2006 Honorary Degree Recipient
Acclaimed British journalist Robert Fisk is one of ours. Although born in the United Kingdom and resident for many years in Ireland, since 1976 Robert Fisk has called Beirut home. The apartment building he inhabits on the Corniche is known locally as the "pink building," but more often simply as the "Fisk building." Described by The New York Times as "probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain" and by the New Zealand Press Association as "the world's most decorated foreign correspondent," Fisk has been filing stories on the area for many years. In February The Nation asserted, he also writes with "a command of his subject worthy of a historian." With a knack for going places off limits to other journalists and for talking to high profile individuals other reporters rarely see, Fisk has interviewed Osama bin Laden on three separate occasions, and the notorious Al-Qaeda leader even requested Fisk be granted a special visa for entry into Afghanistan when the US bombardment began in October 2001.
No friend of radio and television, Robert Fisk is a firm believer in the moral power of print journalism. For him the journalist must "challenge authority-all authority-especially so when governments and politicians take us to war." Only such tenacity will bring out the facts. He wrote, for example, "The more journalists challenge authority, the more military whistle blowers want to talk to them." His objectivity and unflinching criticism of both Arab leadership and the British and American governments have earned him many verbal attacks, frequent violent hate letters, and even threats on his life. Covering both Iraq wars in the front lines, he has also been sharply critical of his colleagues' "hotel reporting" and of the ease with which journalists can, unlike Iraqi civilians, report bombardments and missile attacks but then escape the violence at any time on a "Business Class airticket."
Born in Maidstone, Kent in 1946, Fisk earned a BA in literature and classics from Lancaster University and a PhD in 1985 in political science from Trinity College, Dublin. For The Times of London, Fisk was Belfast correspondent (1972-75), correspondent in Portugal after the 1974 revolution, and Middle East correspondent from 1976 to 1988. In 1989 he moved to his current position as correspondent for The Independent. In these positions he has covered events in the Middle East broadly: the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), events in Algeria (from 1994), the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Lebanese civil war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing occupation. He has been in the midst of conflict in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. When he was attacked by refugees in Afghanistan, his story, sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, won from the Wall Street Journal, a decidedly unsympathetic editorial sub-titled, "A Self-Loathing Multiculturalist Gets His Due."
Numerous awards and praises have offset the vituperative criticism of the conservatives. He won Amnesty International United Kingdom press awards in 1990 and 2000 for his reporting on Algeria and on the 1999 NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia. He was seven times British Press's International Journalist of the Year and twice its Reporter of the Year. He has been awarded honorary degrees by his own Lancaster University, by the Open University in the United Kingdom, by St. Andrews University in Scotland, and in July he will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree from Queens University in Belfast.
A popular public speaker, he has several times criss-crossed the United States and Canada, lecturing, mainly on university campuses-recently at Carleton University in Canada and in New York City. In early June he spent a week lecturing in Canada. His lectures inevitably draw large crowds of both supporters and protestors. Some years ago in Nicely Hall he held a crowd of students overflowing onto the floor of a seminar room for almost three hours as he depicted in horrifying detail the effects of depleted uranium on civilian populations in Bosnia and Iraq.
Fisk's belief in the moral integrity of journalism, the hypocrisy of western governments, and his perception of the injustice of United States and British attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict make for lively and confrontational reading. At home in the midst of violence and bloodshed, Fisk paints vivid, unconventional, and sometimes literary images of the reality of war. During the retreat of Saddam's forces from Kuwait in 1991: "a tattered cheap bouquet of artificial roses, bleached white by the sun, thrash[ing] in the wind, still fixed to a rusting metal pipe. . .mark[ed] the last resting place of Saddam's legions"-above two bulldozed burial mounds. Numerous literary allusions and comparison of present conflicts with earlier incursions into the Middle East mark his latest work, The Great War for Civilisation, a long and vivid chronicle of events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. His reports are often painfully intimate: he takes his readers into the midst of bombardments, into the reporters' Baghdad retreat, the Palestine Hotel; into the cockpits of aircraft, inside an overheated tank. He invites his readers to interviews with Osama Bin Laden and Jordan's King Hussein. He describes one young sergeant's refusal of a diplomat's order to send helpless refugees back to the killing fields of Iraq. At Secretary of State Colin Powell's last UN speech before the invasion of Iraq, he catches human details missed by television. He tells it "like it is" with "brutal honesty" in "pugnacious columns." His judgments and language are designed, with persistent irony, to irritate: Saddam, he wrote, "made an allegation of some merit" when he accused the UN of being "a mere satrapy of the United States." His language is vivid and critical. During the explosion of "dangerous rhetoric leading to war," Jerry Falwell was "one of the pitbulls of the religious right." Fisk asks if Prime Minister Tony Blair really thought "Britons would be cheer-led to war."
In addition to numerous articles and editorials in The Times, The Independent, and other newspapers and journals, Robert Fisk has also published several book-length works: The Point of No Return: the Strike which Broke the British in Ulster (1975), In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-1945 (1983, 1996), Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (1990, 2001) , and, most recently, the widely published Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East (2005). Already available in Beirut in both French and English, the book will appear in Arabic in August.