Fisking Four Corners: getting the facts straight on Syria, Israel and Iran

Feb 21, 2012 | Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

Fisking Four Corners: getting the facts straight on Syria

Last night, ABC’s Four Corners program focussed on the uprising in Syria. The program mostly featured a British Channel Four documentary on the Assad regime’s systematic torture of Syrian opposition-members, including children, which gave a shocking insight into the events besetting Syrians opposed to their government’s policies. The program ended, however, with host Kerry O’Brien interviewing notorious Middle-East correspondent Robert Fisk for 15 minutes in which Fisk was essentially given a pedestal to promulgate his views unchallenged.

Note: the program can be viewed on ABC iView HERE.


Dubious Distinction

When introducing Fisk, O’Brien lauded him for covering “the region with distinction for decades”; while it is true that Fisk is distinct from other Middle East correspondents, this is largely not for positive reasons. For example, Fisk’s articles are so notoriously inaccurate that the neologism “fisking” has come to refer to the act of debunking an article line by line.

The word is derived from articles written by Robert Fisk that were easily refuted, and refers to a point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies.

Fisk notoriously entertains a very “Arabist” outlook on the Middle-East, blaming the West for every ill that befalls the region. In a review of Fisk’s book The Great War for Civilisation, run in AIJAC’s Australia/Israel Review in March 2006, Professor Efraim Karsh noted Fisk’s irrational fixation on Israel and his tendency to describe Israel in terms that cross a line between inappropriate hyperbole and vitriolic accusations of “atrocities”. As Karsh goes on to note, Fisk also displays a disregard for factual accuracy and, worst of all, the above-mentioned bias.

The precise angle of his tilt has been confirmed by Osama bin Laden himself, who, in a videotaped message on the eve of the 2004 presidential election in the US, commended Fisk by name for his incisive and “neutral” reporting. On Planet Fisk, there are bad guys and there are victims, and the victims – the Arabs – can do no wrong, at least none for which they are ultimately responsible.

Fisk has been caught-out repeatedly for his factually-challenged claims. In 2003 for instance, he was outed being “a bit windy” about the supposed might of Saddam’s armour awaiting the American invaders by Fairfax’s Paul McGeough, who travelled through Iraq on the same bus as Fisk. In 2006, he made extensive claims about the supposed Israeli use of depleted uranium in southern Lebanon, which he later refused to retract even after both the UN and the Lebanese government found them to be baseless. He has also had some bizarrely incoherent and self-refuting encounters with Tony Jones on ABC “Lateline” – such as this one – further discussion here. In addition, he is something of a 9/11 “truther”, despite insisting he is not a conspiracy theorist.

In fact, Fisk is a strange choice of interview subject to follow a program on Bashar al-Assad torturing innocent civilians. As late as June 2010, not even a year before the Syrian uprising began, Fisk was comparing Assad positively to his father Hafez, implying that the “gentler” Bashar had reduced the number of prisoners and improved the conditions of the ones that remained. These observations have obviously been proven false by subsequent events.


What have they been saying?

Fisk was characteristically true to form during the Four Corners interview. Early on, O’Brien asked him to comment on the “impotence” of the world to “intervene in any meaningful way”. Fisk immediately took the opportunity to attack his favourite target, accusing Israel of supporting Assad (emphasis added):

“You see the problem is, on the one hand, the two nations that are the most frightened of losing Bashar al-Assad: one is Iran, because the destruction of Assad’s Syria is a sword in the heart of Iran – its greatest ally – and the other country is Israel, because the Israelis are constantly saying, ‘well we don’t like Bashar, but we’re frightened of what will happen afterwards’.

This demonstrably false statement was unchallenged by O’Brien. In reality, the Israelis have been consistently calling for Assad to go. For instance, as early as June last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this (emphasis added):

I think, for everybody who saw in the last week on the TV screens the repression and the atrocities, the conclusion is very simple and very clear: President Assad must resign as soon as possible, and it’s despite all our bilateral relations with Syria. For everybody who respects human rights and democratic values, it’s really unacceptable what we see today in Syria … I worry. All normal people, we worry about the situation within Syria. We are worried about the innocent people who are suffering … it’s a very bad sign and a very bad message if this regime and if this president will survive and if he will succeed in suppressing these protests and uprising.

For a more recent example, just last week the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, implored the UN to “stop standing on the sidelines watching murder after murder” and finally “do something meaningful” to stop Assad from killing his own people.


American puffery

Regarding an international intervention, Fisk was entirely dismissive of American and European power to influence events in Syria (emphasis added).

You know, Mrs Clinton goes ‘huffing and puffing and huffing and puffing’, but in fact the Arabs realised long ago that the Obama Administration is impotent; and then you’ve got the European Union and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, who spends much of his time impersonating himself, who can do no more than impose economic sanctions – which the Syrians can get round … not forever, time is running out, but it can keep it going for the time being.

It is interesting that Fisk, one of the most vehement critics of every Western intervention in the Middle East in the past decade, appears to be tacitly criticising the US and the UK for not intervening militarily in Syria. In fact, Fisk goes on to blame the failure of the West to intervene in Syria on two factors: an alleged fear of Iran and a submission to his invented Israeli support for Assad (emphasis added):

I don’t think the Americans have ever wanted to see the end of the Assad Regime. They’ve always seen it as a bulwark against Islamicism and they’ve always kowtowed to Israel’s desire to keep the Assads in charge because they feel that they can deal with Bashar just as they did with Hafez al-Assad.

In claiming that America does not, in fact, wish to see the end of Assad, Fisk is accusing every single American foreign policy spokesperson of lying about their intentions. Over the last few months, the US has attempted to force condemnations of Syria through the UN Security Council and when this was vetoed by Russia and China, Hillary Clinton immediately began forming a coalition to assist the Syrian opposition.

In fact, Russia and China vetoed the UNSC resolution because they saw it paving the way for a Western military intervention, echoing the recent intervention in Libya. It seems, therefore that Fisk is making his judgments against all perceivable evidence — even Assad believes that America is trying to overthrow him. Indeed, some anti-Israel commentators have even been accusing Israel and the US of secretly arming the Syrian opposition with absolutely no evidence to prove it. For example, Clive Williams made this claim in Friday’s Canberra Times:

The US and Israel see regime change as a way of containing Iran and Hezbollah, and it would be surprising if they were not covertly arming the Syrian opposition groups – but as was the case with Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the reality of post-regime outcomes may prove much less attractive to their interests than what was there before.

Furthermore, the idea that, in supporting Assad, the US is “kowtowing” to Israel is an insidious allusion to the “Israel lobby” made famous by Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer. There is an unpalatable prejudice underlying the idea that the Jewish State is mysteriously and secretly bending the US administration to its will, and supposedly forcing them to implement a policy entirely opposite to their publicly stated one.


No Iranian nuclear threat?

Towards the end of the interview, O’Brien turned to the subject of a potential Israeli strike on Iran. Fisk gave a typically perverse response, attempting to downplay the severity of the Islamic Republic actually developing a nuclear arsenal.

Look, just be practical for a moment. Be — although I am not advising you to be an Iranian Government official — but pretend you are. The Iranian Government decides that, ok, destroy Israel — and of course if it does that it will destroy all of the West Bank and Gaza, so that’s the end of the Palestinians; half of Lebanon — probably me too, so there you go; part of Syria; and part of Jordan. At which point, the Israelis will use their nuclear arsenal, which of course we never discuss, to destroy Tehran and Isfahan

I don’t think that’s going to happen, I think that’s a preposterous scenario. Achmadinejad, the president of Iran — who’s just about as cracked as the Foreign Minister, Lieberman, of Israel — he rages and rages, he’s a crackpot, but he is not the man in charge of nuclear power and he’s certainly not the man in charge of the Iranian military; and Khamenei, the Supreme Leader — not a man I’m very fond of — has said repeatedly that any use of nuclear weapons is against the rule and will of God. As long as he keeps saying that, I don’t think Iran is going to launch an attack.”

There is no doubt that Avigdor Lieberman is controversial in some circles, but to equate him with Achmadinejad requires a stretch of the imagination. Furthermore, while Fisk is correct in saying that Khamenei, and not Achmadinejad, holds the real keys to the nuclear program, it is bizarre that Fisk seems to be painting him as a rationalist. Israel will not find it reassuring that the man who recently made the following statement would be behind Iran’s nuclear trigger:

[Israel is a] cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut … From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this.

Furthermore, Fisk seems to be under the impression that the only danger that could possibly be associated with a nuclear Tehran is that they will launch an immediate unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel. This is a typically Fiskian ridiculous straw man argument. For the many more complex ways in which a nuclear Iran would be disastrous, see this excellent piece by Daniel Schwammenthal first published in the Wall Street Journal last week, and which also appeared in the Australian today.

It is disappointing, given both Fisk’s record and the glaring holes in what he was saying, that he was effectively given a soapbox on the ABC. When individuals like Fisk speak entirely unchallenged, viewers of Four Corners are cheated of the vital context that they deserve for extremely complex situations like the turmoil in Syria. Australians should be given serious analysis from reputable experts and not “journalists” reknowned for the wildness of the their polemics and their poor record of factually accuracy.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz



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