Foreign Correspondent

Thomas P. Healy

Award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the Independent in London, took his American colleagues to task in a recent series of lectures titled, “September 11: Ask Who Did It, but for Heaven’s Sake Don’t Ask Why.” Decrying “vapid, hapless and gutless journalism,” Fisk rails against “the facile acceptance of authority” by most journalists in the post-9/11 era. Fisk spoke with In These Times in October after a lecture at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Most journalists today work for profit-driven media conglomerates. Do you feel pressure from your editors not to offend advertisers? Is the Independent truly independent?

The great thing about the Independent is that its foundation and the basis of its readers’ loyalty is they know that what we write is what will appear in print. The moment we stop doing that, they’re not going to buy us. They can go elsewhere. If someone comes along and says, “You will lose advertising if I continue to read this revolting piece about”—I don’t know, say, environmentalism—then we’ll have to do without the advertising, because otherwise we’ll lose the readers.

What drew you to journalism?

I wanted to be a journalist from the age of 12 after I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s film Foreign Correspondent, with Joel McCrea as Huntley Haverstock with the New York Daily Globe; his editor wanted to send him to Europe because the war was about to break out.

I saw that film, and I never ever wanted to be anything but a journalist. He goes to Europe, chases spies, sees the assassination of a Dutch diplomat, rescues prisoners of the Nazis, gets shot down in the Atlantic, survives to file his scoop and gets the most gorgeous bird in the movie. And I thought, “This is the job!”

My father didn’t want me to be a journalist. He wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer. Of course, when I joined the Times of London, before the Independent, he said he “always” wanted me to be a journalist—but he didn’t.

Oddly enough, the journalism that I do in the Middle East is very much like being a lawyer. You’re constantly having to produce the evidence and persuade the jury—the readers—that you’re right.

Many on the American left feel the war effort serves to deflect attention from domestic problems. The progressive community in this country is portrayed as paranoid in its concerns about the economy and education.

Look, the problem with the progressive, left activists in this country is that all they do is talk to each other. I went to a seminar at an East Coast college and all these middle-class women were talking about bridge-building between progressives and activists and socialists, and they wanted to build a bridge to the mainstream press. I said, “It’s irredeemable. Don’t waste your time. First of all, stop calling it mainstream. Start calling your press mainstream and call the other alternative.”

I said, “Look, I’m not going to give you advice on what to do. I’m a journalist. But if you want to reach out to people, stop talking to each other in your privileged little room and talk to ordinary Americans: the truck drivers and the rail crews and the bellhops whose brothers and fathers are going to be sent to Iraq.”

People are convinced they are being lied to. That’s why they come to my lectures—because they think they’re being lied to, and they want to know what’s going on. That’s why I’m being invited. I don’t take any money for it. I’m not doing it for money.

Really?

I’ve no honorariums. They have to pay business class airfare and hotel, that’s it—nothing else. I don’t take a penny from it. And I’m coming over here an average of every three or four weeks. I don’t want anyone to be able to say that I say what I say because I’m paid to say it.

At your lecture, you said, “I hate the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ stories that leave out the ‘why.’ ” This asking why and giving the context is not supported by editors, and it’s not underwritten by advertisers.

First of all, what are journalists for? In Britain, a degree in journalism doesn’t get you anywhere in newspapering. They want to see what you write. One of the problems here is that the idea of objectivity has been taken to such absurd lengths you can no longer tell the reader what’s going on.

If you were reporting in the 18th century on the slave trade, would you give equal time to the prisoners and the slave ship captain? If you were present at the liberation of an extermination camp, would you give equal time to the SS as well as the prisoners? No. Journalists have to have a moral sense of what the story is. One of the problems with the American journalists—I don’t work with them, I don’t work with other journalists, I’m on my own—but when I do meet them, they’re much more interesting to listen to than they are to read. Because what they know is not what goes into the story.

Are you now convinced that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were responsible for the horrific events of September 11?

[Sigh] Unless he said that to me directly, I can’t be convinced, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not pretty certain. I think it’s him. I did from the very beginning—most probably it was.

You know that the British mysteriously produced this tape of bin Laden in Jalalabad. It was incomprehensible, you can’t understand what he said. It is him, I think, but the famous CIA produced the captions. And I might not have believed the captions were it not for the fact that he started talking about, “One of our brothers had a dream,” and he said that to me. In 1996 he told me, “One of our brothers had a dream,” not about planes, but about something different. And when I saw that, I thought, “Oh, oh, that does sound like the real McCoy.”

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