Robert Fisk's comedy of errors

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."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 26 October 2013