Features

The dangers of Fisking

David Pryce-Jones accuses the Independent journalist Robert Fisk of hysteria and distortion in his reporting on the Middle East

15 November 2003

12:00 AM

15 November 2003

12:00 AM

In the www arena where the world speaks invisibly to itself, a new word has appeared: ‘fisking’, meaning the selection of evidence solely in order to bolster preconceptions and prejudices. Just as cardigans or mackintoshes are named after an inventive individual, so fisking derives from the work of Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of the Independent, stationed these many years in Beirut.

The preconceptions and prejudices that are immortalising Fisk in the English language express an unqualified contempt for America. For him, most Americans are ignorant and arrogant, and their leaders mendacious and cynical power maniacs leading everyone to perdition. Everything wrong with the Middle East is particularly their fault. About a dozen times over the past year Fisk has written that in 1983 Donald Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein, and this is enough to make the United States responsible for Saddam’s crimes. The corpses in the mass graves of Iraq are the result of ‘American encouragement of Saddam and treachery’. Supporting the military regime in Algeria, in another instance of their perfidy, the Americans must also be responsible for the 100,000 or more murdered there in the civil war.

Most unforgivably, they are also friends of Israel. Fisk has fits at the very idea of that. All administrations in Washington are bad, but, in the first place, President Bush and his men belong to the ‘failed lunatic Right’ and in the second place they have fallen into the hands of the Jews. Advisers such as Kenneth Adelman ‘have not vouchsafed their own religion’, but together with ‘the Perles and the Wolfowitzes and the Cohens’ they are ‘very sinister people hovering around Bush’. The whole lot of them drive what Fisk calls ‘the American–Israeli war’. For fear that their own soldiers will be arrested for what they do in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States shuns the International Criminal Court. By my count, in the course of the past year Fisk has called Ariel Sharon a war criminal in no fewer than seven articles. In about 15 articles over the past year, he further assures us that the Iraq war is really all about oil. How that squares with American–Israeli conspiracy is not clear.

Fellow leftists by the million paddle about in this swamp of unreason. What makes Fisk conspicuous is his self-righteousness. The content and style of his writing proclaim that in his own eyes he is not really a reporter but the repository of truth. Other journalists are not up to their task; they are ‘nasty little puffed-up fantasy colonels’, warmongering collaborators of the wicked American–Israelis. He alone has the calling and the courage to reveal the evil rampant everywhere. Woe, woe, saith the preacher. Fisking is evangelical missionary work.

At the time of the first Gulf war in 1991 Fisk promised that the American-led coalition would end in doom, and deserved to. The formidable Iraqi army would never be dislodged from Kuwait. A riot unexpectedly broke out in Jerusalem, leading to loss of life when Israeli police opened fire. All was lost, including Fisk’s grammar and meaning: ‘If ever a sword was thrust into a military alliance of East and West, the Israelis wielded that dagger.’ To the very end, Fisk was predicting all manner of military and political disasters, none of which came true, or had any chance of doing so. The Iraqi army simply went home, as sane men do in such circumstances.

In the 1990s he interviewed Osama bin Laden and found himself in the presence of a great man and a great danger. One proof of this was the publicity posters printed in Urdu that bin Laden thoughtfully presented to him. On another occasion some Taleban roughed him up, and Fisk commented, in an example of the missionary praising the pot he will be boiled in, ‘I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.’


By November 2002, American officials and the men behind them who didn’t vouchsafe their religion were evidently hell-bent on having the second Gulf war, and it was high time to fulminate against them from the pulpit. Several American universities invited him to lecture in the lull before the storm. After one television appearance in Texas, a redneck cameraman showered him with four-letter words, which was harder to apologise for than the Taleban assault earlier. Unexpectedly, Osama bin Laden attacked Israeli tourists in Kenya, and put out a videotape ideal for fisking. ‘I am frightened by the implications of this tape,’ Fisk exclaimed. Al-Qa’eda was now against Israel, and they were ‘ruthless, highly motivated …more than a match for Israel’s third-rate intelligence men’. Any strike against al-Qa’eda would be seen as an Israeli strike. Ariel Sharon had walked into a trap, and the Jews would be taking everyone else down with them. Washington and London hadn’t yet realised that they were losing the initiative and that bin Laden was writing the script.

In this fresh mood of despair, Fisk warned that the United States was going the way of Hitlerism, no less. The department of homeland security, in another example of fisking running away with grammar and meaning, has ‘Teutonic roots’ because Homeland translated as Heimat in the Third Reich. As for ‘Shock and awe’, that was ‘a classic slogan from the old Nazi magazine Signal’. On at least five occasions — by my count again — he has inveighed against the likely use of depleted uranium shells, which allegedly cause cancer on a genocidal scale. There would naturally be censorship of journalists, puffed-up fantasy colonels though they were. The press centre set up in Qatar had the purpose of keeping them away from the facts. CNN had issued a document entitled ‘Reminder of Script Approval Policy’, and the keywords in it were ‘approve’ and ‘authorise’. In four separate articles, Fisk emphasised how in the course of his missionary vocation he had closely inspected burnt or disfigured corpses. Bush had avoided military service, and neither he nor Blair could have any idea of the horrors he bore witness to. In three articles he was to bring up the fate of British soldiers who surrendered to the Turks in the first world war, and in two further articles he waxed sorrowful over local British war cemeteries. Ignominy and burial now awaited another expeditionary force.

From mid-March to the end of April this year, Fisk was in Baghdad. He took proper precautions to equip himself with flak jacket and gas mask, and to buy stores for the coming emergency, imparting reassuring news about his candles, biscuits and 25 loo rolls. He further informed us that he was reading a biography of Sir Thomas More, a man so self-righteous that he went to the stake for it. The implicit comparison was not lost.

And then, on 19 March, the Americans began ‘acting out their rage’. Just five days later, he was quoting an Iraqi general already speaking of quagmire. For Fisk, ‘Things are going wrong. We are not telling the truth. The Iraqis are riding high.’ Cruise missiles were falling in all the wrong places. On 1 April he was wondering ‘Where, for heaven’s sake, is all this going?’ The siege of Baghdad would need a quarter of a million men, and it was ‘fading from the diary’. Next day he was even more distraught. The Iraqi army was prepared to defend its capital. ‘How, I kept asking myself, could the Americans batter their way through these defences?’

On 6 April, when a rival daily newspaper already had the headline, ‘Endgame in Baghdad’, Fisk was maintaining that the battle for Baghdad ‘promises to be both dirty and cruel’. The Americans were claiming to be in
the inner suburbs, ‘which was untrue’. He was concentrating instead on a cloud of white smoke from a building which ‘must have’ contained the depleted uranium aerosol spray that causes cancers. The deaths of three journalists prompted him to ask whether this was not deliberate murder by the Americans. ‘Something very dangerous appeared to be getting loose.’

Sensible men as ever, the Iraqi army had in fact gone home, once more unnoticed by Fisk, and in the streets American marines were helping Iraqis to pull down a prominent statue of Saddam. This prompted Fisk to write that Saddam was ‘our’ man, and ‘metaphorically at least, we annihilated him. Hence the importance of all those statue-bashing mobs, of all that looting and theft.’ This example of fisking is not easily open to interpretation, but appears to insinuate that in overthrowing Saddam we are somehow overthrowing ourselves. That day too, Fisk lamented that soon Iraq would have relations with Israel, and ‘a real Israeli embassy’ — as opposed to the hidden one of the Wolfowitzes and Cohens.

Immediately after Saddam’s downfall, without missing a beat, Fisk was more alarmist than ever. ‘America’s army of “liberation” is beginning to seem an army of occupation.’ From now on, the word liberation, like the word democracy, carried obligatory scare quotes. In his eyes, the looting of the Museum of Archaeology was a conflict of ‘poor Shia and rich Sunnis’, and ‘by failing to end this violence — by stoking ethnic hatred through their inactivity — the Americans are now provoking civil war.’ Fisking is adaptable in order to show that whatever Americans do or don’t do leads to the self-same damnation.

Towards the end of April, Fisk seems to have abandoned his gas mask and loo rolls for a well-deserved rest from his mission. Returning after a month or so, he found alcohol, Internet cafés and prostitution. In the new Iraqi press ‘you can say what you like about anyone. Isn’t that freedom?’ Borrowing from the biography of Sir Thomas More, he castigated Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim as ‘a man for all seasons’, ready either to resist or to collaborate with Anglo-American ‘democracy’ according to expediency. It was bad luck for Fisk that the ayatollah and 122 of his followers were afterwards the victims of a savage bombing by unknown Iraqis, and even that was not outrageous enough to provoke inter-communal violence. The looting of ancient Sumerian sites has been going on for four millennia, but at the beginning of June Fisk visited these ruins to detect and to trumpet ‘one of the most terrible cultural crimes of recent history’. Americans were naturally to blame. Robbers were only satisfying the appetite of rich collectors in New York.

After another break, Fisk was back in Baghdad in July, in time for the shoot-out in which Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed. The dead men, in Fisk’s initial reaction, ‘were said to bear an impressive resemblance to Uday and Qusay’. The city of Baghdad burst into cheering at the news, but Fisk held that everybody was asking for proof that the brothers were dead. The Americans duly published photographs; whereupon Fisk changed tack and said that ‘ghoulish wasn’t the word for it’. Publication of these photographs was likely to prove ‘a historic mistake of catastrophic proportions’. The real story of that moment was the failure of the Iraqi ‘interim’ government to choose a leader.

Fisk’s third stay in Baghdad lasted from the end of August to late September. Fisking involves both commission and omission. Once again, he reported nothing from Kurdistan, nothing about the return of the Marsh Arabs to their immemorial home. A journey to Basra provided a single story designed to show that the editor and publisher of a new paper there was a stooge who would give no trouble. Nothing about the new central bank, the opening of lines of credit or the currency reform. Nothing about goods and services, or supplies to hospitals. Nothing about markets. Nothing about private lives. Not a single interview with American officials or Iraqis trying to reconstruct their country. Nothing about Ahmad Chalabi. Fisk seems only to have haunted the prison of Abu Ghraib and the mortuary of Yarmouk hospital, exclusively searching for American brutality.

At present, a decent future for Iraq hangs in the balance. The Americans hope to create some suitable form of democracy or at least self-rule for Iraq. Failure to do so will expose that country to the risk of civil war and anarchy, and compromise the standing of the United States in the world as well. Public opinion in the West has its part to play in determining the outcome of these dramatic events. Perverting American purposes and practices in Iraq, fisking helps to bring about the doom that it anticipates with such glee and relish. Fisk seems to have left Baghdad for the present, but no doubt he will return, or from a distance continue to corrupt the Independent with his hysteria and disinformation. The Iraqis are his real victims. One of the oldest of imperial lessons is that the missionary does the natives no favours.

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