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Anthropology, Reporters and the Middle East

April 6, 2014 Leave a comment
Click to see on Amazon.com

Click to see on Amazon.com

Holland’s enfant terrible of Middle East journalism, Joris Luyendijk, proved the law of unintended consequences back in 2006 when he blitzed the Dutch news-reading public about the shortcomings of his adopted profession. He had hoped that his book Het Zijn Net Mensen (published in English as ‘Hello Everybody!’ but roughly translatable as ‘they’re almost human, aren’t they?’) would stir the media to raise their game and prompt wider intellectual curiosity about the region. As sales soared, however, he found he hadn’t counted on one common reaction.

“People would come up to me, clap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I always wondered if the media was lying! So since that you say that they do, I’m just going to cancel my [newspaper] subscription’”, Luyendijk told me on his whirl through Ankara to promote the Turkish version of his book (Herkese Merhaba!) – its 14th language translation.

The account of his five years reporting from the Middle East – on top of years of Arabic study — came out four years before my own Dining with al-Qaeda. The narrative of journalistic self-criticism comes from different perspectives, but the conclusions of our two books are so much on the same wavelength that when Hello Everybody! came out, the Guardian newspaper reviewed them together.

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

I’d never met Luyendijk, however, and it proved a delight to share a podium with him in Ankara last week at a lively outpost of Dutch civilization, Leiden University’s NIHA Institute. We discussed our pet loves and hates in journalistic coverage of the Middle East, and his book’s central arguments: that Western coverage of the Middle East is superficial, misleadingly uprooted from its context since it is purveyed by a crisis-hopping class of “presenters”; that few of these talking heads speak local languages; and that time pressure forces many to work from agency copy forwarded by their headquarters. It points out that few spend much time outside their hotels, omit the human context and have little special knowledge of local peoples who are caught up in long, complicated disputes that are not all of their own making.

Some in the Dutch media establishment rejected this newcomer’s lèse majesté, and indeed what makes the book so readable and hard-hitting is its funny mix of oversimplification, exaggeration and iconoclasm. Luyendijk claims an outsider’s legitimacy, insisting (often with a thump of his fist into his hand) that he has been first and foremost moulded by his first career as an anthropologist. His study of journalists in action, he believes, is scientifically analogous to the work he’d really like to be doing: studying Dutch-speaking grandchildren of the arrow-shooting aboriginals of the Surinam rain forest.

For our audience in Ankara we argued over whether to blame television or parti pris op-ed columnists for the Middle East’s wars and the shortcomings of Western reporting of them. I found his book over-envious of the well-funded correspondents of the great U.S. media outlets, a position which I (mostly) greatly appreciated during my decade on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I was jealous of him, I said, because any story he wrote would have a head start in getting closer to the truth because he was writing for an open-minded, well-educated, relatively neutral country like the Netherlands. We sparred over whether to blame the reporter or the audience for journalism’s lack of far-sightedness and nuance, and found a useful scapegoat in the editors. Then we wondered if more editors wouldn’t improve a brave new Dutch initiative of collaborative, crowd-funded journalism, de Correspondent, which allows writers perhaps too much space.

Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

To listen to a YouTube recording of our debate, please click on the photo. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

Luyendijk kept his insights flowing at another launch event at the Dutch ambassador’s residence, acknowledging how much had already changed in the business since he was having agency copy faxed to him. Back then, not having images from, say, Chechnya, meant that the deaths of thousands never even got on the TV news. At the same time, the neatly choreographed if sometimes deadly daily Arab-Israeli ballet of Palestinian stone throwers vs Israeli troops in a small corner of Ramallah – filmed by the global media and watched by spectators, both served by falafel sellers – made it seem as though the Middle East was ablaze with violence.

Now, he said, leading blog sites are helping editors frame their ideas on the Middle East (he singled out the “excellent” website Arabist, for instance). An articulate modern-day Dutch embassy dragoman in the audience noted the paradox that there is now a plethora of film from Syria, but that these cellphone shorts have done little to blunt the violence ripping the country apart. Luyendijk doubted that this holy grail of 100 per cent truth or objectivity could ever be attained. (“A report is always going to be either ‘Ajax beat Liverpool’, or ‘Liverpool lost to Ajax’”). He proposed a better gold standard would be trustworthiness. In journalistic terms, we agreed, that could be defined as “an honest best shot”.

Both maybe it’s easy for us to talk. We are no longer burdened with the intimidating task of making sense of day-to-day Middle Eastern turmoil for a non-expert audience. I’m now with International Crisis Group, and find its research, reports and advocacy method far better suited than journalism for detailing, explaining and ultimately trying to do something to end Middle East turbulence. But, illustrating Luyendijk’s point about simplification, even the best-intentioned broadcast media still often find it easier to keep calling me a journalist, as here on Dutch TV news last week.

Photo: Jak den Exter

Photo: Jak den Exter

Fed up with requests to come in on the fourth day of every crisis to criticise the media coverage, Luyendijk has moved to London and reinvented himself as an anthropologist of the banking business. He has blogged from the front lines of finance for the Guardian (here), an experience he’s now turning into a book. After hearing him retell some of the stories whispered anonymously to him by apparently self-hating Masters of the Universe, I’m looking forward to reading it — if he survives the the English food, out-of-body encounters with the British intellectual classes and all-year-round swimming at the open-air Lido lake on Hampstead Heath.

After that Luyendijk says his next project will be the European Union and its native species, the Eurocrat. He has his work cut out. Europe’s often self-imposed sense of slow decline means that even NIHA, the Dutch centre of learning in Ankara where he and I talked, will close down this year. But I parted company with him with a reinvigorated belief in the qualities and energy that Europe still has, if only Europeans could articulate it better.

Thinking too about Luyendijk’s insistence on the importance to his work of his scientific background, I feel even more flattered to remember how an elderly Canadian professor once came up to me after I’d presented my last book Sons of the Conquerors at Montreal’s McGill University. After listening to me talk about this account of my search through two dozen countries for the soul of the Turks, he told me: “you know, Mr. Pope, you could almost have been an anthropologist”.

A full video of our debate can be found here http://youtu.be/BdLqFqOCiRs

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“I don’t read Hugh Pope” – Robert Fisk

November 20, 2011 10 comments

Sometimes something can worry you for years, and you don’t quite know what to do about it. Robert Fisk’s writing is one of those things for me. His stories are compellingly fluent, fabulously channel Middle Eastern victimhood, and satisfyingly cast grit in the eye of Western governments’ hypocrisy. And yet against this I always have to set my experience that, in one case that is personally important to me, the swirl of rumours about Fisk’s cavalier treatment of facts seems to be true.

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

My particular assertion about Robert Fisk’s journalism comes in a chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to the question of accuracy in Middle Eastern reporting (pages 20-27). It relates to an episode during the 1991 Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis on the mountains of the Turkish-Iraqi border. A piece by Fisk said that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting” stealing Iraqi Kurd refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”. This, according to him, had led to a near-armed clash between Turkish and British troops. Fisk’s report gravely set back Turkish-allied cooperation in the relief effort. Fisk was expelled and I was ordered out too, since I worked for the same newspaper, Britain’s Independent. I was later reprieved, partly because I had nothing to do with the story. I had been back in Istanbul, writing up my own experiences of the refugee camps.

While putting together Dining with al-Qaeda, I telephoned Fisk’s main named source in those mountains, a British military doctor. To make sure, I also contacted a senior British diplomat in charge in those days, now in retirement. Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalized. Moreover, I noted inconsistencies between Fisk’s accounts in the newspaper and in his memoir (The Great War for Civilization, 2005). For instance, in a major narrative section of his book that is absent from the original article, Fisk meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.

I had shrunk from confronting Fisk in person with my findings. Most journalists hate publicly accusing each other of making things up – after all, one might oneself be found to have made a slip in a race to a deadline. A major British journalist told me he’d liked Dining with al-Qaeda, but couldn’t review it because it meant making a choice between Fisk (seven times named Britain’s ‘International Reporter of the Year’ ) and me (last known award: my school’s poetry prize). The Guardian’s Ian Black put it coyly in his review that “Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk … he is not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day …’”. As leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani said in a review: “Fisk’s over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting … If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It’s a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.”

So it was that, when watching Fisk interviewed at length on Turkish NTV on 17 November 2011 (here), I averted my eyes towards the end when I heard journalist Barçin Yınanç pose a question that focused on my name. She said that “even though [Hugh Pope] praises your journalism”, I had written in a book that his report on that long-ago incident was exaggerated and “not based on data”.

After a dramatic pause in which presenter Oğuz Haksever apologized about not wanting a polemic, ear pieces were fiddled with and translations made, Fisk said the following:

Look, I don’t read Hugh Pope. Sorry. In the incident in question, I was in an aircraft, helicopter, full of CIA men, who had to go and intervene to prevent British and Turkish troops fighting each other. They were either side of a small stream with their rifles pointed at each other in front of my eyes. This wasn’t data. I was an eyewitness. The Americans had to go into the stream and stop them shooting at each other, because the British were trying to stop this small group of Turkish soldiers taking blankets and food from refugees … Hugh Pope’s got it wrong, as with other things during the past. I don’t have any feelings about Hugh Pope. I was an eyewitness to what happened. Sorry. I was there. He was not.

Oğuz Haksever swiftly moved the program on. The interview, mainly about the 936-page Turkish version of Fisk’s memoir, certainly had its moments. Fisk (correctly) predicted that “Bashar is going to last a lot longer in Syria than you seem to think he is … the Baath Party has a huge historical grip on Syria”; he warned Ankara to resist pressure from the U.S. and “La Clinton” to intervene against Damascus; said the words “Armenian Genocide” so often that the flustered Turkish translator gave up adding the word “alleged”; talked of the need for reporters to “be on the side of those who suffer” and “to monitor the centers of power, especially when they go to war, especially when they lie to do it”; confided that when reporting about the Kurds he wrote “with a very strong sense of cynicism … I mean irony, we need to have a certain black humour about this”; and finally dismissed Tony Blair as “the most meretricious, repulsive politician that we have in Britain, the most terrible prime minister we’ve ever had in British history”, who “seems to have a special relationship with God”, who “is a weird product of absolute self-conviction”, and who had written “an extremely self-congratulatory book.”

I was however only half-listening to the rest of the interview. Fisk had vowed three times that he had been “there”, an “eyewitness” to that 1991 incident, as he tells the story in his memoir. But he hadn’t explained why his original story (“Troops steal food and blankets from refugees”, Independent, Tuesday 30 April 1991) firmly sets the reported confrontation over the stream on Sunday night the 28th of April, while stating that he had arrived “yesterday”, which in the Independent‘s style means Monday the 29th, that is, one day after whatever happened was over. Furthermore, Fisk’s original story cites soldiers talking of past incidents, but makes no claim of seeing anything of a confrontation himself.

Whatever the British-Turkish tensions in the camp, Fisk has not convinced me that people are wrong to say that he over-played the situation. A question about his factual veracity about the incident has at last been put to him in public. I feel a sense of inner peace. The frustration that has nagged at me for 20 years has gone away.

A POSTSCRIPT (March 2012)

Britain’s satirical weekly Private Eye No. 1310 in March 2012 had the following take on the matter (apparently in part citing the above blog, so apologies for any repetition):

FISK ANALYSIS

MEMBERS of the Vulture Club, a closed Facebook group for foreign correspondents and aid workers, are circling the carcass of Robert Fisk, the Independent’s man in the Middle East, for his holier-than-thou rant against fellow war reporters following the Syrian Army’s murder of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

Condemning the “colonialist” assumption that “the lives of western reporters are somehow more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the ‘foreign’ civilians who suffer around them”, Fisk accused Colvin’s editors and editors like them of pro-western double standards. “The newsrooms of London and Washington didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm to get their folk into Gaza as they did to get them into Homs,” he concluded. “Just a thought.”

Glory-hunters and hypocrites

As a matter of fact, western reporters did get round the Israeli army’s restrictions on journalists during its war with Hamas. Led by Bruno Stevens, a brave Belgian photographer, 30 found a way in over the Egyptian border. Fisk’s innuendo that foreign hacks were glory-hunters for exposing the deaths of Syrians, and hypocrites for ignoring the deaths of Palestinians, has put the war correspondents on the war path.

On the Vulture Club’s web page, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, foreign correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, describes Fisk’s article as “unconscionable”. Catherine Philp, US correspondent for the Times, says Fisk “makes it up”. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor tells of Fisk writing a piece attacking the Baghdad press corps for being “hotel journalists” who dared not go onto the streets, while rarely leaving the safety of the hotel pool himself.

It is not only on closed Facebook groups that Fisk is being pummelled.

Hugh Pope, a former Independent colleague of Fisk’s, recently published a memoir of his three decades of reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al Qaeda. When they were both covering the Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis in 1991, he writes, Fisk reported that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting”, stealing refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”, and that British forces “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.

For his book, Pope telephoned Fisk’s main named source, a British military doctor. He also spoke to a senior British diplomat who had run the relief operation in Turkey in 1991. “Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalised.” In a later account of the “clash”, Pope writes, Fisk “meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.”

When Pope’s book came out Ian Black, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, drily noted that he was “not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day’”. Meanwhile the leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani noted that “if you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk”.

Indeed you do. “It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift others’ work without attribution and embellish it,” writes Jamie Dettmer, another former Middle East correspondent, in his review of Pope’s book. “I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.”

The full text of U.S./British writer Jamie Dettmer’s 1 April 2010 blog posting (here) goes like this

BOB FISK OUTED

Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.

But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime  Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines…

Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it.  I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.

Damian Thompson

Robert Fisk’s response to all this can be seen in a 29 March 2012 posting by Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph Blogs at the London Daily Telegraph. Thompson says (here):

[Many comments by foreign correspondents upset by Fisk’s suggestion that news rooms were ignoring Gaza in favour of Homs] expand on a remark made in the Guardian by Ian Black, the paper’s diplomatic editor, who was reviewing the memoirs of Hugh Pope, a distinguished Middle East correspondent, which strongly criticise Fisk’s style of reporting … Black was choosing his words carefully (as am I) but read between the lines.

So I rang Fisk to ask what he made of all these claims … He said: “I do not make stories up, full stop. This is being put together in order to harass me and possibly The Independent.” …

What about Ian Black’s innuendo? “I’m very surprised that he wrote that. I’m amazed to see that he wrote that review [of Hugh Pope’s book]”.

But it isn’t just Black: it’s foreign correspondents from various publications who have encountered Fisk over the years. How could he explain their criticisms? “Colleagues will malign you if you’re a moderately successful journalist,” said Fisk.

Other comments on Robert Fisk’s reporting and its impact have been made by Reggie’s Blog here, Australian journalist Paul McGeough here, and, back in 2007, by veteran Middle East correspondent (and former Independent reporter) Adel Darwish here. Private Eye revisited the story in February 2013 (Eye 1333 here):

Clip from Private Eye