An Eye On the Middle East

Robert Fisk has been a British foreign correspondent for over 30 years, currently reporting for The Independent. He is among a handful of western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden, speaks Arabic and is known throughout the political spectrum for his equal criticism of the American, Israeli and Arab governments. He hit campus this week for a lecture.

Gauntlet: You’ve written and spoken about how journalism is increasingly failing to challenge authority…

Robert Fisk: I will be talking about that tonight.

G: Can you elaborate a bit on what you feel is behind that? Is it just constantly shrinking attention spans?

Fisk: I’m not sure we were always very good at doing it ever. I mean during the McCarthy period, sure you have Ed Murrow, famous now for the movie Good Night and Good Luck. But apart from him most of the newspapers were buckling under from McCarthy. I don’t think, especially in terms of the United States, I don’t think journalism has particularly got worse. I think it always was pretty bad. But you can still go back and look at the period of the Pentagon Papers. When was the last time we had a story like that? It was Watergate. When was the last time we had a Watergate in the Washington Post? I think that kind of journalism seems to have faded away a bit, and to have sources now, government sources that are planting leaks, rather than government sources whistleblowing on major stories.

Nobody’s ever at the moment going to issue a subpoena to stop the New York Times publishing because all those stories have come from the government anyway. You only have to look at the papers, “American officials say…” and “American officials said…” and “Intelligence official said, who asked for anonymity…”

There’s a kind of parasitic, osmotic relationship between journalists and power. Journalists like power. They like to be close to power. You look at a presidential press conference on CNN–well, don’t watch CNN (laughs)–but I mean, look at the press conference. “Mr. President, Mr. President!” and he says, “Yes, Chris” or “Yes John.”

G: The first name basis.

Fisk: That’s the line on how it goes. You see a lot of American correspondents when they turn up in the Middle East, the first thing they do after they check in at the hotel is go to the U.S. embassy for a briefing. Well what the hell is the point of doing that? The relationship with diplomats is far too close, and I also think there’s this fear in America. It probably comes from McCarthy-ite days, that to challenge authority, especially when your country is at war, is somehow unpatriotic and thus potentially subversive.

In news rooms in New York now, you don’t get many brownie points for challenging authorities and coming up with tough stories. People don’t want controversy.

Look at the Middle East coverage where the Americans keep referring not to the “wall” but to the “fence,” not to “occupied territories,” but to “disputed territories.” Not to “settlements,” but to “neighbourhoods.” They’re constantly de-semanticizing the conflict, so that the Palestinians look idiotic whenever they commit any violent acts. After all, a dispute you can solve in a court or over a cup of tea, can’t you? But, an occupation is a bit more serious. If you take occupation out of the story, and if you want to remain uncontroversial as a journalist, you completely change the nature of the conflict.

G: What’s behind it all? Is it that people don’t want to hear the messages?

Fisk: No. People are very keen to, and that’s why people come for example to lectures, not just by me, but by other people all over Canada and the States. No, I think what’s happened is that journalists fall into a habit. They don’t want to be controversial. They don’t want letters to the editor. If they criticize Israel for example, they hate being called anti-Semitic. So it’s easier to report more safely and use words that are more acceptable–“dispute” rather than “occupation” for example. And that way, while on the one hand you’re presenting an image of reality that’s incomprehensible, if you don’t know the Middle East, you don’t get into trouble.

G: You’re known for approaching your work with an eye for the historical context…

Fisk: And opinions too, I put my thoughts into it.

G: As one of the few western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden…

Fisk: I knew this would come up.

G: I’m sure it always does.

Fisk: It will live with me all my life.

G: His actual demands–they’re not something you hear about often in the mainstream media.

Fisk: Now, the problem with the bin Laden reporting is that he makes these statements. I’ve read almost all of them, and they’re very boring by the way, I mean, have no illusions about that, they’re deadly dull. But, people don’t read and listen to what he says. They only respond by saying, “Is it him?” and “How long ago did he make the statement?” Instead of saying, “What is he saying?”

I mean, he keeps referring to historical events in the Middle East. In fact he goes right back to the 15th century and the loss of Andalucia, when the Christians drove the Muslims and the Jews out of Spain. But we don’t listen to bin Laden. We hand over the tapes to a computer.

G: That lack of context, in your opinion what is the context missing when we talk about the Iraq war?

Fisk: The historical background. Britain invaded Iraq in 1917. It issued a proclamation saying it had come to liberate the people from generations of tyranny. An insurgency started against the British. We shelled Fallujah. We claimed that terrorists were crossing the border from Syria. This is in 1920. Loyd George stood up-this is the British Prime Minister in the 1920s-in the House of Commons and said if we leave Iraq there will be civil war. That would have helped us plot out a 2003 invasion, to have a little bit of an idea of what might happen, but we didn’t care. We didn’t read it.

It isn’t a question of just not reading history, it’s a question of if you’re interested in people. If you really want to give them freedom and democracy-and I don’t think we do-maybe you should find out a little bit about them and how they respond to our wish to give them all these gifts.

I think Arabs in general would like a bit of democracy, after all, the dictators who rule them generally have been supported by us, and they’d like a few packets of human rights from our western supermarket shelves. But I think they also want another kind of freedom, I think they want freedom from us–and that we are not intending to give them.

G: That notion of democracy, but only if you vote what we believe is right, isn’t that happening in Palestine?

Fisk: The Palestinians voted for the wrong people didn’t they? Remember [George W.] Bush said we need new Palestinian leaders, we need elections. So we got elections and new Palestinian leaders, and bingo, they want to bring down the government because it’s not the right kind. They tried to do the same in Venezuela-it’s not just the Middle East this is happening in. And the European Union is lickspittle going along with this.

You know, I don’t like Hamas very much, but the people voted for Hamas, which of course convinces the Arabs that we don’t want democracy in the Middle East, and they’re right. We don’t want democracy in the Middle East. We want local dictators who will do what we want.

G: How would you respond to critics who say the Americans pulling out [of Iraq] is going to cause more chaos than them so-called “staying the course.”

Fisk: That’s what Loyd George said in 1920. Why? Why? What is the theory, that the Iraqis are animals and will all tear each other to pieces if we leave? They didn’t do this before we came. Iraq is not a sectarian society, it is a tribal society. Many Iraqis are intermarried. You know we keep printing this bloody map. At the bottom we show Shiites, with Sunnis in the middle and Kurds at the top. It’s a very racist thing to do. It doesn’t actually represent the way things are in Iraq anyway. Since when do you print maps of Vancouver saying “Chinese area,” “Black area.” You wouldn’t do that.

But to produce these endless maps of the Middle East countries with big arrows pointing Sunnis here, Kurds here, when most of these people before we arrived didn’t think in these terms. We encourage them to recognize their differences. We create governments there that are perfectly worked out on sectarian grounds. We don’t do that in our own countries. You don’t go around Canada saying we’re going to have a Catholic party, we’re going to have a Protestant party, we’re going to have a Muslim party.

But, once we move ourselves into the Middle East, we play sectarianism with people, and that’s this whole line: “If the Americans leave there’s going to be civil war.” I mean, they’ve got absolute chaos and anarchy right now, with thousands of Iraqis dying, and they still tell us it’s better to stay. Where does this wisdom come from that if we go there will be chaos? We, the civilizing power, will leave the place to the animals, who will tear each other to bits afterwards. I don’t believe it.

G: How apt is the Vietnam comparison and where do you see it ending?

Fisk: Well, everyone’s talking about My Lai because of Haditha, aren’t they? I don’t generally go along with these specific parallels. You can talk about the British in Northern Ireland or in Kenya, or Americans in the Philippines more than a hundred years ago. All guerilla wars are different, but what is in common is that if you go and occupy somebody else’s land-especially if they’re of a different society, culture, religion-you are going to get really badly thumped. And that’s what’s happening.

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