As an international correspondent
, he covered the civil wars
, and Syria
, the Iran–Iraq conflict
, the wars in Bosnia
, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
, the Islamic revolution in Iran
, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait
, and the U.S. invasion
and occupation of Iraq
. An Arabic
he was among the few Western journalists to interview Osama bin Laden
, which he did three times between 1993 and 1997.
Early life and education
Fisk was an only child, born in Maidstone
to William and Peggy Fisk. His father William ('Bill') Fisk (1899–1992) was Borough Treasurer at Maidstone Corporation and had fought in the First World War
His mother, Peggy (Rose) Fisk, was an amateur painter who in later years became a Maidstone magistrate.
At the end of the war Bill Fisk was punished for disobeying an order to execute another soldier; his son said, "My father's refusal to kill another man was the only thing he did in his life which I would also have done." Though his father said little about his part in the war, it held a fascination for his son. After his father's death, he discovered that he had been the scribe of his battalion's war diaries from August 1918.
Fisk was educated at Yardley Court
, a preparatory school,
then at Sutton Valence School
and Lancaster University
where he undertook his B.A. in Latin and Linguistics
and contributed to the student magazine John O'Gauntlet
. He gained a PhD in Political Science
from Trinity College Dublin
the title of his doctoral thesis was "A Condition of Limited Warfare: Éire
's Neutrality and the Relationship between Dublin
It was published as In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality 1939-1945
(London: André Deutsch, 1983; reprinted in Dublin by Gill & MacMillan, 1996). Reviewer F. I. Magee in 1984 stated: "This book presents a detailed and definitive account of Anglo-Irish relations during the Second World War....Fisk's excellent book highlights the ambivalence in relations between Britain, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland and goes a long way towards explaining why the current situation is so intractable."
Robert Fisk in 2008
Fisk also reported on the Soviet–Afghan War
, the Iran–Iraq War
, the Arab–Israeli conflict
, the Gulf War
, the Kosovo War
, the Algerian Civil War
, the Bosnian War
, the 2001 international intervention in Afghanistan
, the invasion of Iraq
in 2003, the Arab Spring
in 2011 and the ongoing Syrian Civil War
. During the Iran–Iraq War
, he suffered partial but permanent hearing loss as a result of being close to Iraqi heavy artillery in the Shatt-al-Arab
when covering the early stages of the conflict.
After the United States and allies launched their intervention in Afghanistan
, Fisk was for a time transferred to Pakistan
to cover the conflict. While reporting from there, he was attacked and beaten by a group of Afghan refugees
fleeing heavy bombing by the United States Air Force
. In his graphic account of his almost being beaten to death until a local Muslim leader intervened,
Fisk absolved the attackers of responsibility and pointed out that their "brutality was entirely the product of others, of us—of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war
and then armed and paid them again for the 'War for Civilisation' just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them 'collateral damage
According to Richard Falk
, interviewed in CounterPunch
in 2020, Fisk said of his attacker: "There is every reason to be angry. I’ve been an outspoken critic of the US actions myself. If I had been them, I would have attacked me."
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq
, Fisk was based in Baghdad
and filed many eyewitness reports. He criticised other journalists based in Iraq for what he calls their "hotel journalism", reporting from one's hotel room without interviews or first-hand experience of events.
Fisk's criticism of the invasion was rejected by some other journalists.
Fisk criticised the Coalition's handling of the sectarian violence in post-invasion Iraq, and argued that the official narrative of sectarian conflict is not possible: "The real question I ask myself is: who are these people who are trying to provoke the civil war? Now the Americans will say it's Al Qaeda
, it's the Sunni insurgents. It is the death squads. Many of the death squads work for the Ministry of Interior
. Who runs the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad? Who pays the Ministry of the Interior? Who pays the militia men who make up the death squads? We do, the occupation authorities. ... We need to look at this story in a different light."
Osama bin Laden
Fisk interviewed Osama bin Laden
on three occasions.
The interviews appeared in articles published by The Independent
on 6 December 1993, 10 July 1996, and 22 March 1997. In Fisk's first interview, "Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace", he wrote of Osama bin Laden, then overseeing the construction of a highway in Sudan
: "With his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long brown robe, Mr. Bin Laden looks every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend. Chadored children danced in front of him, preachers acknowledged his wisdom" while observing that he was accused of "training for further jihad wars".
During one of Fisk's interviews with Bin Laden, Fisk noted an attempt by Bin Laden to convert him. Bin Laden said; "Mr. Robert, one of our brothers had a dream ... that you were a spiritual person ... this means you are a true Muslim". Fisk replied; "Sheikh Osama, I am not a Muslim. ... I am a journalist [whose] task is to tell the truth". Bin Laden replied: "If you tell the truth, that means you are a good Muslim".
During the 1996 interview, Bin Laden said the Saudi royal family
was corrupt. During the final interview in 1997, Bin Laden said he sought God's help "to turn America into a shadow of itself".
Fisk strongly condemned the September 11 attacks
, describing them as a "hideous crime against humanity
". He also denounced the Bush administration's
response to the attacks, arguing that "a score of nations" were being identified and positioned as "haters of democracy" or "kernels of evil", and urged a more honest debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East
. He argued that such a debate had hitherto been avoided "because, of course, to look too closely at the Middle East would raise disturbing questions about the region, about our Western policies in those tragic lands, and about America's relationship
In 2007, Fisk expressed personal doubts about the official historical record of the attacks. In an article for The Independent
, he wrote that, while the Bush administration was incapable of successfully carrying out such attacks due to its organisational incompetence, he was "increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11" and added that he did not condone the "crazed 'research' of David Icke
", but was "talking about scientific issues".
Fisk had earlier addressed similar concerns in a speech at Sydney University
During the speech, Fisk said: "Partly I think because of the culture of secrecy of the White House, never have we had a White House so secret as this one. Partly because of this culture, I think suspicions are growing in the United States, not just among Berkeley guys with flowers in their hair. ... But there are a lot of things we don't know, a lot of things we're not going to be told. ... Perhaps the [fourth] plane was hit by a missile, we still don't know".
Bill Durodie wrote that "recently published compilation of Osama bin Laden's writings reveals how frequently he is inclined to cite Western writers, Western diplomats and Western thinkers. At one point he even advises the White House to read Robert Fisk, rather than, as one might have supposed, the Koran."
Syrian Civil War
Reporting from Douma, Syria
, in April 2018 on the Douma chemical attack
, Fisk quoted a Syrian doctor who attributed the victims' breathing problems not to gas but to dust and lack of oxygen after heavy shelling by Assad forces. Other people he spoke to doubted a gas attack, and Fisk queried the incident. Richard Spencer
and Catherine Philp
in The Times wrote that journalists had been taken to Douma on a government-organised trip while international investigators were forced to remain in Damascus.
website said other reporters on the same trip as Fisk had interviewed locals who said they had inhaled toxic gas.
Fisk was profiled in Yung Chang
's 2019 documentary film This Is Not a Movie
In reviewing the film, Slant Magazine
stated "The two things that give this documentary its power and provocativeness are intellectual rather than dramatic: Fisk’s work, and his ideas."
For The Guardian
, the film asks its audience about war "Is there something deep in our souls that permits it because it feels natural? His painful, deeply serious question about the inevitability of war sets the tone of this documentary about his career, directed by Yung Chang."
Fisk was known for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States
, particularly their involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
He was consistently critical of Israel, labelling some of the country's actions against Palestinians as "war crimes".
One of his beliefs was that he should report events from the point of view of the victim rather than those in authority. The Times
newspaper, in its November 2020 obituary of Fisk, said that he had developed a "visceral dislike of the Israeli government and its allies" following his coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre
, alleging that this had made Fisk biased and "unable to provide a dispassionate account of events and their context". David Pryce-Jones
, writing in The Spectator
in 2003, said that Fisk was guilty of "hysteria and distortion" in his coverage of Middle Eastern topics. The Independent
, for whom he wrote between 1989 and his death, praised him as being "renowned for his courage in questioning official narratives from governments".
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
also praised him following his death and noted the controversy Fisk drew for his "sharp criticism of the US and Israel, and of Western foreign policy". Bowen described himself as an admirer who would miss Fisk's "guts and his appetite for the fight".
Fisk dismissed the controversy related to his reporting in Syria, saying that he was "writing only what he saw and heard".
His ex-wife Lara Marlowe
took exception to the frequent use of the adjective 'controversial' in obituaries: he was a prolific non-conformist in the world of journalism, whose judgments avoided jumping on the bandwagon and, in her experience, had been "intuitive, rapid, ... and invariably right".
Similarly, Patrick Cockburn
, responding to criticisms raised in obituaries said "Derring-do in times of war usually gets good notices from the press and from public opinion, but moral endurance is a much rarer commodity, when the plaudits are replaced by abuse, often from people who see a world divided between devils and angels and denounce anybody reporting less than angelic behaviour on the part of the latter for being secret sympathisers with the devil. Real journalism is a simple business, but exceptionally difficult to do well. Its purpose is to find out significant news as fast as possible, disregard all efforts by governments, armies and media to suppress it, and pass that information on to the public so they can better judge what is happening in the world around them. This is what Robert did and did it better than anybody else."
On journalism and politics
Fisk described himself as a pacifist
He said that journalism must "challenge authority, all authority, especially so when governments and politicians take us to war". He quoted, with approval, the words of Israeli journalist Amira Hass
: "There is a misconception that journalists can be objective. ... What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power."
In light of his earlier training as a journalist on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle
, he said "I had a suspicion that the language we were forced to write as trainee reporters all those years ago had somehow imprisoned us, that we had been schooled to mould the world and ourselves in clichés, that for the most part this would define our lives, destroy our anger and imagination, make us loyal to our betters, to governments, to authority. For some reason, I had become possessed of the belief that the blame for our failure as journalists to report the Middle East with any sense of moral passion or indignation lay in the way that we as journalists were trained."
In an interview with the BBC in 2005, he articulated this position further: "If you believe that victims should have more of a say than people who commit atrocities, then yes, I take a definite position. If reporters don't do that then they are out of their minds."
On coverage of foreign reporting, he observed in an interview with Harry Kreisler at the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley in 2006: "the French are very good at getting to the scene and reporting the reality. I know France doesn't have a very clean reputation in American politics at the moment but by goodness, they've got good journalists. You read a translation of Liberacion
], Le Monde – they've got it. I work a lot with French – I normally work on my own, but if I work with other reporters, I tend to report with Italians or the French because, my goodness, they get to the war front."
When he spoke on "Lies, Misreporting, and Catastrophe in the Middle East" at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley
on 22 September 2010, he stated, "I think it is the duty of a foreign correspondent to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer, whoever they may be."
He wrote at length on how many contemporary conflicts have their origins, in his view, in lines drawn on maps: "After the Allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland
and most of the Middle East
. And I have spent my entire career—in Belfast
, in Beirut
—watching the people within those borders burn."
For Remembrance Day
in 2011, Fisk wrote that his father "old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 "problem" – was a trashing of human life. In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. 'All I can tell you, fellah,' he said, 'was that it was a great waste.' And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy
. I asked him why, and he said that he didn't want to see 'so many damn fools' wearing it."
He returned to the subject in 2014, the standfirst summarised his experience "My family was haunted by my father's experience on the Somme and the loss of his friends. Why do we pay homage to the dead but ignore the lessons of their war?"
and in 2016 where he said "His example was one of great courage. He fought for his country and then, unafraid, he threw his poppy away. Television celebrities do not have to fight for their country – yet they do not even have the guts to break this fake conformity and toss their sordid poppies in the office waste paper bin."
Fisk married American-born journalist Lara Marlowe
in 1994. They divorced in 2006. They had no children.
At the time of his death, he was married to Nelofer Pazira
, an Afghan-Canadian journalist, author and human rights activist.
On settling down, he wrote in 2005: "I told the journalism students there [at City, University of London] that when I saw families walking happily in London or Paris, I wondered whether I had not missed out on life, that perhaps comparative safety and security with nothing more than the mortgage to worry about was preferable to the existence I had chosen for myself. A friend of my father's once said I had enjoyed the privilege of seeing things that no other man had seen. But after a flood of questions from students in Sydney about suffering in the Middle East, I began to wonder if my privilege had not also been my curse."
On 30 October 2020, Fisk died aged 74 at St Vincent's University Hospital
, Ireland, after a suspected stroke
The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins
reacted by saying "with his passing the world of journalism and informed commentary on the Middle East has lost one of its finest commentators" and the Taoiseach Micheál Martin
stated that "he was fearless and independent in his reporting, with a deeply researched understanding of the complexities of the Middle East, eastern history and politics". John Pilger
said "Robert Fisk has died. I pay warmest tribute to one of the last great reporters. The weasel word 'controversial' appears in even his own paper, The Independent
, whose pages he honoured. He went against the grain and told the truth, spectacularly. Journalism has lost the bravest."
said "So sad to hear of the death of Robert Fisk. A huge loss of brilliant man with unparalleled knowledge of history, politics and people of Middle East." Yanis Varoufakis
said "With Robert Fisk's passing we have lost a journalistic eye without which we shall be partially blind, a pen without which our capacity to express the truth is diminished, a soul without which our own empathy for victims of imperialism will be lacking." Christian Broughton
, the managing director of The Independent
, said "Fearless, uncompromising, determined and utterly committed to uncovering the truth and reality at all costs, Robert Fisk was the greatest journalist of his generation. The fire he lit at The Independent
will burn on."
For Harry Browne in Jacobin
: "Robert Fisk's voice was everywhere, and his ideas were vital in both creating and meeting that Irish urge for explanation."
The Irish Times
obituary read: "He used to explain his rejection of conventional journalistic detachment by saying: 'If you watch wars, the old ideas of journalism that you have to be neutral and take nobody's side is rubbish. As a journalist you have got to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer."
Former Chartered Institute of Journalists
president Liz Justice
wrote: "I knew him as a very detailed and knowledgeable journalist. My friend had to edit his work from 2,000 words to 400 and we have very different views involving eggshells and walking carefully. We both agree he will be missed."
Awards, honours and legacy
, in an interview with CounterPunch
, said "Fisk's departure from the region left a journalistic gap that has not been filled. It is important to appreciate that there are few war correspondents in the world that combine Fisk's reporting fearlessness with his interpretative depth, engaging writing style, and candid exposures of the foibles of the high and mighty."
His 2005 work, The Great War for Civilisation
, was critical of Western and Israeli approaches to the Middle East. Neal Ascherson
, for The Independent on Sunday
commented: "This is a very long book, allowing Fisk to interleave political analysis, recent history and his own adventures with the real stories which concern him. These are the sufferings of ordinary people under monstrous tyrannies or in criminal, avoidable wars".
In The Guardian
, a former British Ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles
, complained of "a deplorable number of mistakes" in the book's 1,366 pages which "undermine the reader's confidence", and that "vigilant editing and ruthless pruning could perhaps have made two or three good short books out of this one".
Fisk produced a three-part series titled From Beirut To Bosnia
in 1993 which Fisk said was an attempt "to find out why an increasing number of Muslims had come to hate the West".
Fisk said that the Discovery Channel
did not show a repeat of the films, after initially showing them in full, due to a letter campaign launched by pro-Israel groups such as CAMERA
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- ^ Fisk, Robert (25 August 2007). "Even I question the 'truth' about 9/11". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 27 August 2007. Retrieved 25 August 2007.
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- ^ Durodie, Bill (2008). Home-grown nihilism – the clash within civilisations (PDF). London: The Smith Institute. p. 125.
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- ^ a b Al Haj Saleh, Yassin; Allaf, Rime (14 September 2012). "Syria dispatches: Robert Fisk's independence". openDemocracy. Retrieved 2 January 2020.
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- ^ Fisk, Robert (1 January 2020). "The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor's doubts over the chemical attack". The Independent. Retrieved 2 January 2020.
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- ^ Stuff, Movie Review: Notes to Eternity, May 10, 2016  Retrieved 3 January 2021
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- ^ Pat and Samir Twair, Robert Fisk on Reporting "From the Viewpoint Of the Victim", Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2008. "A story should be told from the viewpoint of the victim whose blood is being spilled. During the time of the slave trade, I’d have interviewed the slaves, not the captain of the slave ship."
- ^ McKittrick, David (4 November 2020). "Robert Fisk: The outstanding and truth-telling journalist who ventured into danger". The Independent.
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