Remembering Robert Fisk: A mentor

The veteran reporter taught me an important lesson: ‘Tell the story, whatever the consequences.’

Robert Fisk on the corniche in Beirut in April 2017 [Katya Bohdan/Al Jazeera]

The only book Robert Fisk ever recommended I read was the satirical journalism novel – Scoop – by Evelyn Waugh – a story about hapless nature writer William Boot who, due to an unexpected turn of events, is sent to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia to report on the conflict there as a foreign correspondent.

When I received the news that he had passed away, scenes of my interactions with him replayed in my mind. Somehow the day he recommended Scoop was one of the brightest memories among them – it has since become one of my favourite books.

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The novel is a pure satire that takes aim at the newspaper industry and the journalistic profession. It is a rather interesting read to recommend to an aspiring young journalist. But that in itself is emblematic of how he was as a person, or at least of how I knew him: Kind-hearted with a great, and oftentimes sarcastic, sense of humour; an empathetic, radiant and intelligent man.

I first met Fisk in Beirut in April 2017 when I was in my second year of college and had just completed a journalism internship in Tehran, Iran. I had switched majors to journalism after reading his book, The Great War for Civilisation, and know that I am not the only one to have been inspired to enter the profession by his extensive, award-winning reporting.

In my first year of studying journalism, I knew two things: That I wanted to work in the Middle East and that I wanted to meet Fisk. So when, during my internship in Iran, I managed to find his personal email, I messaged him. I would soon be in Beirut for a week, I wrote; would he be willing to meet?

To my greatest surprise, he replied. He would be happy to, he said, and asked me to call when I arrived.

They say, “never meet your heroes”. But that is a sentiment I have never subscribed to. As a journalism student and an aspiring journalist, I have reached out to several of mine – asking for advice, a potential interview or just trying to expand my professional network. Most of them quickly set about crushing the idealised image I had constructed of them in my mind.

But Fisk was the very opposite of that – and not just to me. He would often speak highly of junior colleagues he had worked with or met while reporting. And for such an acclaimed veteran reporter, he was surprisingly approachable. No matter how busy he was – reporting, lecturing, writing books – he always made time for me whenever I reached out.

The first time I met him, he invited me along for a coffee with him and a Beirut-based artist he was interviewing for a piece for The Independent at a restaurant on the Corniche in Beirut.

A few days later, when, with very little notice, I asked if I could interview him about US President Donald Trump’s policies in the Middle East for a Belgian publication I was freelancing for at the time, he immediately obliged.

Later that year, when he came to Belgium to give a lecture on the refugee crisis, he invited me along and kindly offered his afternoon that day to any questions I had for him. I had four hours’ worth of them. And now I realise how many more I have left that I wish I could ask.

When I was trying to find a way to go to Yemen to report on the humanitarian crisis there for my final year thesis, he never invalidated my ambitions. Instead, he advised me on how best to proceed, who to contact and how to stay safe.

He gave me decades’ worth of advice that I have taken to heart and always try to apply to the way I work.

Back in 2017, when I had interviewed him for the Belgian news outlet, in an Italian restaurant located above the water on the Corniche – which has now unfortunately closed – I had weaved into my article his choice of drink. His response: “I am also grateful that, even if I do drink ‘gin-tonic’ at the restaurant, I am also ‘energetic, alert and sharp’ – which is true!”

But despite his energy, alertness and humour, there was a cynicism and weariness about him. “I hardly have time to go to Yemen, I’m exhausted,” he told me. “I’m still tired from Syria, you know. We all are, it doesn’t matter how old we are, we don’t have enough reporters.”

Fisk thought it was important that journalists should burn with a “rigorous determination to tell the truth” and he was a supportive and understanding mentor.

When I struggled to find an outlet for my reporting from Yemen, with some news organisations turning it down citing “security reasons”, he wrote in an email: “I’m very sorry to hear of the outrageously poor response to your report on Yemen and can well imagine your disgust with journalism. I need hardly add that everyone feels that way, especially at the start.” Although he was from a very different generation of reporters, he understood the difficulties faced by freelance journalists across the world today.

I persevered and the report turned my home nation’s attention to the disaster taking place in Yemen. I thanked him for his support in an SMS, to which he did not respond.

When I was doing my internship with Al Jazeera in 2018, he called me a couple of times to ask how it was going. Even though we did not talk often, I tried to stay in touch and write regularly. I would update him on life events – getting a job, being accepted for my master’s degree – and every response from him meant a lot.

“Have not forgotten, Katya – just snowed under with work. Your request is in my diary entries (hand-written of course),” he replied after I had asked him if he would write me a letter of recommendation for law school a few months ago.

He wrote a beautiful letter; a paragraph of which I often reflect on when considering the criticism he faced during the last decade of his life by critics who accused him of siding with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his reporting on the war in Syria.

This is what he wrote:

“Especially now – and especially in the Middle East region – journalists experience ever greater pressure to adopt a ‘safe’ perspective in order to avoid criticism from governments, pressure groups and lobbyists. Ms Bohdan’s reporting from Yemen, which required courage as well as great resourcefulness, was proof of her desire to ‘tell the story’ whatever the consequences.”

I cannot be sure, but I suspect this encapsulates what he may have thought of the criticism of him. And although there are points on which he and I openly disagreed, I always found him to be a proponent of healthy dialogue and discussion. He was attentive and I never witnessed him undermine an opposing opinion. I have always thought that the way a senior professional treats a junior colleague is a sign of one’s integrity or lack thereof. For me, his was never in doubt.

He was respectful, responsive, understanding and encouraging. He always gave advice when asked for it, but never offered it unsolicited. He was, in short, a true mentor, although I never told him that – fearing it sounded like too much of a cliche. I really hope he would not mind if I told him now.

Source: Al Jazeera