Robert Fisk: is he a secret internet user?

Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent of the Independent newspaper, detests the internet and has often said so: "To hell with the web, it’s got no responsibility" (2008), "We should stop drinking this digital poison" (2013) and "Our addiction to the internet is as harmful as any drug" (2014).

"A problem of the internet is it allows anyone to dispense with the ethical rules of journalism," he told one interviewer last year – which is a bit unfortunate considering that the publication Fisk works for ceased printing in March and is now available only online.

Fisk himself seems to take pride in having no social media presence and has boasted that he doesn't use the internet or even email. On another occasion he qualified this slightly (no doubt to the relief of the Independent) by saying he avoids the internet, except to email articles to his editor.   

But if Fisk doesn't use the internet, how is he able to describe its evils with such confidence? Apparently, he relies on friends who tell him about it and sometimes provide print-outs of things they have found online.

"I have written before of the foul, racist abuse I receive – passed on in hard copy by friends who say they sometimes fear for my safety," he told Independent readers in 2014, adding that "some of the hard copy emails I receive are not only ungrammatical – the spelling is also appalling – but virtually incomprehensible". 

If you are a journalist, though, boycotting the internet on principle does cause some problems. For a start, it means dispensing with a quick and convenient way of checking facts. This may explain, for example, how Fisk came to misquote President Obama on the issue of the Assad regime's "stockpile of nuclear weapons" when Obama had actually been speaking about chemical weapons.

Another self-created problem is that having taken such an uncompromising position against the internet, he can't openly use the internet as a source of information without, at the very least, appearing inconsistent. Which raises the question of whether Fisk might, after all, be a closeted internet user.

In a column last month about the killing of Giulio Regeni in Egypt, Fisk quoted an article written by Regeni shortly before his death – which had been published posthumously in English on an Italian website. Not to be caught out, Fisk explained that the article had also been reprinted by the British socialist magazine, Red Pepper. So presumably it was the printed version that he was quoting.

However, in another column on Tuesday, Fisk attacked terrorism expert Charles Lister over an article about Syria that Lister wrote for Foreign Policy. Again, we have to take it on trust that Fisk had bought a printed copy of Foreign Policy magazine and had not read it the way most people do nowadays – on the internet.

But that's not all. In launching his attack (which has caused quite a rumpus on Twitter), Fisk quoted from Lister's "various CVs" and it's difficult to imagine how he could have found these without the aid of Google. Or perhaps he avoided digital contamination by getting someone else to look them up and print them out.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 11 May 2016