Robert Fisk is not afraid to tell the truth about war. The Independent reporter has witnessed and reported on the Northern Ireland troubles, the Lebanese civil war, the Iran “Iraq war, Israeli brutality in Lebanon, Palestinian suicide bombings, the break-up of Yugoslavia, three meetings with Osama Bin Laden, the rise of Islamism in Algeria and the current Iraqi quagmire. He has spent nearly half his life watching ‘people and countries burn’, and is the kind of journalist whose views offend both government sensibilities and the media hucksters living off the official drip-feed, alike.
Fisk recently visited Australia for the first time to deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Adelaide University. He also spoke in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.
The last time Fisk saw Said before his death in 2003, Said told him: ‘I’m not going to die because they all want me to die.’ Said, not unlike Fisk, chose to tell the truth about the Palestinians and Israelis. The usual suspects – Jews, Arabs, Zionists, Americans, English and many Westerners – tried to silence his dissent. They all failed, of course, and the world is now starting to realise the great injustice of the Israel/Palestine conflict. ‘Said told me often that it was exhausting having to tell the truth about the Palestinians over and over again,’ Fisk recalled.
During overseas research for my forthcoming book on Israel/Palestine, I spent time with Fisk in his home-town of Beirut (days before the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri). He was generous and insightful when discussing the Middle East. On the morning before his talk at Sydney University, I had breakfast with Fisk, Stuart Rees (head of the Sydney Peace Prize), and a few others. Fisk was typically alert and exhausted, an uncanny combination not uncommon in reporters who spend extended periods in war zones.
We discussed the media coverage of his visit. He was interviewed on ABC PM, ABC Lateline and for The Age. From what I could make out of Shaun Carney’s interview for The Age, he seemed almost uncertain how to approach Fisk (besides, why was a journalist usually tasked with domestic concerns, as well as being Peter Costello’s biographer, interviewing a foreign correspondent?). Carney seemed more interested in the fact that the hand he was shaking had touched Osama bin Laden’s, rather than Fisk’s impressive body of work. At least he gave Fisk the opportunity to criticise the New York Times (copy from which is extensively reproduced in the Fairfax press) and suggest a name change for that august newspaper of record : ‘comma, officials say, full stop.’
Stuart Rees said he’d contacted the Sydney Morning Herald and they’d been interested in running Fisk’s Sydney talk on the following day’s opinion page. They had wanted a copy of Fisk’s speech, which he’d refused, and Fisk said, ‘they should come to the talk and take notes.’ Suffice to say, the Herald completely ignored Fisk’s Australian tour.
Fisk’s talk at Sydney University spanned the ages and discussed, in his animated and often humorous way, why we are destined to repeat history if we do not learn from it. From World War I to II and during any number of Western interventions in the Middle East – all, he reminded us, instigated under the guise of ‘spreading freedom and democracy’ – the Arab people have been given a raw deal by their own leaders and their Western backers. The current situation in Iraq is no different. A war based on ideology alone is destined to fail. ‘Iraq is lost’, Fisk said. ‘Much of the country is controlled by the insurgency.’
His speech touched on the ways in which many people in the Middle East want freedom and democracy, but ‘also freedom from us.’ He believes in the UN, despite all its faults. He argues passionately for journalism to not be servile to government spin and lies, and fears a growing generation of citizens in the Arab world are learning to hate America and its ‘values’ on an unprecedented scale.
Approximately 800 people attended the lecture, and during the question and answer session Fisk was asked consistently about Iraq and the insurgency. He believed, he said, that the Americans would leave eventually, but only after they had been able to claim ‘victory.’ He was asked whether he supported the Iraqi resistance and said ‘no.’ He tried to explain the brutality of Saddam during the long years of his rule. And then came the killer punch (and I quote here as accurately as possible):
‘Supporters of this war say that œwe and the Iraqis should be grateful we’re rid of Saddam. But what are they really saying? That abuses at Abu Ghraib, killings of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq and Guantanamo Bay are not great, but much better than life under Saddam? Has our moral compass lost that much direction?’
Fisk is a true voice of reason. The Murdoch and Packer empires are too busy reprinting Mark Steyn to recognise great journalism when it hits them. Of course, this is the same crowd of people who still defend the Vietnam War as a ‘noble’ mistake. Besides, they have too much ideological baggage invested in the Iraq war to change position now.
It is perhaps unsurprising that coverage of Iraq remains minimal in Australia. We have few troops in the country and their mission remains unclear. But when a country such as Australia participates in a war of unprovoked aggression, it is vital that journalists continue to question. Anybody care to ask John Howard how he feels about the fact that Iraq is becoming increasingly cosy with its neighbouring Islamic theocracy?
Fisk humanises war and the effects of decisions in Canberra, London or Washington. When tens of thousands of innocents are murdered in the name of ‘freedom’, we should sit up and take notice.
Fisk’s latest book, The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East (Fourth Estate), is released in Australia in early November.
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