Throughout his 30-year career in journalism, he has reported on world events from all over the globe and has interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times. Gabrielle Tierney interviews Robert Fisk, one of the most respected foreign correspondents in Britain.
How would you say life has changed in Iraq for the ordinary citizens since the invasion of 2003?
Before the invasion they lived under Saddam’s state terror. They had no political freedom, but, providing they didn’t exercise or try to exercise any political freedom, they had security. Their children could go to school, the schools would be open, their families wouldn’t be kidnapped. Basically the mass anarchy that we see today didn’t exist. Most of whom I speak to today, including friends who phone me from Baghdad, say “if only they were still living under Saddam.” That doesn’t mean they like Saddam; it doesn’t mean we should like Saddam. He was a wicked dictator, mostly propped up by us from the very beginning. But if you have a family, and you have children, and you have a mother and a wife or a husband to look after, the question is: Do you want security and dictatorship, or freedom and total insecurity and anarchy?
Throughout the Middle East, religion is now seen as a destabilising factor, do you...?
Really? Is it really? We go into countries, we dominate countries, we occupy countries, countries which are not the same religion as us. The English rule in Ireland was the plantation of Protestants in a predominantly Catholic country, I mean I’m talking about 16/17th century. We now go to countries which are essentially Muslim and we then say that their battle is about religion. What are we doing in these countries? What were we doing in Ireland in the first place? What on earth are we doing in Iraq? What are we doing in Afghanistan? What are we doing with our military forces? You know American and British forces are, in one form or another in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan; in Iraq, they’re in Turkey, they’re in Jordan, they’re in Egypt, they’re in Kuwait, they’re in Oman, they’re in Qatar, they’re in Bahrain, they’re in Yemen, they’re in Algeria, and you ask me a question like, “is religion part of the battle?” What are they doing in all of these countries? Why are we there? We have a mature relationship with people in other countries without constantly chopping them up and telling them, “it’s about religion.”
So do you think that is a tool of imperialism to weaken these countries?
I thought “imperialism” went out with the cavalry some time ago. Empires come and go and we now have the American empire, although I think it is collapsing in the Middle East faster than we realise, probably with results that we would shudder to think about. Was it British imperial rule, or colonisation in Ireland? It was really colonisation. It is certainly colonisation in the West Bank, the occupied West Bank. If you regard Israel as being part of the Western powers in the Middle East, the Israelis like to say they are and the Americans like to claim they are. And in Iraq, it’s about the control of oil. If the Iraqi national export was asparagus or potatoes I don’t think the Marine Corps would be in Baghdad, would they? So it’s about control, isn’t it? Whether it be imperial control, colonial control, whatever. Usually covered in a façade of some moral desire to help the people to improve their resources, to be good neighbours, to bring them democracy, freedom, a new way of life, modernity, the fruits of Western civilisation, equality in woman; you name it. But you know, countries have always dominated other countries; but I don’t like the old word imperialism because it sort of smells of the 1960s, socialism, which didn’t get us anywhere really. But whether you call it imperial rule or colonial rule or hegemony, which is another cliché, isn’t it, from the anthropologists? Clearly it is well-armed, over-armed major Western powers dominating under-armed, comparatively powerless Eastern powers. And of course, whenever they find some way of striking back we shout the word “terrorism”.
You were one of the few journalists to cover the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. It wasn’t widely reported in the West; why do you think this was?
At the beginning of the war it was on the front pages all the time: 1980/1. And then only when there were major battles did it get on the front pages, then it kind of drifted away, one artillery bombardment looked much like another. By the time the Iraqis were using gas on the Iranians, public interest had waned, and the governments of the West weren’t interested in promoting this because they were still supporting Saddam. The American military actually had people on the Iraqi frontline who saw them using gas and thought it of no importance to tell anyone back in Washington apart from their immediate bosses. It’s because the Americans had sold the Iraqis the components of chemical warfare, knew what they were doing and didn’t want it to be said.
In your books, your style of writing seems to really humanise the victims within the stories and these seem to be the very victims that the mainstream try to dehumanise whenever they report conflicts.
Well they dehumanise them by not naming them for the most part, apart from the odd human interest story.
The depth that you go into in Pity the Nation and in your recent book of the injuries and the suffering of these people is unparalleled in the mainstream media; do you put this down to institutional racism in the mainstream media?
I’m not sure what you mean by mainstream media. I hate this phrase “mainstream” and “alternative” media. I mean alternative media is so fucking boring, I’m not surprised the rest is mainstream.
Well, how would you define them then?
Look, I don’t care very much about television because it is so distorted; we are talking about major newspapers with wide circulation, or comparatively wide. Whether they be for the reader who reads The Times or The Guardian or The Telegraph or The Independent, or whether we are talking about The Sun readership; we are talking about major newspapers. I mean, frankly, I find regional papers pretty pathetic as well. And that particularly applies here in the States also. In San Francisco, The Examiner, for example is even worse than the New York Times in being incomprehensible about the Middle East because its so frightened and bland.
It is the ordinary person's story that you seem to focus on?
I’ve never been interested in interviewing leaders. I’m having to interview them because I’ve met them by chance, but I’ve never asked to see anyone. Whether it be Mubarak or Hafas Ofasad, or even Osama bin Laden. It seems to me the only real people I meet when I’m traveling around in areas of great danger or conflict are the people who just live there; people like you and me, and when they suffer great tragedy, that is the story of the Middle East. If you want to know why people eventually struck back at people in the West, you have to understand what these people go through. I was amazed how restrained Muslims had been towards us in the West. But equally I was down in South Lebanon after Qana and I was looking at these children who were lying out dead in front of me and I turned to a colleague and I said, "Do you know, there’s gonna be another 9/11?" And she said, “Of course there is.”
Who do you think journalists are responsible to?
They should be responsible to the reader, the viewer, and the listener. They seem to think, many of them, that they are responsible to their editors, which is a mistake. There is an osmotic parasitic relationship between journalists and power. You only have to watch a press conference with the President: “Mr President! Mr President!” “Yes, John. Yes Bob. Yes Gabrielle,” right? And in America, in particular, to challenge power, which is what our jobs should be, is regarded as unpatriotic, especially in times of war, and thus potentially subversive. As Seymour Hersh, who is a friend of mine, said to me, he was making a point when we were talking a few months ago in Colombia, in New York. He said, “You know there’s no kudos these days in an American news room to come up with a controversial story; they don’t want you to challenge power.”
Do you think this is a new wave of McCarthyism?
Well I think McCarthy as a ghost is a fear that hovers over the United States; accusations of being offline, out of limits. There was a very interesting case back in 1997 where I investigated the origins of a missile which had been fired by the Israelis into an ambulance in Southern Lebanon, killing some women and children. And I took the pieces of the missile back to the missile manufacturer in Duluth, Georgia. It was Boeing. And I presented it on the boardroom table. These guys thought I was going to interview them about their “wonderful” missile. They didn’t realise until I got there and put bits of the missile on the table what they were in for. I said, “Do you take responsibility for the use made of your missile?” And one of the guys said “Is this some kind of crusade?” And the other guy said, “This is way outta line.” I said, “Number one, I think you will regret referring to the word 'crusade.' Number two, it is not out of line; I am asking you about a war crime and I want your response to it.” And there was just an explosion in the room because you see, they didn’t get questioned like that by American reporters; they’re not used to it. They should be used to it. But I think the problem is that too many journalists treat this like any other job, like working in a bank, working as an estate agent, being a lawyer; they have a mortgage to pay off.
So, It’s just a pay cheque, right?
Not just a pay cheque; they want a job that’s safe, they want to be able to come home in the evening and relax with their kids, and everyone should have the right to do that. But I think that journalism, I don’t mean to make a parallel here directly because it wouldn’t be fair, but it should be a vocation like medicine. We have a special responsibility. And if that means we are going to get the sticks and stones thrown at us by people who want us to write safely and carefully, then we should accept that we have to take that. I open the papers here in America; the occupied territories are referred to as disputed territories. And the wall is called a security barrier or a fence. And what this does is, if a Palestinian throws a stone or fires a shot – now I'm against all violence for all reasons, ever- but if he or she does, and we believe it’s about a “dispute,” something we can settle over a cup of tea or in a court. If we refer to something as a "neighbourhood,” which is the new American term for a Jewish settlement on occupied territories or if we refer to something as a fence as opposed to a wall, something that is at the bottom of our garden, then there’s no reason for the Palestinians to become violent. They become a generically violent people. But if we explain that its occupation and that it’s a war, then there is an explanation for this violence, however we regard it.
Going back to your thing again about reporting wars and so on, television will not show the images of war, the images I see. They will not show it. I remember sitting in an editing suite in Baghdad during the war; I was with Iraqis. And watching Reuters feeding pictures over to London of a child with his hand blown off and a corpse with his head missing and this imperious estuary voice came down the voicemail “We can't show this, I don’t know why you’re sending it,” and in Baghdad the pleading guy is saying, “But this is the war; we are showing you what we have filmed; this is it.” But the guy said, “It's pornography to show this sort of stuff, it's gonna be breakfast time. People would be sick all over the table.” Then the best one of all, the voice came down from London, “Look, it would be disrespectful to show the dead in this way.” We don’t respect them enough when they are alive not to tear them apart with cluster bombs. But once they are dead we feel so much respect for them we can't show our own people what we did to them; you get the message? I just say to you what I say to everybody; “If you saw what I saw after war, like the bodies of women being torn apart by dogs in the desert, you would never ever go to war again. By not showing these images we become complicit with the government that takes us to war, because we are not showing what war is like. Oddly enough, we show what war is like on our televisions through our movies; you only have to look at Saving Private Ryan to see some of the things I’ve seen and believe me, it's worse than that, even they won't show you what it's really like. Added to this is the fact that our political leadership, the Bushes and Blairs have never seen a war. The only experience that the Blairs and Bushes have is Tinsel Town, Hollywood, and TV.
Do you ever fear for your own life?
I do in terms of war, yes. I’m worried like everyone else when I have to drive into an air raid, but I have to do it in order to do my job. I'm not trying to belittle the tragedy in Northern Ireland, but until I went to the Middle East, I thought I was covering a war in Belfast. It doesn’t compare to a million dead in the Iran/Iraq war of a million dead, mass graves filled with thousands of corpses.
Do you think Tony Blair should be put on trial for war crimes in the Middle East?
Ah, this is rubbish. We’re never going to put our leaders on trial for war crimes. It's just not feasible.
But do you think ethically they should?
(Loud sigh) I only sigh because this is the kind of argument that you would have in the Students' Union. Ethically, we should all be on war crimes trials because we all contribute either knowingly or unknowingly to immense suffering. This would apply to lots of other people in the world, not just “us.” But, in fact, that is not going to happen as we know. One of the things you’ll have to remember as you are watching this immense world tradegy take place - however moral you try to be, - e.g. for struggles for independence, moral goodness is not a necessity. Insurgents, of whatever hue they may be, they do not always adhere to the kinds of codes and conducts and human rights that we would like them to. People in war and people in conflict do and say terrible things, and do acts of great wickedness and cruelty to each other.
1st January 2007