The veteran British foreign correspondent and author died last month at the age of seventy-four.
I first came across Fisk’s work as an undergraduate journalism student, quickly coming to admire it because of his determination to visit the sites of official reports, unpick myths and bear witness to the atrocities of war. In contrast, most other reports of the same conflicts – from Northern Ireland to Iraq – came from embedded journalists relying upon official sources, what he would have classed ‘hotel journalism’. War, as he illustrated so brilliantly in his many articles for the Independent, was not Hollywood; it was cruel and barbaric. Fisk cared deeply about the people he wrote about and was impassioned and angry at the injustice and pain that he witnessed.
When the second Iraq war broke out, then Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation Greg Dyke described the journalism of the public broadcaster like this: ‘In terms of reporting, correspondents embedded with military units had unprecedented access to the campaign and gave the coverage a drama and immediacy we’ve not seen before.’ Its foreign correspondent at the time, Brian Barron, reported from the deck of the US Mobile as the first missile was fired by US forces against Saddam Hussein on the opening night of the war. By contrast, Fisk famously wrote on 15 February 2003:
In the end, I think we are just tired of being lied to. Tired of being talked down to, of being bombarded with Second World War jingoism and scare stories and false information and student essays dressed up as ‘intelligence’.
It was his remarkable candour to his readers that drew him critics as well as supporters. He pushed back against the wave of reports that were being uncritically produced even by the most reputable and authoritative news sources.
Or take the war in Afghanistan. Following his assault at the Afghan border by a group of refugees in 2001, Fisk wrote that the episode was ‘symbolic of the hatred and fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war.’ In 2016, he would pen an indictment of the invasion that began with these words:
As usual, all the warnings were there. Three Anglo-Afghan wars. Russia’s Vietnam. The Graveyard of Empires. Poppy capital of the world. The most bombed, crushed, corrupted, mined nation on the globe.
A student of Latin and Linguistics at Lancaster in the late 1960s, Fisk never forgot his training, unpicking phrasing that distorted or misdirected readers about war and was critical of western foreign policy and its euphemistic usage of language in framing conflicts. In a 2005 interview for the BBC, he called for foreign correspondents to be transparent: ‘The first thing they should do is say to their readers or viewers that they are confined to their hotels and don’t leave and don’t do any street reporting.’ Asked about taking sides, he added: ‘If you believe that victims should have more of a say than people who commit atrocities then yes I take a definite position. If reporters don’t do that then they are out of their minds.’
Fisk also challenged the prevailing consensus around remembrance day in the UK, including the practice of wearing the red poppy. Remembering his father Bill, who had served in World War I, he wrote in 2011:
… as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 ‘problem’ – was a trashing of human life. In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. ‘All I can tell you, fellah,’ he said, ‘was that it was a great waste.’ And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy.
In an interview with the National News he explained that in war
… you must always treat the dead as your friends. However terrible they looked, however decayed the bodies were, you always have to think that they could be your friends and they would have offered you coffee if they were alive and tell you their story.
Having been eyewitness to the cost of war, he declared himself pacifist in the 2009 Independent Woodstock literary festival podcast, entitled The lost art of reportage.
In any standard course of journalism, you are taught to write snappy copy, be impartial, and capture the reader’s attention alongside serving the function of the fourth estate of holding power to account. Fisk’s work provided students like me with a deeper understanding of the Middle East and its history compared with the typical, ahistorical reporting of the region. Describing his own experience at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in 2014, he said:
… I had a suspicion that the language we were forced to write as trainee reporters all those years ago had somehow imprisoned us, that we had been schooled to mould the world and ourselves in clichés, that for the most part this would define our lives, destroy our anger and imagination, make us loyal to our betters, to governments, to authority. For some reason, I had become possessed of the belief that the blame for our failure as journalists to report the Middle East with any sense of moral passion or indignation lay in the way that we as journalists were trained.
He understood that war was not a natural state of affairs and would prompt his readers to challenge official narratives and to ignore the Hollywood myth of ‘… victory and defeat, heroism and cowardice … War is primarily about the total failure of the human spirit.’ His respect and empathy for the victims of war made him fervent and indignant, and caused him to side with them. This is what made him controversial in the eyes of many. To them, he would respond with a simple analogy:
We should be partial. We should say who the bad guys are … If we were covering the slave trade, would we give equal time to the slave ship captain? No, we’d talk to the slaves, wouldn’t we? If we were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, do we give equal time to the spokesman of the SS? Forget it. We talk to the survivors and talk about the victims.
Yet, having spent decades covering war, seeing its horrors and legacy, Fisk nevertheless shared in his mother’s optimism that things would get better. It’s up to us to ensure that it does.
Image by Sofyan El Bouchtili