WorldFixer‘s, William Lloyd George spoke with acclaimed journalist Robert Fisk who has been living and working in the Middle East for over forty years. Now The Independent’s correspondent in Beirut covering the region, Fisk has reported from Israel, Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He is a seven time winner of the International Journalist of the Year and one of only a few to have interviewed Osama Bin Laden. We spoke to him about fixers, changes in the media industry and his career working in war zones.
• What was your last assignment outside of Beirut?
I live in Beirut, so I travel all the time. I was in Syria and I am going back to Syria in a week’s time. I was in Egypt. God I can’t remember, I travel so much and I write and work from where ever I am, including the other day in Belgium. I am always travelling.
• Interestingly you don’t use fixers, can you tell us how you get by when travelling to a new region without hiring a fixer?
I have lived in the Middle East for so long. And I have been to Cairo over two hundred times. So I don’t really need people to set me up with people. I can ring people directly from Beirut or Cairo and arrange to meet them. I speak Arabic and can organise interviews myself. I understand the value of fixers for other reporters and TV crews but I have been here for such a long time that I don’t need fixers. Fixers are most useful for people who arrive in places they don’t know. Fixers can also be very useful for TV crews who are trying to get their equipment through customs. I will rarely travel with western journalists…. who have just flown in. Instead, I will often travel with a local Arabic journalist, and we can swap insights and I can see things through their eyes.
• In your career you have done some risky assignments and must have learned a lot of lessons. What advice would you have for journalists and fixers working in dangerous environments.
This is always dodgy, because if someone takes your advice and gets killed then it can be used to blame you. One of the main problems is when you have not been in a war before and you only know war movies and you believe you are the hero — who you naturally feel to be yourself! – and will be safe, because the hero always comes out of the war alive in a movie; but wars are not movies, and journalists do get killed in large numbers. On the other hand, there is an automatic fear that one should listen to. I was once called by an Irish journalist asking if she should go to report on the war in Iraq. Well, I told her whether or not she went was her decision — but you’ve got to remember you’re going there to report, not to die. You must go there with the idea that you are going there to survive. And you must look out for yourself, and use your fear, which everyone feels, to sharpen your brain and make the right decisions. You don’t get second chances, you can’t run across a road, stop and make everyone run back. I used to play with an equation: if you are being shelled, are you more safe driving faster? The point being that you’re obviously going to be in the open for a shorter period of time and have less chance of being hit. But you are still travelling the same distance but faster, so in more places in a shorter amount of time, so also have a high chance of being hit! I’m not sure how the equation works out — but I have never chosen to try and work it out!
Learn from local people — journalists are quite blasé when they are out of immediate danger — but local people know who the bad people are, which roads you should go down, always ask people in the nearest house. I remember one time I asked a journalist in Iraq which was the best way to go, and he sent me down a road to the Iraqi frontline which would have got me killed. I quickly found out he had not taken that route. So make sure you ask the locals!
• You have questioned before in Iraq whether the story was worth risking one’s life for. How is one able to come to a conclusion when a journalist or fixer starts to take high risks every day in order to do their job?
If one lives in quite safe places, we have a chance to live a longer, peaceful life — if you write poetry in France, for example, rather than if you live in Beirut and go to Syria like I am doing shortly. But I suppose it depends on what you think you are doing. To some extent I believe I am having a unique opportunity to witness historic events. This was inspired by my father who was a Great War soldier. And I feel very privileged to watch history, not many people get that chance. So obviously there is a satisfaction in it, and there is a satisfaction in saying you are going to do something different that others are not. You are not doing it like the wires or the BBC do, this is not a football match, where it is fair — this is a bloody tragedy, on which you have to be on the side of those who suffer. So the ability to actually do this, god knows if we actually influence anyone, is a kind of privilege, but you’re not doing it because you’re a junkie or a drug addict, or you like it for some crazed reason, you are doing it because war represents the total failure of the human spirit, and there is satisfaction in writing about it. If you are reading a great novel, you say ‘just one more chapter’, then one more, and before you know it, the light is coming through the cracks in the curtain, it’s daybreak and you still want to know what happens next. I want to know what happens next in war zones. What’s going to happen in Syria? There is always an end, although it’s hard to see now in Syria, but what is it?
• You have secured some of the most sought after interviews of the last few decades, obviously Osama Bin Laden being a major one; what advice do you have for journalists / fixers trying to secure seemingly impossible interviews?
Editors seem to be fixated by the idea that the president or leader, who barely represents the people, which is mostly the case in the Middle East –is a great scoop. And whenever I talk to Kings or Presidents, like King Hussein, or like Assad, who has a long list of people who have interviewed him, what they say in interviews is often what they say in statements and public speeches, I learn a lot more by talking to farmers in Lebanon than I do talking to the Prime Minister. What happened with Bin Laden is what happens when you’ve been in a region for a long time. I was covering an Islamic conference in Khartoum, Sudan, and one of my Arab colleagues, now a prominent Saudi journalist, decided to take me on a trip to meet someone he had met in Afghanistan. I did not even know who I was going to see. He later said it was a joke, for him to see how Bin Laden — who had never met a western journalist before — would react to me. Of course Bin Laden, looked at me with fox-eyed suspicion the moment he set eyes on me.
Afterwards I wrote an article about the Bin Laden I had met, not just about the ‘terrorist on the run’, and he invited me back to see him because he liked the interview, because he thought I had tried to capture the reality he had lived in. So I got to see him again and again because he trusted me and knew I wanted to write the truth. You need to get to be known by people, develop your contacts well and treat your interviewees professionally. Getting to talk to people will then happen naturally in the course of your work. Only recently in Syria I was in a coffee shop and a Lebanese General close to the Syrians walked over and said, “Hey, you are Robert Fisk, why don’t you like me, can we talk?” and just then and there I got an interview. So some times it is just about being known in the region you work and being in the right place at the right time.
• In your eyes what have been the most major changes in the media over the last twenty years?
I am always amazed at what has NOT changed. Obviously, in a technological sense, yes, I was working on a telex in Beirut in 1970 — which was basically the same system that journalists used in World War Two. Then we had huge desktop computers firing to the wires, and places in Cairo were really far behind even for that time. You would call an operator, and then you would dictate, and you could always tell what the copy-taker thought of your story, because if they liked the story, they would say “Christ what happens next?”, and if they didn’t then they would say “is there much more of this stuff?”. But now we have mobile phones and I use email to file stories. But I mostly don’t pay attention to emails, just delete them, because I simply don’t have time, I keep everything on paper, I am actually working on a chapter of my new book where every note is on paper, or a clipping, or handwritten. I don’t use google, or email; when I get emails, they’re often so grammatically incorrect and spelt wrong, they’re close to being incomprehensible. So technology has not affected me, probably, as much as if I had embraced it.
But I think one of the problems of technology is this whole thing of surfing, glancing at things, pressing buttons, you are letting the technology choose what you want to see. Secondly, you are not reading it like you would read a book or a newspaper, you are glancing down a screen, you’re zipping, you are speed-reading, you are not really taking it in, there is no real reflection…I mean time to think. And it shows. One thing that has not changed, though, is the lobby groups, Newspapers that want us to write about “our chaps”. And pressure not to be ‘controversial’. That’s why Palestinians always die in “clashes” — like a natural disaster – and the Israeli wall is called a “security fence”, anything so that we don’t offend the Israelis. But you can say what ever you want about the Arabs. Very often I realise events don’t take place in the way we read about them — the story has been written in such a narrow way that one can’t even criticise it as it is so vague. YouTube I don’t know how to use; skype I don’t know how to use. Now we have got to a point where we don’t even know what we’re saying. No thought. When I do radio interviews they don’t even ask questions really related to the story so I have to pre-empt them.
• How do you feel these changes have affected the quality and style of journalism around the world?
The real question is: how was the quality of journalism before the technological changes? I have been going back over Middle East reporting for the new book I’m writing, to the 1940s, and it was not bad, oddly enough. Before Israel became powerful, the press was much more rigorous at holding Israel to account than it is now. Today, you will find that Israeli reports are often much more forthright of Israel’s misdemeanours and crimes than the American press – take Amira Haas in Haaretz, for example. But has technology changed this? The problem is, if you go back to the old wire stories from 30 year ago, they were still writing the same clichés as they are writing now, it is just that the clichés come quicker than they used to. Cities are always ‘war’-torn’, borders are always ‘porous’, tanks ‘roll’ across borders. I have never seen a tank ‘roll’ in my life. It’s the same words regurgitated, over and over again, it’s as if the reader can’t grasp anything different from what he read yesterday or the day before and the day before that. I know an Arab journalist, who is now dead, and whom I won’t name, who found himself reporting on one long civil war, and he would just go into his office drawer to find old stories from a period ten years ago, and change the details but publish the same story. Technology doesn’t really have an impact on this, if reporters are just writing the same things over and over again. And there really is not much point in risking one’s life for that, is there?
• One of your biggest grievances over the years has been the censorship of war reporting and how our TV channels back home refused to show the grim realities of war, which you said would have made many refuse to let our government go to any war. Now the internet and social media gives everyone access to a torrent of graphic war images. Do you see this as a positive development?
Well you see, social media is a problem in itself. Okay, let’s hit off with graphic images — social media is a form of obscene material when it comes to wars, and the problem with social media is not that it’s not censored. I don’t believe in censorship. It’s that there’s no sense of responsibility in those who disseminate information on social media. The more graphic something is, the more powerful it is. The idea is not to impress the reader, it’s to ‘gobsmack’ them, bash them over the head with it. And the problem, going to the point of what you’re saying, I think there are times when readers should, or viewers must — whether it be TV or pictures in a newspaper — see the reality, they should be confronted with it, because otherwise THEY are not being responsible for the war. In the west, where we claim to have a democracy — and up to a point we do, because at the end of the day, our democratically elected representatives decide whether we go to war or not, so we have a say in that — but if we are going to have a say, or we are going to vote for someone who’s going to vote for us to go to war, we better bloody well know what war is like. And war is about death, rather than victory and defeat. It is primarily about the destruction of the human spirit. So you ought to see what dead bodies look like. Every so often, editors will take a brave step, for example, the young Syrian refugee (Aylan Kurdi) and publish the picture. But the problem with social media is that you can actually feed into something rather dark by just showing pictures of corpses torn into bits. The problem with social media overall is that there is so much hatred that doesn’t exist in the printed press. If you print something in the newspaper you can be sued for it, but on social media you can’t be sued. We have had problems on the Independent’s chat rooms with threatening comments — and as we can’t afford a moderator on the Independent, we just have to take the forum down when this happens. In the newspaper we have to follow certain rules, and can’t say things about people unless we know it’s true, but on social media, you can say anything. There’s no responsibility and for this reason, we have a new generation who don’t understand that ‘just because it is on a screen doesn’t mean its true’.
• As News organisations reduce their foreign desk budgets, close bureaus, pull back foreign correspondents; how do you think this is effecting the quality of foreign news?
Obviously the fewer people who live abroad, the less knowledge is going to be imparted. People will tell you that now we have the internet we can learn even better from the person on the ground but that’s not true.On the other hand, if you’re going to go to Baghdad and lock yourself in a hotel, just to use a Bagdad dateline, then you might as well just stay at home and use the internet because you will learn just as much. But bureaus always have a downside, they have to be staffed, One of the biggest problems I have noticed, in Cairo, for example — is that big agencies poured money into bureaus in the Middle East when they thought there was going to be a Middle East peace. But Egypt is a police state, and every major bureau, in Cairo almost without exception, has local reporters who will report back to the police. Whenever these big agencies appear to have stepped over the line — done too much investigation into prison conditions, state torture, lack of democracy, for example, they would be threatened with closure — so they decide to step back from these stories.
Whenever Amnesty carries a major report on Egyptian torture or ‘disappearances’, it is always covered from London — on the basis that is where the report was released — but the Egyptian bureau should be out on the streets finding out what the people think and also whether it’s actually true or not. But they don’t, they go to the government and the government says ‘this is rubbish’. So the story from Cairo is: ‘Egypt’s government denied allegations from Amnesty International’. Well if that’s what the bureaus are for, then what’s the point in having a bureau in Cairo? That’s the problem with agencies. But I am sure some newspapers maintain bureaus just so they can say they do, and I find a lot of the work coming out of the bureaus is just regurgitated work with a little bit more length on what the wires are already saying. So I am not sure that having this vast network of reporters actually adds to anything. Some newspapers say they have stringers around the world, these stringers but they are not usually encouraged to do long in-depth analysis, that’s what the staffers do. So stringer are encouraged to be an alternative to the agency, “We have our man there, he’s on the scene”. But whether it’s a stringer sending photos of blood on the road outside a café that was blown up by a suicide bomber, or an agency stringer, it doesn’t make much difference. This is not to say there isn’t a good role for the stringers, many correspondents started off as stringers. But once you work for a newspaper, they pay you and you rely on your newspaper for your livelihood. I still think you need people living in the region, you don’t need armies of them in every city but you need people living there, and the fewer foreign correspondents, yes, the less knowledge. Also another problem, if you call the local guy who lives in a dictatorship, he is going to peddle the government line at the end of the day. You are not going to get a stringer in Saddam’s Baghdad to accuse the government of corruption, are you? And very few stringers in Israel are going to suddenly say Israel is persistently cruel to innocent Palestinians.
• Out of this vacuum, how do you see the role of fixers, local stringers changing? Will we begin to rely more on local information providers and does this effect news?
Well, stringers have to change it themselves. Running blogs isn’t going to do anything. You know and I know, being a news blogger does not make you enough money to allow you to subsist. One of the problems I first had when the internet came, was people asking me ‘why should we pay for your copy’, ‘why is there a paywall,’ – for The Independent, there is in America and not here. Well, I say, because I have to work. I had an American ask me once, “Why should we have to pay to read what you write?” And I answered; “I don’t think you should, but I need to go to Cairo next week, can I have the money for the airfare?” He declined. When you go abroad as a stringer, usually the reporter goes abroad and works at the beginning for a local English language paper. That gives him a pitiful income, but then he picks up a string for a newspaper. The local reporters have to work hard. Are they local reporters because that’s what they want to be? Or are they trying to get on a newspaper, and if so, how much must they write according to a formula? Newspapers will restrict what and how they can write. I was a judge on a competition regarding local stringers, there was some wonderful journalism, from Ukraine, from Africa, the reporter who won the competition had been covering Ebola. I wouldn’t cover Ebola; I would go to a war before covering Ebola. I voted for her and said this is more dangerous than shell fire. It was a very in-depth story and showed that a stringer CAN do great journalism — but you also need a good boss. Stringers also have to be strong, as newspapers can manipulate their stories — and they must not write for a newspaper if they believe they are not sticking to journalistic ethics and telling the truth. You won’t make a lot of money that way, but you can get the truth in. Lots of reporters, though, will not write or say what they want because the newspapers and television will ‘guide’ them (dictate, in effect) and they will listen because they need their salaries.
• Given the rise of ISIS across the Middle East, and other hard-line Islamist groups, do you think there will be an increasing number of places / stories cut off to western journalists? In the face of this, how can we effectively use local stringers and fixers to continue to provide accurate information on these places / stories.
When you have a war you can chose to go, or not to go to it. But this war with ISIS, you simply cannot go unless you want to end up dying on a video tape. Two people have made it and got out but it’s not the vast coverage that one would want to do. All the years I have been in the Middle East, 40 years this year, there’s been a steadily growing resentment of journalism. I can remember the first time this happened to me. In 1984, a Palestinian gunman threw my press card in the road, he didn’t care, that was the first time I was disrespected as a journalist. Then then there was hostage taking in Beirut, with Terry Anderson of AP held for almost seven years, and then this turned into the deliberate killing of journalists in Bosnia, reporters were just shot down because they were journalists, and then it became throat cutting with ISIS. So the old rules under which a journalist was regarded as a neutral figure have pretty much disappeared in most battlefields in the Middle East. Whether this is because journalists were seen as people who didn’t tell the truth, whether they’re seen as too connected to governments, whether they allowed themselves to be biased… I really think it’s more likely journalists became kidnap and execution targets because they had political and monetary value to the kidnappers. I cannot go to ISIS areas; I can go within 20 metres and see the flags, but I can’t cover the other side of the story. And however much newspapers will agree this is not good enough, they will carry descriptions of ISIS video tapes. So ISIS are doing their own recording and reporting and we can’t get around that. I wouldn’t want to use local stringers there because, for a western newspaper, that is equal to a sentence to death on the stringer. There is a huge problem about how we get information from closed places, Al Jazeera had a whole set of people who were examining freelance videos from Iraq and Syria – because they were not filmed in the places they said they were, or they were repeats of videos filmed a year ago. Just because you get exciting material on social media does not mean it’s accurate. How do we deal with ISIS? We need to stop letting them decide the news agenda. That is why I am challenging their stories and arguing about their agenda. by what they put out on video and what they say publicly on social media. When they show a video of a Roman arch blowing up… Is that because they hate the heritage and culture of the West? Or because they’ve allowed someone to take an artefact from the scene – to sell it – and thus have to blow up the site to prevent the thief being discovered?