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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 December 2005, 09:19 GMT
Viewpoint: UK war reporter Robert Fisk
Robert Fisk
Robert Fisk has interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times
Robert Fisk, one of the leading British war correspondents of his generation, is a controversial figure.

An author and Middle East correspondent for the UK's Independent newspaper, Fisk's impassioned, some would say polemical, reporting of conflicts in the region has drawn both praise and criticism.

He has won the British International Journalist of the year award seven times and reported from the region for nearly 30 years.

The BBC News website spoke to Robert Fisk about Iraq, reporting conflicts and his encounters with Osama Bin Laden as he promoted his latest book, The Great War for Civilisation - the conquest of the Middle East.

BBC: You've said that your next visit to Iraq may be your last - why?

Robert Fisk: Iraq is becoming so dangerous for journalists now that I and my colleagues ask ourselves if the risk is worth the story.

Having said that, I probably will keep going back.

I've never been on an assignment that is as dangerous as Iraq on a personal basis and we've reached a point in the Iraq story that our access to real sources - not the Americans and the British and the Iraqi government but real people - is so restricted that we can only just about do our jobs.

You've been critical of what you describe as "hotel reporting" from Iraq. What should news organisations be doing that they are not?

The first thing they should do is say to their readers or viewers that they are confined to their hotels and don't leave and don't do any street reporting.

By using a Baghdad dateline they give the impression they can check stories that they can't.

So for example, when the Americans claim they killed 142 "terrorists" in Tal Afar, the impression is given they can check the story out, but they can't because they can't go there.

The reality is they are merely being an echo chamber for various spokesmen, officials and generals - there is nothing wrong with that, but just tell the people at the other end of the story the circumstances of your own reporting.

Do you think that the passing of the constitution in Iraq in a referendum will have an impact on the level of violence there?

Not really. Most Iraqis are just trying to survive. They have no electricity and very little money to pay for fuel. They are desperate to protect their families, womenfolk and children from being kidnapped for money.

They are frightened of the suicide bombers that sometimes seem to attack at the rate of five or six times a day.

Iraq is in a state of total anarchy from Mosul all the way down to Basra.

There are armed insurgents on the streets within half a mile of the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the US and UK embassies are. The whole American project in Iraq is effectively dead.

When you are there you realise it but when you emerge from this bubble of anarchy and watch television in Britain or America you can be persuaded it's going fine.

It's not going fine - it's a disaster.

Can you tell us about your impressions of Osama Bin Laden from your meetings with him?

He's a man of ferocious self-conviction who became more and more vain as the years went by - but also a person who thinks before he speaks.

Bin Laden will sit back and clean his teeth with a piece of miswack wood while he thinks for up to a minute about what his answer to your question should be.

His interests have changed as the years have gone by.

When I first met him in 1993 he was obsessed with the victory he and his mujahideen had gained over the Soviet army.

In 1996 he was obsessed by what he called the corruption of the Saudi royal family.

In 1997 he was obsessed by the American presence throughout the Arab world. That was probably still obsessing him on 11 September 2001 but I haven't seen him since then.

He was a very self-conscious and self-confident man but with a ferocious desire to rule or participate in an Islamic caliphate in which the laws would truly be Koranic where I don't think there would be a lot of women's rights.

Did you get any sense at your last meeting that his organisation was capable of carrying out the 9-11 attacks?

No. But he did say to me that he prayed that God would allow al-Qaeda to turn America into a shadow of its former self.

At the time I thought it was just rhetoric but when I saw the almost biblical pictures on the evening of 11 September I did think that New York was a shadow of its former self.

In your latest book, you say that Bin Laden hinted that he wanted you to work for al-Qaeda - and you turned him down. What do you think he wanted?

I've no idea. It was at the third meeting and when I arrived in his tent and he came over to me with a big smile which I didn't like and said: "One of our brothers had a dream that you arrived on a horse dressed as a Muslim Imam and wearing a turban - this means you are a true Muslim."

I felt at once that he was trying to make a recruit of me and that he thought that because I was a fair reporter that he would be able to bring me across to his side.

I was quite horrified by this and tried to think how best to reply, because after all I was surrounded by al-Qaeda people.

What I said was: "I am not a Muslim. I am a journalist and my job is to tell the truth."

He realised I was rejecting him and said: "But that is the same as being a good Muslim."

I breathed a big sigh of relief.

What is the nature of the conflict between the West and the Muslim world? Is it a clash of civilisations or are we exaggerating the real appeal of a small number of extremists?

I've never come across this famous "clash of civilisations" and I think it's a myth.

I live in the Muslim world and among Muslims. My landlord is a Muslim, my grocer is a Muslim and I think the idea is nonsense.

One of the themes of your reflections on the Middle East seems to be the cyclical nature of history and political leaders repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. Could you expand on this?

Yes, my latest book is called The Great War for Civilisation after the inscription on the back of my father's World War I medal.

After WWI the British and French created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and the Middle East.

I've spent my entire professional career watching the people within those borders burn.

For me it's all about linking history with the present.

Oddly enough, that's true of Bin Laden as well, he talks about the Balfour declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement and the loss of Andalusia to the Christians in the 15th Century.

It seems that in many ways, history haunts us and maybe we should all carry a history book in our back pockets.

Do you think the internet and blogging will change the way conflicts are reported?

I've no idea - I don't use the internet and don't use emails so I've no idea.

Why did you choose to become a foreign correspondent?

At age of 12 after seeing the Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent in which a reporter called Humphrey Haverstock goes to Europe to cover the outbreak of the WWII.

He witnesses an assassination, chases spies, gets shot down by a German battleship, files a scoop and wins the most gorgeous woman in the movie - I thought that sounded pretty good.

It didn't turn out to be that adventurous, exciting or romantic for me in the Middle East.

It turned out in my case in the Middle East to be a job of recording the injustices, torture, dictators and wars that have plagued the region.

You take a definite position in your reporting - something many correspondents say they don't do.

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.

If you are covering the liberation of extermination camps at the end of WWII do you give equal time to the SS? No - you speak to the victims.

Equally, when I was reporting the Palestinian suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria in 2001 in which 22 Israelis were killed - over half of them children - I reported the atrocity that had taken place. I didn't give equal time to the Hamas spokesman.

This idea that you must balance out a story by talking to the oppressors on an equal basis with the victims is ridiculous.

If you are a baker or a bus driver and you see something terrible then you feel angry about it.

I, as a journalist, also have the right to feel angry and talk about it with anger - and that's what I do.

Your comments:

How come Robert Fisk has not written a word about the victims of the atrocities and beheadings committed by "Insurgents" in Iraq. While, quite rightly, can write in graphical details how an Iraqi family were shot at by American solders? His claim "If you believe that victims should have more of a say than people who commit atrocities" rings hallow.
Nabard Mohieden, Dublin, Ireland

It is very strange that Robert Fisk does not know that that it is impossible for Bin Laden or any other Moslem Leader ... to Lie in a dream .. No way he can do that.. If Mr. Fisk does not know that .. It is a sure sign how the western world does not understand the Islamic culture ... I believe that such a lack of knowledge is widening as the 2 worlds are getting closer.
Ahmed Eldemellawy, Croydon, UK

I like the things you've said, they seem very fair. The only thing that sounds slightly hypocritical is - You say the only way to get information in Iraq is via the Americans. This you do. The last paragraph of your interview doesn't seem right, given this. Take care.
Matt Trousdale, Harrogate, England

I think he reflects on the truth like most of us in the Arab world. So why can't the politicians in the West see it as it is. they have better view of the facts and more resources than any journalist. Well done Robert for telling the truth as it is this is the only way we can dare to say we will get it better
Ahmad Hmoud, Jordan and UK

Through this interview Fisk demonstrates just what a fair-minded journalist he really is; uncowed by the terrible personal danger to his life to report the atrocious truth of Western imperialism and Islamist terrorism both of which hang over the Middle East like a permanent curse.
Usman Ahmedani, London, UK

Once again Fisk shows us that you can be fair whilst 'taking sides'. If only all reporters had the guts and integrity to see what's in front of them and report things as they are.
Omar Aysha, Sheffield, UK

I had the chance to attend lectures by Fisk, and was truly at awe of the vivid descriptions he provides on far away conflicts and victims of those conflicts. This world lacks journalists that are as gutsy and moving as Mr. Fisk, and commend his Editor for supporting him all these years. Reading his new book, I wish political leaders who are involved in conflicts in the Middle East would also carry a history book in their pocket.
Etienne, Austria

I respect Fisk as being one of the few reporters who demonstrate a rare journalistic flare based on passionate emotions and opinion rather than conform to over-zealous standards of unbiasedness that lead to diluted, dispassionate coverage of events. His stories always offer fresh new insights.
Ala'a Al-shehabi, London, UK

Having spent the first 20 years of my life being brought up in the Middle East and a further 22 serving in the British armed forces and seeing some of the events that Mr Fisk has reported on, I believe he is about the only man that really tells is as it is without taking a side other than that of the poor people that get caught up in the middle. As he says in his interview, a history book should be required reading for the Bush and Blair governments. If the British found it hard to control Iraq in the 20's and 30's with 100,000+ troops and a population then of some 3 million, what chance have the Americans with the same troop levels and a population of 30 Million+?
John MacLeod, Oban Scotland

Robert Fisk remarks about Osama Bin Laden that he had "a ferocious desire to rule or participate in an Islamic caliphate in which the laws would truly be Koranic where I don't think there would be a lot of women's rights." As a man who likes to speak so passionately and emotionally about injustice -- current or potential -- can Fisk not find a better way of describing women within a Koranic Caliphate than the above? No need for tongue-in-cheek here, old Robert - tell us what you really think. We have the most striking evidence of extreme and constant violation of the rights of half of our world's population -- women -- to live freely, and without threat, throughout the Islamic world: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Darfur, etc. How can Fisk minimize that which would take the existing repressive theocracies of the Muslim world, and turn them "white hot" (to use one of his expressions) for women? The problem with journalists, like Fisk, is that they look right past the cruellest injustice in the world -- the maltreatment of women -- and ask which man is being repressed by what other man.
J Ray, Canada

Thank God for people like Mr. Fisk and news outlets like yourself and other independent ones that we have some hope of seeing and learning the reality on the ground. Leaving it to the "elitist" club of anchors and chief correspondents of the corporate media such as in US would tantamount to learning our past and present from Hollywood! What we need is more Robert Fisks.
Mohammad Ahmad, Ijamsville, MD, USA

Here is a man after my own heart, a concise journalist who understands the big picture. One gets the human element in his writings and a sense of universal justice.
Philip Stevens, Roatan, Honduras

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