaught: You based yourself in the Middle East 25-30 years ago… in terms of writing about history being forged, you could scarcely have put yourself in a better spot, could you?
Robert Fisk: It was 28 years ago, I went into Beirut and the civil war was already on by one year, and we actually had a bureau there and it went up in smoke within one day of my arrival which was a bad symbol at the time. I had been to the Middle East on holiday one year, by chance, when I was based in Belfast… I was only 29 at the time, so I have the times of London say to me: Would you like to be the Middle East correspondent – boy! I wasn’t going to turn that down, and of course I hadn’t been there long before I realised that I was really watching history… the Sadat peace with Israel, the Israeli invasion of 78, another Israeli invasion of 82, the Iran/Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I remember going through periods of absolute exhaustion going from one invasion to another and from one war front to another going across thousands of miles, and we were – all my colleagues were aware at the time – that we were watching real history being made. We thought we were reporting it accurately at the time. Looking back now, I’m not so sure but, I think those of us, who were quite young, I still feel I am. It was an exciting adventure. I remember in Afghanistan watching hundreds and hundreds of Soviet tanks - this was the Soviet Union, these were the warriors of Stanlingrad and Kursk, and watching them come through the snow, through the Sarlang pass and down the Kabul gorge.…where the British army was massacred in 1842, and watching Russian soldiers fighting, and at one point I got arrested and was put on a Russian convoy and we got attacked on the convoy, and I was sitting next to the commander, a Soviet soldier, and what an adventure! Boy, it was exciting.
And I guess one becomes more cynical with age, and sees that that event that I was watching led to an appalling tragedy in Afghanistan of 1 5-2 million Afghans dead within 8 years. But at the time of course it was like one of those novels that my father gave me when I was a little boy, I remember he gave a book his mother had given to him about the second Afghan war, and a young British hero who goes, and of course, shoots lots of Afghans, Tom Graham VC is the title of the book, and I remembered thinking in Afghanistan: this is a bit like the book! It really is dangerous here! So there was a good deal of naivety and I suppose immaturity to some extent, but we grew up very quickly, we realised quickly how dangerous it was – we started seeing a lot of dead bodies. I never realised when I went to the Middle East that I would end up seeing so many thousands of dead people with my own eyes.
McNaught: Yet others moved on, but you stayed… so something about it really got to you?
Fisk: Well, I tell you the background to this is that my father, who was much older than my mother, was a soldier in the First World War; he went to the third battle of the Somme in 1918. He was a man who was, basically very conservative, obeyed the law, admired policemen, magistrates, judges, governments but in the first WW he broke all the rules and he took a camera to the trenches. Once I was ten years old he insisted that he took me back every year to the scenes of the big battles, he took me to the big French battlefields of Ypres, Verdun etc, and from a very early age he fascinated me with the idea of history and books, so I grew up knowing all about the Archduke being murdered in Sarajevo and starting off WW1, I knew about Stalingrad and Arnhem. When I went to the ME I was acutely aware that had it not been for WW1 and WW2, I wouldn’t be there – I was in effect living on my father’s generation’s mistakes.
One of the things that’s always struck me is that in a period of just 18 months, that followed WW1, the victors drew the borders of Yugoslavia, N Ireland and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire professional career watching the people in those borders, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, burn. So for me it’s not a question of if I want to move on somewhere else – I never wanted to be a manager or an editor, or climb the greasy ladder or go to NY and sit in an air conditioned office. I want to watch the pages of history go on. You know what it’s like for me? I still feel like I’m 29 years old which is the age I was when I went to Lebanon in 1976, but for me it’s like you know you can read a book late at night, a gripping history book, very vividly written, and you think: Just one more chapter, so you hang on to see what’s next in Iran, what’s next in Afghanistan, one more chapter, or in Iraq, now, and you look at the clock and its 2.30am, and before you know it you can see the dawn peeping through the curtains. That’s what it’s like in the Middle East, that’s why I stay.
McNaught: You’re a bit of a lone wolf, aren’t you?
Fisk: You mean I’m not very gregarious, Anita..?
McNaught: You’re not one of those clubbable journalists. People who talk about you say you fly solo…
Fisk: I think that’s a bit of a mistake. I work a lot with Arab journalists, because I learn from them. I learn from their memories and I learn from their experiences. I do occasionally work with Western correspondents. I have a few friends that I will work with – Ed Cody of the Washington Post if he’s in the Middle East, but by and large I don’t see the point of hunting in packs. I think if a newspaper spends so much money and time and effort sending a correspondent to live in a region. What’s the point if he’s going to spend half his time living with other journalists? In Cairo there’s an island in the middle of the Nile where most of the journalists live and they invite each other to each others’ parties and the occasional embassy person, and one token Egyptian perhaps. I don’t see the point in living like that. I don’t think you learn anything.
In Beirut for example all my friends are Lebanese, with a few exceptions – the head of the Swiss Red Cross for example – but I do not go to embassies, I don’t have any contact with them, I don’t go to embassy parties, I’ve never met any the British ambassador and unless a journalist rings up and wants to have a chat about something then I’m happy to meet, but I don’t see the point in talking to Westerners if you’re going to live in the Middle East. If they’re close friends, ok, but if you’re going to go to embassies and listen to what the first secretary says well, you can go to London and listen to what the foreign office says, or live in America and go to the State Dept.
That way, my paper gets from me totally an individual and unique perspective. Other people can give their own, but at least I give mine. The idea of going around in a pack on a story always going off on the same story, always setting the same narrative, I’m just not interested in doing that, it has no interest to me, it’s not what the story about and very often the finished version is not reflecting what I see on the ground.
McNaught: How much free rein do you have, does the Independent give you your head?
Fisk: Yes, I’m very fortunate, the Times gave me my head, but towards the end of my period, 85-86, Murdoch had been in control 5-6 years, and even the staff of the Times were beginning to be frightened of my stories. They weren’t changing them, I was doing my own thing, but you would find that a story particularly critical of Israel would have the foreign desk getting a little bit worried, and I realised the rot had set in because when the staff had become so fearful of the word from above I would start spending one third of my day dealing with their fears. And I wasn’t going to risk my life in the Middle East, which is the most dangerous story in the world, for colleagues who were going to be worried about what the boss said or what the editor was going to say.
So when I switched to the Independent, I found many of my former colleagues already run away there, and since I’ve never had anyone say: You can’t write that, it’s over the top, that’s biased – they print what I write. It’s a journalists’ newspaper. And I’m very fortunate. People say: It’s great to reads something that’s different, it’s hard hitting.
People sat that it’s very nice to read what you think. And I always say, ‘listen, there’s an editor who has to print it’- ok I have the dangers of the Middle East, and a lot of hate mail, but it’s my editor who has to defend me to the ambassadors and diplomats in London – and he enjoys it! I’ve always tried to be a friend of the people who are printing my paper, not competing or arguing with them. And once they trust you and you trust them, it’s great being a journalist. I feel very sorry for many of my colleagues who cannot do that – who are told what to write, and told what the story is, or have their story changed. It must be immensely frustrating, and I cannot understand how they go on working in those circumstances, but they do.
But I suppose that if you treat your job like any other, driving a bus, working in a bank, then I guess you’ve got a mortgage to pay, kids to send to school, then you start making allowances and compromises that perhaps you don’t even acknowledge.. but in the Middle East you can see where the compromises are made. You only need to open a newspaper particularly in the US where I travel a lot, and the occupied territories are referred to as the ‘disputed territories’ and it isn’t Jewish ‘colonies’, it’s Jewish ‘settlements’ or Jewish ‘neighbourhoods’. Palestinians are always killed in clashes, rather than shot dead by Israelis, although Israelis are always killed by Palestinians, which of course they are, and ‘clash’ always sounds like some natural disaster.. so the very language is debased in this way, because editors don’t want to upset the Israelis, or in some cases if its an Arab newspaper, the Palestinians, so what happens is a kind of semantics drains away from the story until what you’ve got is something frankly meaningless. You can turn on the news in US on ABC or CBS, and unless you know the background of what you’re listening to in the Middle East, the news is frankly incomprehensible. It’s been drained of so much meaning. It’s been compromised so much; it’s like listening to someone describing a public enquiry in Auckland into a new motorway. There’s no passion in it. Here we have one of the greatest tragedies of the modern world, and it’s being treated like a football match.
5 dead Palestinians today and 3 dead Israelis – what kind of reporting is this, what narrative of history are we setting when we report the deaths of people and the tragedy of people without any feeling, or compassion towards them?
McNaught: Lot more going on in this game isn’t there. I mean you’ve written about having a visit from the US military when you were in Iraq, about finding your phone tapped, about worrying about break-ins in your house. Is this part of the game? Did you expect to have to deal with this?
Fisk: It’s something that shouldn’t happen, but we don’t live in a perfect world. And if you’re going to work in a place like the Middle East, you’ve got to take the sticks and stones. I’m not so worried about the telephone, because they’re just doing their job. I wish they’d use British tapping equipment because sometimes my voice comes back to me one hour later, and that’s pathetic. No the real danger comes from the really very incendiary level of abuse that people who dislike what you write start sending you. What happens is for example, we had this incident some two or three years ago, in which the actor John Malkovich, speaking at Cambridge University was asked by a student whom he would most like to get rid of and he said George Galeway, the Scottish MP and Robert Fisk, and in fact he said he’d like to shoot them. And I first heard of this from a colleague who had picked it up off the A wire, who thought it was funny. I said that was not funny, this guy is not totally balanced, but much less balanced people than him will take this seriously. So we got the police and said we want to make a formal complaint about this guy threatening my life. They said it did not have intent, so couldn’t press charges. Well, thank so now you can say that if you didn’t really mean to kill me, you can say I want to kill Bob Fisk. The problem was:
The problem of course is not so much John Malkovich, I think he’s unstable to say things like that, but less stable people still took this up. Within 24 hours websites had been set up, one of which had me being beaten to death with a person kicking me in the face. Underneath was a message saying John Malkovich you’re jumping the queue. I give lectures in the US every 3 weeks, big audiences, 2-3000 people, and if just one of those people have set up that website, what do I do? I don’t have security – I refuse. By saying what he did John Malkovich has put my life in danger, but he doesn’t care. He never apologised. For me, that is serious – that I worry about. When I get letters after quite badly beaten on the Afghan border in 2001, and I get letters saying: I hope you and your ‘friend’ Osama Bin Laden go to hell that my mother is Eichman’s daughter. My mother worked in the RAF fixing radios in spitfires. When I get mail like that, I think there are some pretty dangerous people out there. I don’t care about visits from the US army on my hotel room in Baghdad, I don’t give a dam about, but I do worry about the levels of hate mail.
One of the noticeable things when you look at the coverage of the Middle East is the widening gap between the way you see events in the ME and the rest of the Western media – what’s going on here?
Look… Ever since 1967 and you can find this reflected in a number of academic works in the US - the pressures on the Western press to report the ME, firstly from a pro-Israeli standpoint, and secondly from a pro-American standpoint, have built up. 2 reasons: The growing habit of the supporters of Israel to scream: Anti-Semite at anyone who criticises the state of Israel – it is a vicious thing to say, it is slanderous to say to innocent people. There are plenty of anti-Semites in the world and I’m against them all, but this continuing campaign is going to make the word anti-Semitism respectable, and its disgraceful to use this libellous, slanderous, actionable against a journalist who tries to do his job. In the US especially, to be labelled as someone who is anti-Semitic can lose you your job, even in newspapers.
So what happened since 1967 is a gradual softening on the part of journalists of the way they have reported events between the Israelis and Palestinians. They’ve been quite happy to criticize the Palastinians, and rightly so I think Arafat is a corrupt old man. But whenever journalists want to criticise Israelis like Sharon, who even an Israeli report blamed for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre is called controversial, the bulldozer, anything but saying he’s got blood on his hands. Arafat has blood on his hands too.
So what you’ve got is anything to avoid upsetting the Israeli lobby. And the Israeli lobby in Washington is very powerful, especially in election years. And its true, they admit that. And they work very hard – the Arab lobby doesn’t work very hard. But the fact is that American journalists always looking over their shoulders for the fear of being accused of being racist.
There’s a second element in all this: The way in which – it’s not just American journalism, but journalism in the West - have to constantly show no bias, no passion, no thought no nothing. Everyone has to have a say, equal time to the Israeli spokesperson, equal time to the Palestinian spokesperson. and that everything has to be told in such a way that you detach yourself from the tragic events going on and I think this is a totally useless form of journalism. For example if you were reporting the 18th century slave trade. Do you give equal time to the slave ship captain and the slaves? Or reporting the liberation of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany? Do I give equal time to the SS guards? No, I talk to the victims. When I report on a suicide bombing, am I going to give 50% of the space to the Hamas spokesperson? I am not! I reported on the vileness of the suicide bombing and the victims and the terrible scenes. But this habit of says that everything has to be balanced. If I go to the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, and I was there. I crawled over heaps of corpses, with my hands and feet. I though it was an outrage, and atrocity a war crime, and I wrote about it as such. And I said the Israelis sent the murderers into the camp. And that is true, it was a fact. And that is the way to report it. Not to say we are going to do a whole article as to why the Israelis sent them into the camp. I’m sorry, I was there.
McNaught: So those are the hidden forces, governing the Western media…
Fisk: They’re not hidden, Anita, they’re quite open about it. The forces putting pressure on the media are right there on your TV screen and you can see them speaking. They put their spokesmen on. I was speaking on a TV programme in Ireland the other day, when we were supposed to be discussing Iraq, and then the journalist suddenly turned around to me and said “you said the troops were a rabble in Janine, that’s a blood libel!” He suddenly started shouting. And I asked the anchorman, for libel reasons, to dissociate himself from that comment. I said that’s a lie, that’s slanderous, that’s and actionable statement, how dare you say that. You must fight back. The one thing you must not do with lobbyists, and I get this from the Arab side too by the way. You should see some of the cartoons of me as a rabid dog. Rabid dogs must be exterminated, it’s not so funny. The one thing you must not do is say: I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry. You must stand your ground, get your story right, and in the end, they’ll leave you alone.
McNaught: What does the Arab media, Arab opinion make of the influences behind the West’s media coverage of Middle East.
Fisk: Not sure what Arab opinion is because its not overflowing with democracy –and nor is Iraq – most Arabs who you talk to take the view that the Western press is hopelessly biased against them, because of Israeli influence in the US, which is not totally untrue. Also have a totally conspiratorial view of the press. That we’re all paid to write nice things about Israel and bad about the Arabs. Will not see that some people are natural racists and some are not. They won’t look for the roots of Islamophobia. There’s always a plot in the world of the Arabs –and of course there often is a plot, which makes it even more difficult to dismiss this idea! They said there was a plot behind the overthrow of Mossadeq in1953 and there was, the CIA was behind his overthrow, and so were the British.
But the big problem for the Arabs is that they do no realise how poorly they represent themselves. And it’s not my job to represent the Arab POV, although I can say what it is because I live among Arabs, but they have been so cowed by their own dictators that they cannot make a point without looking over their shoulder., is there a Mokhaberat security man some where near? What will the Saudis say if they hear me say this on television? One of the problems with the Arab lobby in the US is that they spend so much time arguing with each other. So you have a Western audience with understandably limited concentration saying: What? Who ARE these people?
McNaught: What is going on in the Middle East?
Fisk: This is about history. It about the Treaty of Sevres and Camp David and injustice. Treaties that are made by people who do not have responsibility for the countries for which they are making the decisions. What’s happening at the moment is that the US far-right government, far more far-right than we realise, a Christian zealot government, enthused by and supported by some very right wing people who are supported so Is and acknowledge themselves to be so, is pushing for the largest rearrangement, geopolitical re-arrangement of the ME. Effectively, it will benefit Israel, because in Iraq, will emasculate. Obviously in the interest of America’s interests, their major economic concern, oil. If Iraq only exported Brussels sprouts or asparagus, I don’t believe the American military would be in Iraq. And nor do you, and nor does anyone else I’ve met, including the American Military. What is happening is an attempt to re-arrange the geopolitical structure of the Middle East in favour of the US and in favour of Israel. And never have we seen it pushed to this degree. And it’s not working because the millions of people who live there don’t want it. They’re resisting. The Palestinians have compromised and compromised, they’re now living in the last 22% of historic Palestine – and now told that Settlements remain. When you put people in a corner eventually they will fight back. The Palestinians were dormant for more than a decade. Hezbollah then fought back against the Israelis. Now whatever you think of terrorist or whatever, they fought. They showed people you didn’t have to be afraid, and that’s the biggest change I’ve seen in the Middle East in 28 years – they’ve lost their fear. The Iraqis are no longer frightened of the Americans, once lost your fear; you can never be re-injected with fear again. You might die, but you won’t be afraid.
And what is happening in the Arab world – and it’s not aided by their dictators and leaders – is that ordinary Arabs are no longer afraid – they’re speaking out. And this is frightening our (the West’s) dictators in the Middle East. This frightens the Mubraks, the Mohamed Karzi’s The Saddam Hussein’s, more than it’s frightening us – because we set up these dictators in the first place. We put Saddam there in the first place, as we did Nasser, as we did Kaddfi, before he became a super terrorist, and now he’s a supper statesman again, but that’s how we play the game. When you put people in this situation, and you squeeze them and squeeze them and you heap injustice historically on them. 1842 Afghanistan, the first Afghan war, the second Afghan war, the RAF used mustard gas against the Kurds in the 1920s. When you realise the lies we told, to everyone in the region. I mean in the first world war, through Laurence of Arabia we promised the Arab world independence outside of Turkey. That would be kept as a separate state, the break up of the Ottoman empire was one of the reasons we fought the First World War. Then there was the secret agreement on the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Another secret agreement between British and French was to chop up the Middle East and run it thought mandates, they wouldn’t get the independence. We lied to all the people of the region. And we lied to the Jews as well, we promised them all of Palestine. Reread the Balfa declaration of 1917. When you do this to people, they will explode.
I was making a film 8 years ago about what why Muslims coming to hate the West – 8 years exactly before Sept 11. I went into a mosque in Bosnia, which had just been bombed by the Serbs. ON the film I say ‘I wonder that the Muslim world has got in store for us?”. I say “maybe I should end my reports with: Watch out!” And when that film was shown in America it was criticized as being sensational and that I should have never have said things like “watch out”, this was not an issue. The interesting thing, when Sept 11th happened, and it was an international crime against humanity, and nobody said why! We were encouraged to say: Who, well we knew, nineteen Arabs, fifteen who were Saudis, we knew they were all Muslims, or claimed to be Muslims. We knew how. It was quite ok for journalists to say they got these planes after learning to fly at flights schools etc. But the moment you said why, you were howled down, your helping terrorists. They are mindless terrorists, they don’t like democracy. But hold on – has there been some kind of a problem in the Middle East? “No”, we don’t discuss it. When I give lectures in the United States, I always say that journalists have to ask why? Why suicide bombers? Why is America in Iraq? Why are Americans under attack all across the country? If there is a crime committed, when there’s a murder, the first thing the cops do is look for a motive. It’s an integral part of crime fighting. But when we have an international crime against humanity, with well over three thousand people killed in one day, we’re not allowed to look for a motive. Is there conflict in the Middle East? I was crossing the Atlantic, my plane turned back round to Europe, and I was doing a two way interview with a Harvard professor and an anchor man in Dublin. And the professor said to me that to merely ask the question why made me a dangerous man, your anti-American and that means your anti-Semitic. I said “this is outrageous”. They pulled the plug on the guy of course.
Most of my colleagues, I’m sorry to say, didn’t ask why, and if you're not asking the question why you're not doing your job.
I think it’s a frame of mind. I think it’s a habit. Journos have fallen into the habit of restraining themselves, feeling that to feel compassion or passion is something unprofessional. Always struck by when I sit down to have dinner with journos, especially American, they can be quite fascinating, they know a lot, but when I open the newspaper, that knowledge and the feelings they have, and the analysis is simply not in there. Another problem is that journalists like power. They like political power, they like to be close to ambassadors, they like to smell power. I suppose I can understand it but I don’t like it. It’s become a parasitic relationship; journalists want to be known by name by the President. And because journalists like to be close to power, they can’t write what they think. What’s the point in having State department correspondent whey they just parrot what the department says – just put the State Dept spokesman up there, make him the correspondent! It’s the same thing. You look at any major story now in the New York Times, and over and over again, the end of the first paragraph of a story will end in ‘officials say’. We should just rename the New York Times ‘Officials Say’, it’s the same thing. We don’t even get scoops anymore about world politics because we don’t go for whistle blowers, we have manufactured scoops where the secretary of state will decide to give you an off the record briefing, and you have to do a big scoop, ‘officials say’. That’s not a scoop, we have become mouth pieces. When foreign correspondents arrive in a Middle East capital they don’t know, they go to the embassy for a briefing. Then they’ll go meet the spook, and the first secretary, then they’ll go to one other embassy, and then they’ll write the story “western diplomats say” – it’s not worth an economy fare to do that.
McNaught: Post-Gilligan it’s got worse.
Fisk: It might for the BBC, it’s not for me. I think that written journalism comes out a lot stronger. Television, with its immense technology and money involved, can’t afford to piss off governments. But newspapers can and do. You know the funny the about it is if you ever go into a television studio, every one is sitting around reading newspapers, but if you go into a newspaper office everyone is sitting around watching television. But no one watches more television and reads more newspapers that Presidents and Prime ministers. They get a pretty easy ride from us. Your covering a war, your country is involved in it, and they get frightened of being asked questions. You must challenge authority. You must challenge the authority of your own government as much as you challenge the authority of your countries enemy. They don’t challenge, look at the Kosovo war, Look at the Nato press conferences. The BBC defence correspondent was virtually the Nato spokesperson, indeed he later became the Nato spokesman. It’s absolutely incredible, this is the death of journalism.
My definition of journalism used to be that we are writing the first pages of history, that we are the only independent witnesses to wars, peace treaties, massacres and injustice. And I was discussing this with that very fine Israeli journalist Samira Hartz who works for Ha’aretz, and she and I were sitting overlooking Jerusalem rather than the sea and I told her my definition of journalism and she said: No Robert, you’re wrong our job is to monitor the centres of power. And I thought: Bugger me! She’s right! I always say: She defined it. But it is our job to challenge authority, especially our authority. Because we know, in Iraq, we know what’s going on – we know the lies of the occupying power, as much as the ruthless and cruelty of the insurgents.. we know that prisoners are being maltreated, we know they’re being humiliated, but for a whole year, apart from a few of us who were going out and talking to the families of the prisoners who’d been badly beaten, it didn’t get the headlines. For a whole year it went on – so we didn’t do our bloody job.
Because we didn’t challenge power. Because we went along with: The general says, the PM says, the president’s view is… If that’s our job, well, that’s the end of journalism. We’re out of work.
McNaught: You’ve met Osama Bin Laden. What do you think he’s playing for? Are we seeing a significant historical figure rise?
Fisk: He already is a significant historical figure, whether you loathe or love him. He is already an iconic figure in the Arab world, and one of the reasons is that however great the crimes that he has committed, whenever he speaks of injustice, he says the things that Arab presidents and generals and dictators will not say. It is the ultimate humiliation for an Arab to say that the only man who says the things that he believes in has to say it from a cave in a mountain.
What does Bin Laden want? Like everyone else, he changes. When I first met him in Sudan he was against injustice in general against Muslims. The second time I met him he wanted the overthrow of the Saudi royal family whom he regarded as heretics and hypocrites, and I think he would have rather like to be the new Emir of Saudi Arabia. I know some members of the royal family favour him and are quite sympathetic to him. The last time he had decided, with a sense of vanity, not arrogance, that he could beat America. I remember we were sitting on a mountain top and he said to me “Mr Robert, from this mountain from which you are sitting, we broke the Russian army, he was a pivotal figure. And if the idea that he destroyed the Soviet Union is an exaggeration, there is some truth in it. And then he said “We saw American morale in Somalia, my men were there,” which is true, we’re talking about ‘black hawk down’. And then he said “we pray to god that he permits us, to turn America into a shadow of itself.” And I can tell you, that when my plane turned around over the Atlantic on 9/11, I was on my way to America, and I turned on the television and saw that biblical image of the towers crumbing, and I thought my god, New York is a shadow of itself and who was the last person to use that phrase to me.
I think he really does believe that he can in some way destroy the power of the US, and the only way to do that is to in some way bring the US more into the Middle East, into Afghanistan, bring it into Iraq. My first reaction to that was to send a message to a person in his entourage say ‘won’t this just bring more occupation to your land?’ And I never got a reply, but in one of his later tapes he said that Muslims must fight the infidels on the Islamic territory. I think what he wanted to do – and he’s a very intelligent man, utterly ruthless, but very intelligent – was to draw the Western powers into the Middle East and trap them there. And so far, he’s got it right.
McNaught: Iraq. Where is it headed?
Fisk: Not to civil war. There is not going to be a civil war in Iraq, unless we provoke it. I’m outraged by these occupying generals who tell us they are worries about a civil war; Al-Qiada wants a civil war. No Iraqi I’ve ever met wants a civil war. And one of the reasons, which American does not understand, is that Iraq is not a society divided by religion, it’s a society united by tribes. All of the major tribes in Iraq have both Sunni and Shi’ite members. The tribes aren’t going to fight themselves. I went the other day to the funeral of a Sunni Muslim doctor how had been murdered almost certainly by a gang of Shi’ite militia men. After the funeral we went to take tea and I started talking with his brother. I asked him if he was worried about a civil war and he said absolutely not. He said “you westerners keep wanting us to have a civil war, do you want us to be so frightened that was become obedient to you”, which is why I think we are saying this. We want the Iraqis to come to heal, ‘look what will happen if we go’. His brother said to me “look I’m a Sunni, like my brother I’m married to a Shi’ite, do you want me to kill my own wife!?” And I thought good point, the tribal society will hold Iraqi together. We all knew that if the Shiites joined in an insurgency with the Sunnis that would be the beginning of the end. And thanks to the preposterous policies of Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, he’s managed to go to war with sections of both the Shia and Sunni community. You know, the British invaded Iraq in 1917. It took us 3 years to unite the Shias and sunnis against the British army – the Americans have achieved it in one year – Incredible performance!
I’m always struck by the fact when the British invade Iraq in 1917, the British Army made the statement: To the people of Baghdad, our armies come here not as conquerors, but as liberators, to free you from centuries of tyranny. Sound a bit familiar huh? And in three years we were losing hundreds of men in guerrilla warfare, and couldn’t control it. And the Americans have lost it in one year. And now these photographs of the prisoners, the maltreatment, the torture – we have sacrificed our last claim to morality. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, so we said Saddam was linked to Al-Qaida. Then there was no link to Al-Qaida, so they said we came to rescue the people, they love us, we’re liberating them, and now we’re killing them. The last shred of morality attached to that war is finished.
McNaught: How much worse is it going to get?
Fisk: We don’t need to know what the Pentagon’s thinking is, we can see what it is: Think of something for tomorrow! It’s one day at a time now, everything has fallen aside. Liberation, reconstruction of democracy – it’s finished! There maybe some people like the President who haven’t grasped that fact, but on the ground they know it. The State department, soldiers, most of the British forces there, they speak frankly in private that it’s over, it’s all gone.
So what happens next? There’s got to be an Arab initiative. But god knows how because Arab League is spineless. Iraqi needs Arab forces, not Turkish, they’re not Arabs. It needs Iraqis to come together, not under the auspices of an occupying power, but through their own will. If the Americans leave –which they can’t do- in a generally free Iraqi, without us there, of course we should never have gone there in the first place, the tribal system could provide a form of majlis, a form of representation, which could be moderate and compassionate. It would be with out an American embassy that contains three thousand diplomats, which might become a model for the Middle East. But not with us there, not with us guiding it.
But we are doing everything wrong; everything we do is exacerbating this country towards what could be a civil war, which I suspect some people would like. It’s only a matter of time before we hear our leaders who led us into this appalling war say: We gave them every chance, but the people don’t deserve it. The letters are already coming in to the New York Times and the Herald Tribune saying this – alright, leave them to their own. We did our best, and lost 100s of our own soldiers doing it, and killed 1000s of them at the same time. It’s just another betrayal, just another Middle East betrayal.
Fisk: The problem for the Americans in Iraq is that they’ve got to leave. There’s no future for them now, they’re fighting an insurgency against everybody except the Kurds, so they must leave. And they will leave. But they CAN’T leave, because if they DO leave, the whole power and politics of the United States and this presidency is torn to pieces. You ask about why the Americans are in Iraqi, they’re there for oil, on the grounds that if Iraq exported carrots they wouldn’t be there. I was doing a story about the killing of a westerner on the street. And all of a sudden a US convoy came past, the whole ground shook. I guess two thousand years ago it would have been the Roman Army, and I began to realise then that I was watching the physical symbol of something which drives the US into these adventures, and that is the sheer almost messianic need to project physical power. The need to project it. “We can go to Baghdad, and to show you, we’ll go there.” It didn’t need a political reason – the power IS the reason.
McNaught: It’s power on steroids, isn’t it?
Fisk: It’s bigger than steroids. Power backed up by awesome technology, and hopeless semantics, total injustice and absolute abysmal powers of analysis on the part of decision makers.
McNaught: Well, let’s nail you in your own words. You’re not a polemicist, I’d call you a campaigning journalist – you disagree with that. How do you define the journalism that you practise?
Fisk: I’m a reporter, but I’m a reporter who’s allowed to say what I think.
McNaught: So you should be writing in the opinion columns, not in the news pages?
Fisk: I write in both, I write in the opinion columns, I write in the comment pages, I write in the news pages.
McNaught: But aren’t they two different jobs, and isn’t it dangerous to confuse the two?
Fisk: Why?! Look, everybody I talk to, if I sit down with you over dinner, if I talk to somebody on the train, they have a number of facts and have opinions and they express them. They don’t say: If I say to someone, what’s going on in Iraq, the don’t say, well there were 650 deaths… They say, Well it’s a real mess and here’s why. So if ordinary people can say that, why not journalists? We can’t lie. We can’t say the Americans dropped a bomb on a building when they didn’t. Or that the Palestinians shot an Israeli when they didn’t. We can’t make things up. But surely there must be a way in which a reporter who is honoured, privileged to absorb so much information, to express what he thinks about it.
McNaught: But you put an extra heaped spoonful of passion into it as well.
Fisk: Why not? Why shouldn’t we be passionate people? Why should I see a massacre, why should I see dead bodies, innocent people who have been murdered, and say well, I can’t put my feelings into this story. I’m bloody angry when I see children being killed. And I have every right to put it in my report that this is a savage outrage, and I put it.
McNaught: But aren’t you telling people how to feel?
Fisk: No, I’m telling them how I feel. The reporter is the nerve ending of the newspaper. He’s out there for the newspaper. He’s not out there as a news agency person, he’s not out there as a spokesperson for the government, or for guerrilla armies. He’s out there to say: Look – would you believe what I’ve seen today? The best way of being a reporter, the best way of writing whether it be an opinion piece or a news story with your own passionate feelings in it, is that you’re writing a letter to a friend. You want the readers to be your friend, you want to convince them, so you write a letter to your friend, and that’s what a newspaper reporter should be doing. Not writing a letter looking over his shoulder at the government and press officers.
McNaught: But this gets you hate mail, this gets you death threats. The friend you think you’re writing to is not necessarily that person at the other end.
Fisk: But most of them are. If you look at my mail bag which comes in at just over 260 letters a week, you’re looking at ten or 20 as hate mail. The problem is that the hate mail is incendiary. It’s very nasty, and it’s getting worse.
McNaught: You’ve been bracketed with John Pilger
Fisk: I don’t want to be bracketed with John Pilger..
McNaught: Noam Chomsky…
Fisk: Nor poor old Noam, I know Noam very well.
McNaught: Michael Moore… Are you happy to be in that club?
Fisk: I’m not in a club with anyone. I know Pilger, Chomsky quite well. I don’t practise that sort of journalism; at least I hope I don’t. I just work on my own – I’m me. I work for the Independent. Full stop. I think Pilger is an admirable journalist. I think he’s done excellent reports. I don’t want you to think I’m disparaging him – I just want to be on my own…
McNaught: Have you noticed the interesting use of language in this war, and the wider war on terror?
Fisk: Much much more serious than the fact that governments have adopted it, is that the press have adopted it, that the media have adopted it. When ever you turn on the television you see ‘War On Terror’ at the top. Newspaper headlines on the ‘War on Terror’. It is not a war on terror; it is a war on America’s enemies. If we want a war on terror we would have an international court, which is what the American’s pulled out of, to try people who use violence in this way. We are fighting America’s enemies, and they are fighting back. And they are going to bring us in on it to if we fight with America. We as journalists should have never used that phrase, because it will now become part of the historical narrative. It’s easy for governments to say ‘yes we are fighting the war on terror’. Bush said at one point that it might be unending. This is preposterous. They all make out like it’s the Second World War. Nassar was the Mussilini of Cairo, Saddam was the Hitler of Baghdad, and Blair is Churchill. This is ridiculous, it is not the Second World War. Governments and news agencies are trying to frighten people; it is not World War Three. We shouldn’t allow people to say that 9/11 changed the world, it has not.