*. The title has nothing to do with Magritte. Instead, this is a documentary on the journalistic career and ethos of reporter Robert Fisk, and the title comes from something Fisk says at the end about how real life, which is what he hopes to capture in his writing, isn’t like a movie.
*. Fisk died in 2020. I thought he did a great job covering the Middle East, and his book The Great War for Civilisation is a landmark work on the history of recent conflicts in the region. This film isn’t about the Middle East though, but instead lets Fisk tell his own story, laying out his philosophy on the role of a reporter today.
*. That philosophy involves leaving “a direct and emotional record” as a witness, so that ages hence no one will be able to say they didn’t know or weren’t told about some specific crime or outrage. Journalism is, in other words, a calling, which it pretty much has to be for someone so willing to put himself directly in harm’s way as both a columnist and a street reporter. And if having a calling can make you sound at times a little full of yourself, that also comes with the territory.
*. I didn’t mind this, because I think journalists need a sense of idealism. It serves as an anchor, and antidote not just to the lack of rigour exercised in a lot of Internet reporting but to the nihilism that infects so much of our post-truth dispensation. People often mistake outraged idealists as cynics, but the true cynics are the ones who make such charges because they’re afraid of the idealists, seeing them as whistleblowers.
*. It’s not just the nihilistic spirit of the age Fisk opposes but the digital form it takes. Fisk is presented as the last of a breed, writing with pen into his notepad and with a study at home that’s lined with bales of newspaper cuttings and other physical records. As with other aspects of his belief system, this can come across as a little much. But he does have a point. Where will we find the truth when everything is in the cloud, where it’s far easier to manipulate or be made to disappear entirely?
*. In one conversation with a younger journalist I thought Fisk even came out a bit worse for wear in an argument over the value of digital journalism. Fisk doesn’t condemn the Internet, but he has his doubts, while insisting on the value of his own old-school methods. “If you don’t go to the scene and sniff it and talk to the people and see with your own eyes you cannot get near what the truth is. I more and more feel, especially in the age of the Internet, when so little is proved and so little checked out, that there’s more and more reason to do the old kind of journalism.”
*. But against a deeper form of nihilism, moral rather than epistemological, there is no defense. “It doesn’t matter how much we blame the bad guys, I don’t think it has a lot of effect. It would be nice to believe that the Foreign Correspondent movie was the real thing, he manages to get the bad guys, the German spies, everything works out fine. But the truth is that this is not a movie, and it’s very arrogant of any journalist to think they can change the world or alter the course of a war. You do like to think that sometimes you can switch on the lighthouse and the beam touches something and something that otherwise would happen will not happen. When you try to tell the truth maybe occasionally the torture stops and the condemned’s cell opens. and maybe we helped. Mostly, I fear, what we write doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Like constantly having to tell the story of the Palestinians. You will never win over the world to your version of events, however accurate, however truthfully told, however angrily written. You’ll never win. But you will lose unless you keep on fighting.”
*. This seems a “heads you lose, tails they win” sort of thing. Still, like Camus’ Sisyphus we have to believe Fisk was happy fighting his battles. If he suffered from illusions, at least they were of the productive kind.
In the picture at the bottom, is that Fisk entering your Spot the Garrote competition on Fridays?
I played a big role in destroying jouralism, working for associated in the early 2000s, part of a global newsroom that rarely went anywhere but the office, where we assidously took other people’s news off the wire and re-nosed it as our own. So this was long before Trump or the virus, but its where the rot set in, and these days, pretty much nobody has a direct and emptional record of anything. Whetever standards used to exist have long gone.
Newsrooms today are horrifying. Back in the ’90s morale was already slipping what with layoffs and buyouts. Now all people do is watch monitors to see which stories are getting the most clicks, minute by minute.
Fisk is one of Phil’s journalistic hero’s and he has his books but didn’t know about this so I’ll get to see it soon I’m sure!
Can’t say it’s a great movie, but it does let Fisk tell you where he stands. I guess he died just after they made it so it’s a nice testament too.
So they made the journalist the *good* guy???
Boggles the mind doesn’t it?
We’re going back to Woodward and Bernstein days here.
Placeholder comment until this afternoon. Need a full keyboard.
You just got a new computer!
I was doing sound at church and thus only had my phone available…
I have to completely disagree with the sentiment expressed by this guy. A journalists job is NOT to make an emotional impact but to simply report the facts as unbiasedly as they can. The whole emotional impact schtick thing is why we are now with journalists not using their brains at all but simply being mouthpieces of propaganda. I’m all for opposing nihilism, but that is a philosophical worldview being worked out and I doubt this guy has any rational reason to oppose that nihilism in journalism. Does he go into that in the book at all? Not just that he opposes it, but what underpins his opposition to it?
Just the facts ma’am. But we won’t ever go back to that kind of reporting.
I think he’d respond that no one is capable of editing themselves entirely out of the story. Also that there is an emotional element to most stories that also has to be captured. What he’s more about though is fighting authority and not believing in official sources. That sort of thing.
Truly fascinating. I’m intrigued by how this could motivate and inspire countless other journalists today in how to get things done. Thanks for sharing, Alex.
I think a lot of journalists did look up to Fisk as a sort of hero. Though he had his critics too, especially on the right.