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Robert Fisk: The outstanding and truth-telling journalist who ventured into danger

Robert Fisk probably won more prestigious prizes than any other journalist – collecting dozens and dozens of awards – he did not display them in his Irish home, keeping them discreetly tucked away.

Although he was not a man to brag, he established himself as one of the outstanding British foreign correspondents of every decade since the 1970s. While there were many other fine journalists, he distinguished himself with his bravery, his insight and his superb writing skills, principally with The Independent.

He was fearless both in telling truth to power and in repeatedly venturing into places of great danger. He had one home near Dublin but another in Beirut, where reporters were often at risk of being kidnapped.

Born in Maidstone in Kent in 1946, Fisk wanted to be a film critic as a schoolboy, telling one interviewer last year that he was “fascinated by film, because it seems to have an unstoppable power to convince”. Film would come to influence his career choice, with the character of Huntley Haverstock, the hero of Hitchcock’s wartime film Foreign Correspondent inspiring a young Fisk. 

His career began at the Sunday Express, but he first distinguished himself in 1970s Belfast, having become the Northern Ireland correspondent for The Times in 1972. It was a city to where many news organisations were inclined to repeat the often-dubious official versions of many controversial incidents. But Fisk checked and double-checked everything, his refusal to simply accept what the authorities claimed often causing great annoyance to the British government and the army.

Fisk’s reporting philosophy, that would be present for the rest of his career, is be summed up in a quote he gave decades later: “You’ve got to go after any source you can.” He was always ready with a notebook in hand.  “I was astonished to see that I was reporting a war,” he said of his time reporting in Belfast. “I always refer to Northern Ireland as a war and not the Troubles.”

Fisk would also report from Portugal for the paper, before becoming Middle East correspondent in 1976. Based in Beirut, he would eventually occupy an apartment located on its famed corniche that he would keep for decades, often spending part of his evenings on the balcony. Although, in one sense, he never really left Ireland. He wrote two books about it, and also bought a splendid home overlooking the sea at Dalkey, just south of Dublin, and returned there often. Later, after being based in Beirut for years, he added a number of middle eastern touches to the house.

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Fisk was fascinated by Middle East’s  insecurity and recurring violent conflicts, and he would report on civil wars in Lebanon and Algeria, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Awards would never be far away, with Fisk winning International Reporter of the Year at the Press Awards in 1979, something he would repeat in 1980 with his dispatches from the Iran-Iraq conflict.

Fisk was one of the first reporters to enter Sabra and Shatila refugee camps where more than 1,000 people were killed in 1982. It was a situation that helped forge him as a reporter.  “The Israelis watched and did nothing,” he wrote. “With two colleagues, I entered the camps before the murderers had finished committing their war crimes. I hid with an American reporter in the back yard of a hut beside a newly executed young woman. I climbed over heaps of corpses. That evening, I burned my clothes because they smelled of decomposition.”

He would later say of the massacre: “I remember thinking: if these people have souls, they would want me to be there. I thought they would treat me as a friend for that reason. So I wasn’t horrified. I was horrified that they had been murdered, but that [manifested itself in] anger.”

He would win another International Reporter of the Year award for that dispatch, which the judges called “shattering”  both “traumatic in its descriptive power [and] almost unbearable in its total effect”. The judges added that his other work from the Middle East “revealed the same determination to discover the truth and the same sensitivity to human suffering in the midst of war”. The following year, Fisk would win the overall Reporter of the Year award for his work covering Lebanon’s civil war.

Fisk would leave The Times in 1989 after a dispute over how one of his stories was handled and he would later write of his disdain for Rupert Murdoch, the title’s owner. He joined The Independent, where he would stay for the rest of his life – a period which included two marriages and countless trips around the world.

He became known for his willingness to venture into dangerous areas and for his writing. He made no secret of his personal views – his reporting on the Armenian genocide a case in point. Often writing and speaking of his pity for the people he saw being killed at the same time as becoming a forthright critic of the US and Israel. His writing could be controversial – such as his later reporting on Syria – and sometimes brutal. Fisk’s style meant he picked up detractors, but also many loyal readers.

At The Independent, Fisk would win the International Reporter of the Year at the Press Awards a further two times in 1994 and 1995 for dispatches from Bosnia and Algeria – as well as a number of Amnesty International media awards and the Orwell Prize in 1999.

A series of interviews with the head of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, would truly make Fisk’s name globally. Fisk would interview the man he would describe on their first meeting in 1993 as “every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend” three times. Further meetings with the man who would later become of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists followed in 1996 and 1997. Fisk undoubtedly made an impression on the man who would become synonymous with the 9/11 attacks, with Bin Laden’s personal papers released by the US in 2016 making this clear.

The so-called War on Terror that followed the 9/11 attacks would mark Fisk’s writing for the rest of his days. His dispatches from Baghdad were the bane of the UK government when the US-UK bombing campaign began in Iraq in 2003. His contempt for those governments or leaders who would seek war or mete out suffering was always clear. It was a thread that would also be present in his coverage of the 2011 Arab revolutions and the war in Syria.

In addition to his hundreds – or perhaps thousands – of newspaper stories, he also immersed himself in Middle East history, politics and culture, producing a number of very substantial books. His books included The Point of No Return: The Strike Which Broke the British in Ulster (1975), Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (2001), The Great War for Civilisation—the Conquest of the Middle East (2005), and The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays (2008). 

When I asked him in his Irish home, as we stood surrounded by heaps of manuscripts he was just about to deliver to his publisher, when he was going to lighten up and take things easier, he grinned and said, “I’ve just two more big books to do.” I don’t believe these were ever finished.

Another major part of his life developed when he was pressed to deliver talks on the Middle East in many countries. When he began to do so, the clamour for tickets was huge, Fisk often attracting audiences of more than 1,000. One event in Dublin, hosted by journalistic friend of his Conor O’Clery, was attended by 1,200 people. Fisk’s work was also profiled in the 2019 documentary This Is Not a Movie.

That was the pull of a man who had spent decades helping readers understand the world – and its injustices – as much as he could.

Robert Fisk is survived by his wife, filmmaker and human-rights activist Nelofer Pazira

Robert Fisk was born on 12 July 1946 and died 30 October 2020