Tragedy and comedy — an interview with Robert Fisk

I wrote this in 2005, when I was just a young pup editing Sin, the student newspaper in NUI Galway. The university invited Robert Fisk to give a speech, and three or four journalists (myself included) got the chance to chat with him. It may have been a foolish mistake, but I decided there was little I could get out of him on politics or foreign affairs that he hadn't already said, so I tried to focus on his personality instead. Here's the piece that resulted — apologies for some of my clichéd and youthful use of language (and for foolishly overstating the importance of the Independent of London).

Published in Sin, 2005.

Waiting for Robert Fisk is rather unnerving. You expect him to arrive looking forlorn, with a furrowed brow and an air of sobriety that you might think comes with living in the most tragic place on earth for almost 30 years. But the Bob Fisk you expect never shows up.

Instead, a genial and pleasant Englishmen bumbles into the room apologetically, putting everyone at ease. He refuses to take the designated seat behind the front table at a makeshift mini-press conference in the Irish Centre for Human Rights, declaring it to be foreign territory for a journalist, and opts instead to sit with the assembled reporters.

Fisk, middle east correspondent for the Indpendent of London, a paper which has wrestled the crown of the great British liberal newspaper from the Guardian, is in the middle of a worldwide tour to promote his latest book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, which charts his experience reporting on every major event in the region over the last thirty years. In that time, he has reported from both Gulf wars, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the conflict in Algeria, the Lebaneese civil war, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times. He is scheduled to return to Baghdad in December.

In truth, Fisk is an enigma. An outspoken opponent of American and British foreign policy, he has spent more than half of his lifetime reporting on some of the bloodiest affairs in modern history, and has essentially done so alone, without wife or children to soften the effects of the tragedies he has witnessed. And yet remarkably, he is still able to smile and joke freely, in spite of the grizzly nature of some of his discourse.

“I go to a mortuary every trip to Baghdad, and I stand there all morning counting the corpses in. The last Monday I was there, four weeks ago, there was a woman with her hands tied behind her back shot three times in the head, and a baby that had been shot in the face. Others are clearly blown up by suicide bombers, in which case they come in in bits, and they try to fit the bits together.”

Such sights and comments come naturally to Fisk, who reckons that the estimate of 100,000 Iraqi dead since the war began “may be conservative”. But perhaps it is the ability to laugh in the face of human tragedy that molds the kind of character needed for Fisk’s profession.

He firmly believes that the western public should also be witness to the kind of devastation that he has spent his life reporting on. He recalls traveling on the Baghdad to Basra road in 1991, following two days of sustained US bombing. “We came across these large numbers of Iraqi soldiers who had been blown to bits, and the dogs had arrived – it was lunchtime you see. And they were tearing bits of bodies off and racing off across the desert with arms and legs to eat.”

An ITV television crew was with Fisk at the time, and began filming the scene. “Why are you wasting your time, they’ll never show this?” Fisk questioned. “And I remember thinking they ought to show it – this what the war is about, this is what happens, every time. If you go and see Saving Private Ryan, you can see it. But when it’s real you’re not allowed to. They clean up the war.”

Of course, Fisk’s stoicism has not endeared him to all. His persistent and scathing attacks on US and British foreign policy have led many to question the veracity of his reporting. Fisk is clear in his thoughts on the role of the journalist. “If you go down into Galway and there’s been a bomb, and lets hope there never is, and there are people all over the road dead, you get angry about it, furious about it. Well I’m allowed to get angry too. And I’m allowed to name the people who did it if I think I can find out. I was just down the road when this guy blew up in Jerusalem and killed lots of Israeli kids. There was a child with his eyes blown out. Do you think I’m going to give equal time to Hamas? No, I write stories about the victims.”

Later that evening, Fisk, who has the odd habit of referring to himself in the third person occasionally, addressed a packed out university theatre. He described the process of writing The Great War for Civilisation as being “very distressing. I was endlessly writing about gas and torture and death.” He was saved, he said, from total immersion in horrid memories by a friend who insisted he stop writing and “ walk by the sea and drink a pint of Guinness and think of other things.”

The book, Fisk says, is essentially about this father, who served in the first world war. “I didn’t go to see him when he was dying, and the chapter about him is an apology.” He was, Fisk says, “very right-wing”, but he earned his son’s eternal respect by refusing to command a military firing party during the war.

After his speech and the somewhat docile question and answers session that followed, Fisk received a standing ovation, which despite his apparent taste for the glitz of the book tour, appeared to genuinely humble him.

He is scheduled to return to Baghdad in December, and one must wonder how someone can shift so seamlessly between a world of packed-out speeches, flashing cameras and book signings and one as morbid as Baghdad. But such is the level of bloodshed at the moment that Fisk, one of the world’s most experienced war correspondents, has “serious doubts” about returning to Iraq. “Free reporting is finishing there. It’s so dangerous now in Iraq, it’s the most dangerous story I’ve ever covered. The state of Iraqi anarchy needs to be seen to be believed. Iraq is moving into deeper and darker phases. The project is over. Iraq is gone.”

But such morbid predictions haven’t dampened the spirit of Bob Fisk. Before, during and after his speech, he is brimful of humour. He is also refreshingly humble, carrying his own plastic chair down the steps of the theatre, and sitting on the steps of the theatre for a while too. But behind the joviality of the occasion, there is a deep sense of conviction based upon thirty years of being immersed in human tragedy. “If you saw what we saw,” he says, “you would never support a war.”