Per many accounts, Robert Fisk, a journalist who died last week, was a notably courteous man. Since his death I have spoken to a number who met him and knew his work. They describe a journalist who spoke politely to crowds after events and at signings for his books, and who reacted to praise and attention with becoming satisfaction and pleasure.
When they asked to shake his hand after a lecture, he held theirs and smiled. When encountered in hotel lobbies, he was happy to talk and to share a story or two. Many of them gave his books as gifts. They offered his works like Pity the Nation, on Lebanon’s civil war, up as primers to the uninitiated.
This is a view of Fisk often found in the accounts of other correspondents – shared most obviously by the more dilletante among them. The humourist P. J. O’Rourke, in the acknowledgements of Holidays in Hell, his collection of comic conflict journalism, counts Fisk among the coterie of the international press corps whose members supplied him with free drinks and frequently ‘saved [his] ass from jail or worse’.
‘What I tell my readers in my stories’, O’Rourke writes, ‘is nothing but what members of the press tell each other around the bar at 10:00 p.m.’
Let’s leave the bar behind and return to the first group – once admirers, they are now disaffected. They relate that their appreciation for Fisk did not last to the end of his life. Some had doubts bed in a while ago. One longer-term critic responded to news of Fisk’s death with the caption ‘author of fiction on Middle East themes dies’.
But for the last ten years, one story alone determined the view of Fisk. Just under a decade ago, born of vicious repression from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s civil war began.
Fisk took the regime’s side, and he did so fulsomely. He embedded with the Syrian army and praised its (often under-evidenced) effectiveness. When he travelled to the sites of massacres, even when he could not out-and-out deny that the regime had a hand in events, Fisk attempted to blame everyone else for those murders he could not ignore.
Treading the ground in Daraya where mass killing had followed regime fighters taking the town by storm, Fisk attributed the carnage to the inevitable consequence of a prisoner swap gone wrong, never accusing the forces of the state of shedding a single drop of blood. He humoured every excuse the regime and its allies offered as to why they could not have committed the chemical atrocities which all fair-minded international observers imputed to their forces.
Even Fisk’s garrulousness in lobbies becomes a little harder to take when seen in its full context. A friend relates how he ran into Fisk in a Damascus hotel in 2018, just after the chemical attack in Douma was followed by international retaliation. Fisk seemed subdued, ‘like he was waiting for someone’.
‘I remember he was reading a very obscure science textbook. He seemed quite glad some members of our group approached him; he lapped you the attention and told a couple of anecdotes. He was friendly, if a little haughty. I remember him telling a member of the group I was with he would only pose for a photo if they promised not to post it on social media.’ This secrecy and the science textbook appear to have been related.
‘I later read’, my friend resumes, ‘that Fisk had visited the site of the chemical weapons attack and written a piece casting doubt on the widely accepted narrative’. Fisk wondered if the deaths and the distress may have been caused by a ‘dust storm’ rather than a chemical cannister.
‘He was clearly there at the invitation of the Assad regime, bought in to launder the aftermath of a chemical attack’, my friend said; ‘and that was exactly the job he did.’
Much of this passed Fisk’s editors and colleagues by, as did criticism of his methods. The International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope, upon encountering Fisk in Turkey, found that what a colleague of his called ‘Fiskery’ often meant embroidery.
‘For a few dazzling reporters, [the colleague] explained, the essential thrust of the story … might well be true … [or] illustrate a higher truth. But the details, quotes, witnesses, and even whole battles could be embellished to make the story fly, preferably onto the front page’. Pope decided to check up on Fisk’s write-up of an especially exciting incident. He was informed by those he spoke to that ‘Fisk’s reporting has no basis in fact’.
This was not a unique observation. Fisk’s novelistic storytelling ensured that his editors continued to value his contributions beyond their accuracy, and his personal courtesy bound them to him. His documented propensity for distortion and factual errors, in his books and his journalism, never appeared to occasion a tighter editorial rein.
There were always reasons for this – some justifiable, others not. Fisk was a seeming specialist in a sea of generalists, who – one can only guess – thought they could not presume to correct him. But beyond this came a degree of deference that seems anachronistic. The first series of death notices erroneously maintained that Fisk was fluent in Arabic, despite evidence the man himself continually produced to the contrary. So beholden were some non-Arabists to the image of Fisk as their guide to an unfamiliar world.
Despite dying suddenly and younger than many of his contemporaries, Fisk undoubtedly outlived his era. His was a time of intrepid Westerners interpreting the east for domestic audiences in florid prose, where eccentric correspondents were occasionally at risk of charmingly going native. None of the glamour of this style survives in the age of Google and real-time corrections; nor now many Middle Easterners speak good English and have as much access as any son of Maidstone to the international press.
Fisk’s skill was in vivid, prejudicial writing and a kind of old-world charm which won him friends among those who counted – and suggested to them that he was too good a chap to lie to their faces. What a pity, for those who believed in him, that they were wrong.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.