Senior Middle East writer for The Guardian attacks Robert Fisk’s “comedy of errors”

October 27, 2013

* Questions remain to be asked why Robert Fisk, above, keeps on winning awards for his journalism.



[Note by Tom Gross]

I have on many occasions over the years pointed out the shortcomings of the Middle East reporting of Robert Fisk, most recently in item 8 in this dispatch last week.

As I wrote last week, Fisk has often been accused of making things up to slur Israel and indeed in the 1980s was forced out of his previous position as Middle East Correspondent for The Times of London for doing so. In spite of this, Fisk holds more British and International Journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. His fellow British journalists have voted him “International Journalist of the Year” on seven occasions. Most of these awards have been given even after he left The Times.

Yesterday, Brian Whitaker, who has been a senior writer on Middle East affairs for The Guardian for over a quarter of a century, and for many years was The Guardian’s Middle East editor, wrote a devastating critique of Fisk on the leading Arabic website Al Bab, attached below.

For those who don’t know, The Guardian and The Independent are two of the most prominent platforms for anti-Israeli and anti-American reporting in the world. It is highly unusual for a senior journalist at one of these papers to attack a senior journalist at the other.


Robert Fisk’s comedy of errors
By Brian Whitaker
Al Bab
Saturday, 26 October 2013

Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent, once offered this advice to would-be journalists:

“If you want to be a reporter you must establish a relationship with an editor in which he will let you write – he must trust you and you must make sure you make no mistakes.”

It was good advice, though perhaps more a case of “do as I say” than “do as I do”. Even if you disagree with Fisk’s articles or find them turgid, there’s still entertainment to be had from spotting his mistakes.

On Wednesday, for instance, anyone who read beyond the first paragraph of his column in The Independent would have found him asserting that Saudi Arabia had refused to take its place among “non-voting members” of the UN Security Council. He described this as an unprecedented step – which indeed it was, though not quite in the way Fisk imagines: the Security Council doesn’t have “non-voting” members (unless they choose to abstain). Presumably he meant “non-permanent members”.

Perhaps that is excusable, since the UN is not Fisk’s speciality. But he does specialise in reporting about the Middle East, and so we find him in a column last year informing readers that Syria had a stockpile of nuclear weapons – or, to be more precise, quoting President Obama as saying that it had:

“And then Obama told us last week that ‘given the regime’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad … that the world is watching’.”

Obama’s actual words were: “Given the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons, we will continue ... etc.”


Fisk is at his most comical when he gets on his high horse and immediately falls off. Writing with (justified) indignation about the killings in Baba Amr last year, he began:

“So it’s the ‘cleaning’ of Baba Amr now, is it? ‘Tingheef’ in Arabic. Did that anonymous Syrian government official really use that word to the AP yesterday?”

Well, no. Obviously a Syrian official wouldn’t use the word ‘tingheef’, since it doesn’t exist in Arabic.

Fisk likes to drop the occasional Arabic word into his articles – they add local flavour and possibly impress readers who are unfamiliar with the language. For those who are familiar with Arabic, on the other hand, it only draws attention to his carelessness.

Fiskian Arabic is often based on mis-hearings or rough approximations of real words. So, for example, a column last June begins:

“The Lebanese army claims there is a ‘plot’ to drag Lebanon into the Syrian war. The ‘plot’ – ‘al-moamarer’ – is a feature of all Arab states. Plots come two-a-penny in the Middle East.”

As’ad AbuKhalil, who blogs as the Angry Arab, regularly makes fun of these faux-Arabic concoctions. On another occasion, Fisk misquoted a famous Baathist slogan:

“Not for nothing do Syrians shout Um al Arabiya Wahida (‘mother of one Arab nation’).”

The correct phrase is Ummah Arabiyya Wahida (“One Arab Nation”) and Fisk had made the elementary mistake of confusing umm (mother) with ummah (nation/community/people). Apparently unaware of this error, he repeated it in the first paragraph of another column a few months later:

“For Syria – the ‘Um al-Arabia wahida’, the Mother of One Arab People, as the Baathists would have it – is a tough creature ...”

Of course, it’s easy to make mistakes when battling against a tight deadline but when writing his books Fisk might be expected to have a bit more time for fact-checking. Here’s Oliver Miles, a former British diplomat, reviewing Fisk’s 2005 tome, The Great War for Civilisation, in the Guardian:

“The book contains a deplorable number of mistakes. Some are amusing: my favourite is when King Hussein’s stallion unexpectedly ‘reared up on her [sic] hind legs’. Christ was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Napoleon’s army did not burn Moscow, the Russians did. French: meurt means dies, not blooms. Russian: goodbye is do svidanya, not dos vidanya. Farsi: laleh means tulip, not rose. Arabic: catastrophe is nakba not nakhba (which means elite), and many more.


“Other mistakes undermine the reader’s confidence. Muhammad’s nephew Ali was murdered in the 7th century, not the 8th century. Baghdad was never an Ummayad city. The Hashemites are not a Gulf tribe but a Hijaz tribe, as far as you can get from the Gulf and still be in Arabia. The US forward base for the Kuwait war, Dhahran, is not ‘scarcely 400 miles’ from Medina and the Muslim holy places, it is about 700 miles. Britain during the Palestine mandate did not support a Jewish state. The 1939 white paper on Palestine did not ‘abandon Balfour’s promise’ (and he was not ‘Lord Balfour’ when he made it). The Iraq revolution of 1958 was not Baathist. Britain did not pour military hardware into Saddam’s Iraq for 15 years, or call for an uprising against Saddam in 1991. These last two ‘mistakes’ occasion lengthy Philippics against British policy; others may deserve them, we do not.”

Now, you might be wondering why editors and sub-editors don’t spot these things and correct them, or at least raise queries before publication. The answer is that Fisk regards editing as unwarranted interference. In his advice to would-be reporters he added this stipulation:

“You must make sure that what you write is printed as you write it. Otherwise you will never recover from that.”

Among previous dispatches on Fisk on this list:

* Osama Bin Laden praises Robert Fisk (& other items) (November 4, 2004)

* “The dangers of Fisking” (November 14, 2003)

* UK paper fires anti-Israel writer for supporting London riots (August 11, 2011)


* There is another dispatch today, which you can read here: No Woman, No Drive: First stirrings of Saudi democracy?

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.