Saturday, 31 March 2012

The fall of Robert Fisk?

So, it looks like Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of the Independent, has some questions to answer about his journalism.  It is quite a come-down for a man who has been praised by such people as Osama bin Laden and David Irving.

I have never liked or admired Fisk's writing.  As with John Pilger, I don't think I've ever come away from one of his articles feeling that I am better informed about the article's notional subject, since the true subject is invariably Fisk's unchanging personal opinions about the way the world works.  His copy could be generated by a computer algorithm.  He takes a lot of stick from the right - which invented the term "to fisk" in his honour - but in some ways he is disconcertingly similar to them.  His view of the world is essentially that of the American or Israeli hardline neoconservative fringe, held up to a mirror and inverted point by point.  The gods of the neocons are his devils, and vice versa.  The content of his prejudices is that of Noam Chomsky, but the underlying mindset is that of Avigdor Lieberman and Dick Cheney.

To be fair, Fisk has never pretended to be a neutral, impartial purveyor of news.  He wears his one-dimensional partisanship as a badge of honour.  He has said that he rejects the "false idea of neutrality" in his work and that "it is the duty of a foreign correspondent to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer, and whoever they may be" - which is not only an irritating example of self-righteous cant but also a textbook example of Bertrand Russell's fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed (he also threw in a textbook example of Godwin's Law by suggesting that reporters covering the Nazi death camps wouldn't have been unbiased towards the SS - he has elsewhere compared the Bushite phrases "homeland security" and "shock and awe" to terms used by the Third Reich).

Now it has been intimated that Fisk was doing more than just putting his own anti-Western spin on things.  The drama seems to have started with the publication in 2010 of Hugh Pope's memoir Dining with Al Qaeda, in which Pope, who had previously revered Fisk, cast doubt on the veracity of his reporting.  He wondered how he had "managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day we all spent staking out Israeli anti-insurgency troop movements in south Lebanon", and suggested that a story filed by Fisk on the Yasilova incident in 1991 had not been truthful (Pope has since expressed further doubts on his blog).  Pope's concerns about Fisk's journalism were endorsed by the Guardian's Middle East editor, and the Times's former war correspondent Jamie Dettmer subsequently accused Fisk of stealing one of his own stories without attribution and filing a report datelined Cairo while he was in Cyprus.  Claude Salhani, a former Pulitzer nominee, weighed in to the controversy, claiming that Fisk's reportage of events that he (Salhani) had personally witnessed did not square with his memories of what had happened.  Meanwhile, it has been reported that photographers hate working with Fisk because the newsdesk just can't understand why they haven't captured on camera the heartrending scenes he describes in his copy ("I was with him the entire day.... Apart from when he was in the toilet, I suppose the massacre could have happened there").

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, the Angry Arab has been fisking Fisk's work for years, while the most sustained attack on Fisk's ethics has been posted by the veteran Middle East correspondent Adel Darwish (some linguistic errors corrected):
To ‘fisk’ a story means... a mixture of making something up, being in two places hundreds of miles apart at the same time, and inventing ‘fighters’ and guerrillas (that no one else among the travelling press pack had the chance to see or meet) who would give you a quote so perfect to underpin the argument your fisked piece was designed to ram down the reader’s throat in the first place. 
Fiskery will also include exclusive interviews with terrorists in the dock during their high-security trial, which none of the other hundreds of journalists present in court managed to get since the high security trial meant they were kept away in the public gallery.... 
One American reporter once suffered from such an anti-fiskery ethics attack (after a call from his editor blaming him for missing the fisked scoop that our famous writer filed from inside the Iranian border, despite not leaving the Hotel Shattelarab in Basra at all that day) that he beat up the famous darling-of-the-left writer....

Fiskery as an art also includes people giving you secret information no one else has ever obtained. Possessing this magic would get such info easily handed to you in a place no one has ever heard of or will ever hear of. It also includes predictions of something that you have warned the world would happen, and which are proven to be right although no one remembers you writing them at the time. 
The art of Fiskery also includes some acts of self bravery like turning an argument over a fare with a cabbie in Afghanistan into a political battle between Imperialist West and innocent East. Or opening your story with a paragraph suggesting you running into the fire of an explosion while everyone else is running away from the scene without explaining how the police have allowed you to go through their lines as they stopped every other mortal from crossing into the scene of the incident....
Comparisons are already being made with the Johann Hari affair.  Hari was fingered last summer for filling out his interviews with quotations plagiarised from his interviewees' published works.  He initially claimed that he had done no more than polish up things that they really had said to him, but it looks like there was a little more to it than that.  More broadly, Hari's ethics had been questioned as far back as 2003, and by last year it had become apparent that there were question marks over his reporting on Dubai, Africa, Venezuela, militant Islam and economics.  He is even said to have lied about minor details of the Copenhagen climate summit and a well-known appearance on Richard Littlejohn's TV show.  Hari's sins went beyond bad journalism.  He used sockpuppets on Wikipedia - in particular, "David Rose", who claimed to be an expert on climate science - to big up his own entry and vandalise those of his enemies.  The hunt for David Rose became a minor internet cause celebre.  Hari eventually issued a weaselly half-apology.  A few months later, he resigned his job at the Independent.

I have no personal knowledge of whether the allegations against Fisk are true.  Fisk himself does not accept them.  "I do not make stories up," he told the Torygraph.  It remains to be seen if we have heard the last of this.