Robert Fisk, journalist

Robert Fisk doesn’t really stand out in a crowd: dressed somewhat inattentively, altogether unassuming, entering the hall with the latecomers. Not everyone seems sure which one of them is Fisk until he is introduced. But then he begins to speak. Fisk hates clichés but there is only one word to describe his audience: spellbound.

On a tour of Aotearoa New Zealand promoting his latest book, Fisk spoke to a large gathering jammed into a small lecture theatre, a crowd including a contingent of captivated journalism students (though his analysis of the condition of his profession is not inspiring – for he believes it is in a wretched state).

He spoke for 50 minutes or so, with a wit and a relaxed ease that was unexpected and rather disarming. I might have expected a man with a reputation for signal outspokenness in his writing to be driven by anger, fury even; but though there were glimpses of anger, the overwhelming sense I got was not so much of passion as of compassion. How vastly different those two sentiments are.

Compassion is humanism in action, and it leads Fisk to report not with some spurious journalistic balance between “sides” (as if, as he said, one were reporting a football match) but with respect and compassion for those who suffer the deadly consequences of armed conflict. Compassion has led him to condemn those leaders whose mendacity and wilful deceit of their nations costs countless lives.

During his talk Fisk reads us excerpts from letters written by a serving US major in Iraq; he doesn’t agree with all the major writes but Fisk is no fundamentalist so he reads on. We learn a lot from those letters; though anger might easily have closed our minds to them, compassion lets us listen.

Fisk writes better than anyone else in western media about what is happening across the Middle East. He is engaged with the region he reports on, part of its life, immersed in the history, religion, and culture. He’s opinionated, knowledgeable, not always right but always, it seems to me, honestly trying to understand and explain. That’s the role of a journalist. That’s why Robert Fisk is feared by those in the west who would manipulate events in the Middle East to their own advantage.

That’s why he demands to be read.

Robert Fisk’s writing for The Independent is available here.

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