This event was absolutely abuzz with people – several hundred piled into the Limes Room to hear Robert Fisk. They were not disappointed.
Among the revelations at the session was the fact that some years ago, librarians helped him “smuggle” the contents of the Sunday Express newspaper library of the 1920s to 40s – under cover of darkness – into his possession.
I managed to track him down afterwards. It wasn’t hard – he was the popular fellow signing books – to tell me the whole tale.
The records were being microfiched – and were to be thrown out.
“Microfiching doesn’t work properly, he said.
“I’ve got the originals.”
They live in wooden crates, with drawers. Fisk has Churchill papers that even Churchill’s biographer didn’t know about.
The records are “extraordinary”. “You’ve basically got a record of the entire Second World War – every day”.
Although Fisk jokes that he has a library ticket for a village in Ireland, he keeps “thousands and thousands” of books. While he says everything is computerised in London, he still receives calls in Beirut to check details in his paper files – and example he says of how things don’t always work on the internet.
He is not a big fan of the internet or the scanning type of reading it demands. Mainly this is because newspapers have to give away their content on the internet, a disastrous business plan. Fisk argued in his session that people are only turning to the internet because journalists and mass media have failed them, they are not being told the truth. The unanswered question was how to get people to read newspapers, and how to improve the quality of newspapers and make people pay for it. The list of cliches he read at the session was hilarious – and so common. Readers had been “innoculated” against them, and often no longer notice. he said.
He asked me if libraries might become extinct – whether I’d be out of a job. Trapped on the spot, I said no, putting my faith in technology. I said something lame about a “middle-road” – sounding embarrassingly like one of the cliches he’d derided moments earlier.
We [journalists] might be out of a job too,” he said – referring to cost-cutting exercises that affect all newspapers these days.
I didn’t spend long with Robert Fisk, but he was remarkably fresh and not jaded in the slightest. I had thought he might be. Not only after 30 hours travelling to get here, but of war, but of travel to and from war; endless arguments and discussion of war. His energy was inspiring – he finished his commitments for the writers’ festival late yesterday and was writing his column at midnight to be filed to The Independent. Aged 62, Fisk covers 22 countries and four wars, as well as speaking engagements and festivals like ours all over the world.
Long after the session had finished he was signing books and continuing conversations. I wonder if he is the last of a generation – who is the next Robert Fisk? Will editors allow there to be another, will this type of copy be published? It’s expensive to have foreign correspondents, after all. No papers in the US publish his work – and even in South Korea, where his columns ran for a while, American advertisers put pressure on the paper to stop – threatening to pull advertising. The newspaper caved.
Fisk was thankful to his editor and his newspaper for not pulling the plug – and we should be too.
He read brilliant letters from a soldier in Iraq who is charged with “establishing democracy”. The writing was fluent and full of humour and described succinctly the ludicrous situation of trying to establish a Western system where none is wanted. At one point he stopped and said – If newspapers we’re written like this you’d read them wouldn’t you? Everyone agreed.
Fisk is a singular talent, let’s hope he visits again.