Robert Fisk: truth compromised in Middle East reporting
British-born Fisk (pictured), a journalist who has lived in the Middle East for 30 years, describes as disgraceful a newspaper cutting off the bottom part of a photo of a man holding his dead daughter.
By not showing the bone protruding from her leg, the newspaper got away with the caption: “A man carries his wounded daughter.”
At a public lecture at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington earlier this week, Mr Fisk said this was just one example of how journalists are under pressure to compromise the truth for what is acceptable to the public.
Mr Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent and has written several books, most recently, “The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings”.
In New Zealand for The Press Writers Festival, he said the fact journalists are more likely to be killed in the field these days was unsurprising given they are embedding themselves in the military and using mercenaries for protection.
He said hostile militants would not differentiate between a journalist and a soldier if the journalist was travelling among the military.
Reporting from within the military could detrimentally affect a reporter’s objectivity.
Mr Fisk spoke of the dichotomy – and danger – of soldiers wanting to be journalists and journalists wanting to be soldiers.
He cited the phenomenon of soldiers carrying notebooks and blogging and, conversely, reporters wearing fatigues.
He recalled a reporter from Denver who turned up in the desert wearing camouflage gear and boots with leaves painted on – and noted that anyone who had seen a picture of a desert would know how ridiculous it looked.
Mr Fisk said journalists were simply “mouthpieces for authority” when they used information supplied by official sources – such as the Pentagon or White House – without analysing it or investigating the facts.
He also rubbished the convention of “50-50 journalism” – in which every story must be “balanced”.
A journalist writing on the slave trade is not obliged to ask a slave ship captain for his opinion nor, if reporting on the horrors of the holocaust, to seek the opinion of a Nazi death camp commander, he said.
Reporting on a car bombing in the Middle East, he wouldn’t go to the militant Islamic Jihad for comment: “We should be on the side of those who suffer. It’s not a football match.”
Mr Fisk is well-known as the only Western journalist to have met Osama Bin Laden – something he has done on three occasions.
He recounted how, on one occasion, he felt Bin Laden was attempting to recruit him. Mr Fisk was moved to tell Bin Laden: “I am not a Muslim, I am a journalist – my job is to tell the truth,” to which Bin Laden replied: “If you tell the truth you are Muslim.”
Mr Fisk said he was convinced that Bin Laden was behind the attacks of 9/11 when he recalled Bin Laden saying: “I pray to god that he allows us to turn America into a shadow of its former self,” to which Mr Fisk had scribbled in his diary “rhetoric?”. “Ouch” he said jokingly to the audience.
Question-time was dominated by audience members asking Mr Fisk to elaborate on his contempt for the internet and what he labelled “blogopops”.
Mr Fisk said the internet had led to the erosion of quality writing.
He recalled being challenged about a quote of his that had been published on a website – although he had never said it. “But I read it on the internet,” was the response, to which Mr Fisk simply hung up.
Often “misquoted or requoted” on the internet, he is furious when people cut pieces out of what he has said or written, especially if someone uses ellipsis to indicate something has been cut from a quote, when they have actually culled 380 words.
Gordon Campbell – political editor of Scoop and host of the evening – attempted to defend the internet, taking the microphone off Mr Fisk several times to reassure the audience of the benefits of web journalism.
At one point, Mr Fisk retorted: “To hell with the web, it’s got no responsibility.”
PICTURE: Lancashire University