Long time Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk knows the difference between real terror and rhetoric. He’s interviewed Osama Bin Laden 3 times, and been on the front lines with numerous armies – from the Syrians to the Israelis.
On this edition, Robert Fisk speaks about the power of words in shaping public opinion and public policy, and the tragic consequences of a press corps that doesn’t question the official line.
Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent
Contributing Producers: Karl Jagbandhansingh and Marie Choi
Unedited version of Robert Fisk, speaking on “Lies, Misreporting, and Catastrophe in the Middle East,” at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, September 22, 2010:
For more information:
Made in America: A Lethal Weapon’s Return Policy
by Robert Fisk
Fareeq el Atrash–tzakkar hal iyyem
Fareeq el Atrash– Min L’Sheri3 Bjawhara
Fareeq el Atrash –nammi fikrak
STELZER: This week on Making Contact….
Fisk: Power and terror have become interchangeable and we journalists have let this happen.
STELZER: Long-time Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk knows the difference between real terror and rhetoric. He’s interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times and has been on the frontlines with numerous armies, from the Syrians to the Israelis.
Fisk: There is at the moment no sign of hope in the Middle East. I don’t think there is enough land left for a Palestinian state.
STELZER: On this edition, Robert Fisk speaks about the power of words in shaping public opinion and public policy and the tragic consequences of a press core that doesn’t question the official line. I’m Andrew Stelzer and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.
(Instrumental break and pause)
Fisk: I want to talk to you and I hope we’ll be able to talk on a subject that worries me most about the Middle East and that at the moment is the subject of words and our use of words. I was very struck during the, I know it’s been called the Turkish flotilla, flotilla of course is a naval convoy, the Turkish attempt to break the siege of Gaza because the semantics of reporting it were very interesting – the way in which the words changed.
And I was sitting in Beirut, we have a correspondent in Jerusalem, Mike Paper, a friend of mine who was covering it on the ground, and I took a note of how the phrases moved. They went like this, “Islamic Terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, Activist terror, War on Terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror. Anti-semitic terror. But I’m doing an injustice to the journalists who reported this, and to the Israelis and to your own administration. The lexicon is this: terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. You’re getting it aren’t you? Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. I have it written down here 60 times, but you know the rest. We are in love with the word, we are seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, and committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double vowel word. The opening of every television symphony, the primetime theme song, the headline of every page. A punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop- terror terror terror terror terror. Each repetition justifies its predecessor, it is self perpetuating, each terror giving birth to a new baby terror. In the arms of father terror, a terror attack followed by a terror alert followed by the prison of terror in which we all of course live and yet further terror, terror terror terror terror, terror most of all its about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable, and we journalists have let this happen.
Our language has become not just a debased ally, but a full verbal partner in the language of governments and armies and generals and weapons makers. Power and the media are not just about cozy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic, osmotic relationship between supposedly honorable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House, State Department, Pentagon, Downing Street, Ministry of Defense, and London, the foreign office and of course America and Israel. In the Western context, power and the media is about words and the use of words. It is about semantics, it’s about the employment of phrases and clauses and their origins. And it’s of course about the misuse of history and about our ignorance of history. More and more today we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. And for two decades now, the US and British and Israeli and Palestinian leaderships – they’ve been using the same kinds of words “Peace Process”.
Do you remember when the “peace process” began? I think it was 1978, at a press conference I had attended in Beirut with Cyrus Vance, who would I think have been your Secretary of State at the time. And you see, even the phrase peace process is a lie, because a process is something that proceeds and the peace process has never proceeded anywhere. But you see, we use the words peace process, it’s become part of the language, the grammar of television reports, Fox News, CNN, New York Times, and on you go. Poor old Oslo I often say, to be named after a peace process. And you can see what happens in this process, you see when it doesn’t work, we’ve got a new cliché, you’ll all know it. It is “put back on track.” Over and over again, the peace process was put back on track until it was a miniature train, a toy train, of course I love them and it was being put on the railway line again and then in the end people got bored, so it became a road map. And our own beloved Tony Blair became involved in it, then he voted the road map. We couldn’t put the road map back on track, so we talked about issues, which is your word for problems. And then we abandoned it again and 3 months ago on CNN, I was listening to it, referred to the peace process being put back on track.
You see, there is no peace process, it is a total failure. What Oslo introduced was a totally unjust idea whereby all the most important issues, settlements, right of return Jerusalem, had to be postponed to the very end of the process, when of course there wasn’t enough time to deal with them. And anyone, who suggested during the process that we do discuss these important issues, was told “no, you’ll make the peace process go off the track if you introduce it now.” So the language took us along on this false expedition to this quote, peace, unquote.
Look at today in Afghanistan. We’re regurgitating the same language, over and over again I’ve read, in your newspapers more than ours, “we have to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans”. Bloody hell, this was a phrase that came from Vietnam. We’re gonna win, you were gonna win, fortunately Howard Wilson kept us away, Mr. Blair would not have done so. You were gonna win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and you lost them and you lost the bloody war. And now we’re using the very same words, partly I suspect because the young American officers in Vietnam are now generals in Afghanistan. They know what hearts and minds means, it doesn’t mean anything actually. But it’s the phrase, the use of the phrase. Look how we use the word spike, it’s become an – it started I remember in another press conference I had the enjoyment of attending in the Green Zone in Baghdad in 2004. It was a man called the General Brigadier Kimmitt, who talked about, we have a spike in violence right, a spike, I hadn’t heard this before. But all the journalists used it, its all of four letters, it’s very easy to put it in the headlines. And what does a spike do, well it goes up one side and then it goes down you see. What he meant of course, was an increase in violence, a word that does not carry the conditional, the guarantee of a decrease afterwards. But we use spike in violence, or an uptick, an uptick in violence and then we have the surge which saved us in Iraq. Which is why we’ve only got 50,000 noncombat troops left there who have already been in combat 5 times since they were noncombat soldiers.
A surge has this unstoppable quality, like a tsunami, a natural tide, unstoppable, you’re going to win. But what a surge means – we’re now going to have this in Afghanistan. It means reinforcements and you call for reinforcements when you’re losing, not when you’re winning. Remember the battle of Kandahar, we were told in the early spring, a surge was coming. There would be a battle of Kandahar. And it never happened, we had the battle of Mazar, only Mazar turns out it didn’t really exist. And then in the late spring we were gonna have the battle of Kandahar in the British press last week, I realized that the battle of Kandahar is about to begin on September the twenty something. I don’t think there’s gonna be a battle of Kandahar, I don’t believe in it, in fact I don’t believe in any of these wars. I think there’s a kind of fantasy, which we use words to keep at bay. I’m absolutely amazed at the way in which we as journalists have failed you by the way we parrot the language of power back to you. We’re always wanting to talk about competing narratives in the Middle East.
It won’t be a secret if I tell you that, a long time ago, a British university asked me if I wanted to have some job as a sort of professor of journalism and peace and I said “what is this all about?” “It’s about competing narratives, it’s a competition in which no one is occupied and no one does the occupying, its just two people on a level playing field having an argument,” and I realized very quickly what would happen. We would get a bunch of poor old Israelis here, and a bunch of poor old Palestinians here and they would rage at each other and my job would be to say “Oh hold on, I think we have some common ground.”
(laughter from audience, pause)
Look at the other words, you know, we have a fence or a security barrier. The East German phrase for the Berlin wall, instead of saying the wall, which I was there a few weeks ago, it’s higher than the Berlin wall, it’s longer than the Berlin wall but it’s a barrier. And instead of occupied territories, it’s disputed territories and so on and so forth. I mean we can talk on this later, I don’t think there’s gonna be a Palestinian state, I think there will be a one state solution and I fear it will be one state only, and it’s gonna be called Israel, and the Palestinians in area C, we’re going to talk about area C, it’s part of the Oslo agreement. Area C is sixty-two percent of the West Bank and it’s gone because it’s under total Israeli occupation, settlements are continuing there – and when I went to one Palestinian village they were not permitted by Israeli law to dig more than 3 inches into the ground, which is why they had huge concrete blocks to put the power lines in because they couldn’t dig a hole in the ground for the power lines. It’s gone.
In fact, I think that real figures and real words, I think Mahmoud Abbas is negotiating, if he is negotiating, for about 10.9 percent of what was mandate Palestine. At the time of the Gaza siege, indeed at the time of the Turkish convoy, siege breaker, flotilla, call it what you like. What was very interesting was that you know, there was a very good precedent for what we might have done over Gaza in a different place and in a different time. It involved a people who were surrounded and starving, they were surrounded by a fence and a very brutal army and we Americans and British, our servicemen risked their lives and sometimes died to save those people, whom only 3 years earlier we had been fighting. We saw them as terrorists 3 years earlier, but we dropped supplies to them, we flew into their enclave, their ghetto, to feed them and protect them from the brutal army around them and it was called the Berlin Airlift and yet not once have I ever seen a report on television, radio, not even on Al Jazeera and I dared them to try it – mention that there was a parallel. If we could do the Berlin airlift for the people of Berlin, why couldn’t we do a Gaza airlift for the people of Gaza? We all know the reasons, we all know the reasons why not. But our failure to point out that there was a precedent is part of the way in which we have succumbed to the language, the spikes, the surges, the peace process, the dispute or the occupation and so on, so forth and I have increasingly felt in recent years and I’ve been in the Middle East for more than 3 decades, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I know a lot, I know less each day, of course, but I believe now in fact that American policy can’t be fixed.
My belief is that militarily, not in any other way, but militarily, we must leave the Muslim world. It is not our land, they are not our people, we do not own that land. Bu all means, by all means, send our teachers, send our hydrolic engineers, send our social workers, anything if they’re invited but no more soldiers and M1 , A1 tanks and swords and horses and apache helicopters and Bradley fighting armored vehicles. And I think that for the same reasons, I also believe – and I had a long conversation again the other day with Amira Hass, who’s a friend of mine, a very fine Israeli journalist, who most of you will know and read and if you don’t you should. It’s a woman who’s infinitely braver in her reporting of the brutal circumstances of the Israelis in her columns in Ha’aretz, than any American journalist is in reporting from the Middle East.
We were talking again about what the job of a foreign correspondent is and I was recalling that when I was at my first newspaper in Newcastle upon Thyne – there they taught us 50/50 journalism. You’re covering a football match Spartans against Gateshead United so half your report has to be for Spartans and then you write about what Gateshead United did. Similarly a local authority inquiry into building a new freeway, you know you report the local authority’s needs to have this wonderful new highway for the public good and then you report the protesters and why they can’t drive this highway through rivers, lakes and forests – 50/50 journalism. I’m afraid that what’s happened is that we’ve taken this false idea of neutrality into the Middle East- like journalism school ME, Middle East and we’re trying to report the Middle East as if it’s a football match, when in fact it’s a bloody tragedy.
And I often make the point to my colleagues in the Middle East, if we were reporting the slave trade, if we could in the 18th century, we wouldn’t have given half our story to the slave ship captain – we would have reported to slaves and recorded the number of slaves thrown aboard in the voyage from Africa to America. If we were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, we wouldn’t give half our report to the Nazi reasons for hating the people they had murdered. When I was in Sabra-Shatila in 1982, climbing physically over decaying corpses, I didn’t give half my story over to the reasons why the Israelis watched and did nothing, I gave my story over to the survivors and wrote about the dead. When I was in Jerusalem August of 2001, and a bomb went off, suicide bomber, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in the Sbarro Pizzeria – killed 16 Israelis, more than half of them children – I did not give half my story to the Islamic Jihad spokesman because I think 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…. But I have to finish by saying my little rant now that I don’t think you’re going to get any different reporting, I think we’re still going to go on hearing about the barrier, the disputed land, the peace process, the road map, keep the fence around the Palestinians, key players – that’s another phrase – key players, and we’ll be reminded all the time of what this is about: terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.
STELZER: You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for CD copies of this program please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows or get our podcasts, go to radioproject.org.
STELZER: Now we’ll hear more excerpts from Robert Fisk, speaking on September 22, 2010, in Berkeley, California.
Fisk: Empires historically must project power in order to survive and the only way in which empires can project power is by threatening states outside the empire or by going in and invading them. Journalists are part of the projection of power. It’s very exciting to actually advance with an army. I’ve advanced with all kinds of armies, many of them extremely unpleasant and gruesome. I’ve advanced with the Iranian army, I’ve advanced with the Iraqi army, I’ve advanced with the Syrian army and I’ve retreated with the whole bloody lot. It’s my problem in journalism, or issue in America, that I’m always in Stalingrads with the people I choose to be with. I actually was with the Israelis several times in Lebanon. They retreated too. So the Fisk curse affects all armies, you see. But I think that when you see these things, especially if you’re embedded, you become part of the empire, you become part of this projection of power. It’s exciting. It’s a historic moment. We called the Oslo agreement that. But there you go. And suddenly, you start reporting. Well I’ll fill this hour – our leading tanks, our leading tanks are just approaching Baghdad, we’re on the Tigres River, there’s been some collateral damage, we’ve seen some terrible things, etc.
Collateral damage, another word, right, which has seeped in. And we use it without quotation marks for God’s sakes. We mean, civilians we killed as opposed to innocent civilians who are ruthlessly murdered by our enemies. These are collateral, so it didn’t hurt as much when we blew them to bits, you see. And I think that what happens is that because we have the same nationalities as the armies, you feel with them, you see that they’re young, they’re handsome, they’re heroic, all the things you’ve seen on the telly. Hollywood comes into it, television movies, and so we can become part of the war. And we’re dressed in military costumes some of us. When I say that to journalists, they hate it because they want to call them uniforms you see. They’re not. They’re costumes. They’re taking part in the theater, like all the soldiers are. And it’s this inability to stay even three steps back and say hang on, what is this tragedy I’m involved in? Because it’s always a tragedy. If you saw what I saw, if you had anybody here who believed it was right to go to war and saw what I see, you would never think that again. You know, dead bodies of civilians in bits. Dogs coming in to feed off of them. Carry off a leg over the desert to chew on, it’s, you know, lunch time for the dogs of the desert in [Serra?].
And that’s how we respond you see. We fail because we can’t take the historical step, not historic, but historical step, of saying what the hell is going on here? What are we doing in Iraq? Somebody in Washington says we can change the world, we can go to Baghdad, our armies can travel across [Somarra?] where civilization first began. And then you get the music and the letters in gold typing and then you’re back on CNN. You don’t need to censor the press. It’ll censor itself. The journalists will do it. In many cases, again, I’m not trying to be cruel to my colleagues, not that I could be because as I say, many of them are trying to do what I’m trying to do. This is not Bob standing up like a light in the darkness. There’s lots of lights around and we’re all struggling for the same thing. But the vast sort of the nexus of television journalism, frontmen, TV, you know, “Here in Baghdad. Etc. etc. etc.”
I had a very sobering experience during the 2006 Hezbollah Israel war. ’Cause day after day, not every day, but day after day I was travelling down by road to Southern Lebanon from Beirut where at least I could sleep in my own bed at night even if it was a bit noisy overhead. And of course we were under sporadic Israeli air attack because they were obviously attacking all of the terrorist cars on the road including our terrorist car if they could. I was reporting for the Independent in London and my words were being used exactly as I wrote them, and I am very fortunate. I have a very good brave strong editor who is a friend of mine and I’ve got a publishing company that backs me. And it’s great. So I’m, you know, you can be as brave or courageous as you want as a journalist, but if your editor doesn’t back you, you might as well become, you can run a fruit concession or a bathroom or whatever you want.
But what was particularly harrowing in a way for me was, in the afternoons when we were coming back, you see the time between Beirut and the East Coast of America is seven hours, so on the way back at about 4pm Beirut time, my American colleague, good friend of mine, fluent Arabist, has been a friend since 1976 when I first met him when I went to Lebanon, would be in the back of the car calling his news desk in the United States and the conversation truly went like this: “What was the headline of the story yesterday? This morning, right, yesterday’s story. Yeah. But that’s not what I said in the second paragraph. But I didn’t write that. Well what did you put a Jerusalem paragraph in the second paragraph…” they wanted balance you see. “Yeah, but surely the story yesterday was about the civilians who were killed in Southern Lebanon.” Bingo. And it went on every day like this. And of course the desk would be arguing, well, you know, you have one side of the story there was another side. I know you saw this but the Israelis denied it.
Had a wonderful scene years and years ago, in 1985, when an AP reporter and photographer went from Beirut to Sidon, Sidon was then under Israeli occupation, the Israeli army had already withdrawn from Beirut, and they witnessed a crowd of protesting Palestinian women outside or on the edge of the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp and an Israeli soldier stepped forward and aimed at a rather large Palestinian woman and shot her in the stomach. And she died. On the road. And there’s a picture, you can see the guy with spectacles on, he’s clearly identifiable. And there’s a picture of the woman laying on the road. And the reporter and the photographer, Paolo was the photographer, came back to Beirut and sent their story. And New York’s, AP’s bureau in New York which is the head office, came back on the TelEx, we didn’t have mobile phones in those days it was all TelExing. How many people here remember the TelEx machine? You’re all old like me. Anyway, up came the automatic TelEx back. You can’t run this until we’ve got the Israeli side of the story. And the Bureau Chief, Nick Tatris said, but we were there, we’ve got the pictures, that’s the story. But you see, it was so clear cut that there must be another side. In the end, the Israelis denied the story in paragraph two and it fell off the lead. Of course it did. It was a suspect story, it was a bit controversial.
Fisk: The question I ask, and I’m not an activist I’m a journalist, but I ask this question at press conferences in the Middle East. Is why Arab families by nature they are generally Arab, sometimes they’re Christian, sometimes they’re Muslim, whose families have been torn apart literally by American weapons used by the Israelis do not or are not encouraged by people in this audience for example, to sue the American weapons makers whose missiles and rockets tear their families apart literally.
One of the things I do because doing my job you become a weapons expert. There’s nothing I can’t tell you about the air to ground AGM 114C missile, except that it was made in Duluth, Georgia, and is now made in Florida, and I found the computer plates of these in lots of places in Lebanon. An ambulance was attacked with a missile in 1996 just behind me. Three children, two women dead. And a UN Swedish intelligence officer and myself got all the bits of the plates of the missile from the bodies in some cases, and got them all to the United States, complete with fins, engine code, and the lot, in bits of course, it had exploded, and took it to the Boeing manufacturer. And we had the developer of the missile at the table – they thought they were going to use me to advertise this wonderful missile, one of them said that it can be fired from three miles away and go through a baseball hoop, which means the ambulance had no chance, you see. And they became extremely nervous, exploded louder than the original missile did, almost, because I put the bits of the missile down on the table – at first they denied it was a Hellfire missile – and then I turned to the PR man of Boeing and said, “That’s a lie, you know it’s a 114C.” And he said, “Yeah, it is.” And then I put the pictures of the dead and wounded women and children on the table, and they were profoundly shocked. And the first thing they wanted to know is, is this about a legal action?
What was particularly interesting about this missile, in case you think the story is innocent – or easy, easy I meant – is that my assumption that it had been sold to the Israelis. After I wrote the story – it was on the front cover of our magazine, “Return to Sender”, not a single American newspaper followed it up – a missile manufacturer in France rang me up and said that it was sold to the US Marine Corps, not to the Israelis. And I rushed back to Washington – great for frequent flyer points, you know – and I went to see the Marine Corps officers just outside of Washington. They agreed, they were worried about this, because it said “01”, which is the NATO coding for American missiles, and then it said “M”, which is Marines. And then it turned out that this missile had been sold to the US Marine Corps by Boeing Lockheed. It had been taken to Saudi Arabia to be used against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in 1991. It had not been used.
350 of the 700 batch of the 114C were not used, and then the Marines were ordered to put the remaining missiles unused ashore at the Haifa munitions pier, as part of an arms agreement with Israel, which was not advertised, to say thank you to Israel for not joining in the Gulf War at that time against Saddam Hussein. So this missile started off in Duluth, Georgia, went to the US Marine Corps, was taken to Saudi Arabia, up to Kuwait, back to Saudi Arabia, on to Haifa, and was fired at the ambulance behind me, 10 years after it was made. But what was particularly interesting was that when I rang Lockheed up, they said, “What are you ringing me for? It’s like asking a person who makes a knife, is he responsible for a guy who gets killed by the same knife years later.”
The answer is no, but if you sold a machine gun to a man you know is going to misuse it, you would be in court. So my point is, I don’t think – if you’re interested in doing this kind of thing, I don’t think that sanctions, which can catch Israelis who in many ways would support the things you say, it’s going to catch them too, particularly on the academic grounds. I think that a much more serious issue is to ask you why Arabs do not – or why you don’t encourage Arabs who have suffered physical pain to their families to go to the source of the weapons that kill them and wound them. I’m not advocating it, I’m asking you why you don’t. And I told you the little story about the anxiety of your largest missile manufacturers when I put the question directly to them with photographs of blood.
STELZER: That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. You’ve been listening to excerpts from a speech by Robert Fisk in September 2010 in Berkeley, California. To listen to a full-length, unedited version of his talk, go to our website, radioproject.org. Special thanks to Karl Jagbandhansingh, Marie Choi, and Andrew Bevington for helping to produce this show. For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800 529-5736, or check out our website at radioproject.org to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Lisa Rudman is our Executive Director; Pauline Bartolone, Producer and Online Editor; Khanh Pham, Associate Director; Karl Jagbandhansingh, Volunteer Coordinator; Daphne Young, Station Relations; Rachel Koslovski is our Production Intern, and Dan Turner, Ron Rucker, Alton Bird, Andrew Bevington, and Marie Choi, volunteers. And I’m Andrew Stelzer, thanks for listening to Making Contact.