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SVS Foundation News

News stories from the School and Old Suttonian communities

News > Deaths and Obituaries > Obituary - Robert Fisk (1964 W)

Obituary - Robert Fisk (1964 W)

In October 2020, we received the sad news of the death of Old Suttonian Robert Fisk (1964 W). We are grateful to Richard Harvey (1963 C) for the following piece about him.

In October 2020, we received the sad news of the death of Robert Fisk (1964 W). We are grateful to Richard Harvey (1963 C), another Old Suttonian over the early 1960s to have gone into journalism, for the following piece about Robert.

Robert Fisk (W 1964), the most distinguished of Old Suttonians who chose journalism as a career, has died in Dublin aged 74, following a suspected stroke.

Robert’s career was hallmarked by his championing of the underdog and vilification of the oppressor. As he put it, the journalist’s job was to question authority; “during the time of the slave trade, I’d have interviewed the slaves, not the captain of the slave ship.”

He had a visceral dislike of US, Israeli and Western foreign policy, which earned him enemies in high places. While he was described as “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain” by The New York Times and “an outstandingly poetic writer” in his obituary in The Times, he was frequently accused of exaggerating to prove his point. His journalistic creed was to question the motives of governments and the military, never accepting the official version of events without forensically examining the evidence.

After spells on the Newcastle Chronicle and the Daily Express, he came to prominence as a foreign correspondent, first at The Times and then The Independent, reporting from war zones ranging from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to Kosovo, Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

His reputation as a fearless commentator earned him a shoal of awards, including international Journalist of the Year seven times in the Britrish Press Awards, reporter of the year twice, the Orwell Prize and three prizes from Amnesty International. Four months before he died, he was the subject of a documentary film This Is Not A Movie. 

His time at Sutton Valence School revealed the first signs of that nascent unwillingness to placidly accept the status quo, and need to challenge authority. SVS was a very different place in the late 1950s and early 1960s – public school practices such as corporal punishment and compulsory membership of the Army Cadet Force met with the teenage Robert’s vocal disapproval.

As a result, he sometimes reflected in newspaper articles about the shortcomings of the public school system at that time, although he admitted that his disapproval of the harsher tenets of life at Sutton Valence were tempered with the freedom it gave him to enjoy his two great passions, English Literature and Latin. 

In an interview with The Old Suttonian, he said: “I vividly remember one hot summer’s day, sitting on the steps outside Westminster, breathing in the dawn from the Weald of Kent, and then reading all day, right through to sunset. I couldn’t get enough of Milton, Shakespeare or Latin.”

He recognised that he partly learned his love of literature from the school’s English department, while Norman Bentley (Staff 1921-1964) – Sutton Valence’s own version of ‘Mr Chips’ – took the young Fisk for additional Latin lessons, teaching him the intricacies of the language which he enjoyed reading for the rest of his life.  

In 1976, he moved to Beirut, where he lived for 30 years, and learned to speak Arabic. The Middle East provided him with his most notable despatches, seeing at first hand, the results of battlefields and bloodshed in a series of regional conflicts.  He had a disdain for ‘hotel reporting’ – despatches by journalists not allowed by their offices to venture alone into the street – and experienced war at its most bloody and brutal.

He showed enormous courage by reporting directly from battlegrounds, once running across open terrain avoiding sniper’s bullets. He used to quote Winston Churchill that “nothing is as satisfying as being shot at without effect”. He said he learned to use fear to his advantage – “hesitate or panic, and you’ll die”. 

Among Robert’s most notable exclusives was interviewing Osama Bin Laden three times during the 1990s, who he described as “every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend”.

While it gave him, and the outside world, an Islamist perspective on Western intervention in the Middle East – the Al Qaeda leader even suggested that he should convert to Islam – his scoops also earned him condemnation for giving a mouthpiece to an enemy of Western civilization.

The flame of non-conformity always burned brightly. “I’ve never voted and never supported any war”, he said. “If that makes me a pacifist, so be it”.

He accepted that his long career in journalism meant he had to repeat to succeeding generations why he took a particular stance at a particular time. As a result, he believes he could never ‘win the argument’. “But you never stop fighting”, he says. “Fight, fight and fight again. You’ve got to keep going.” 

Asked in his interview with The Old Suttonian what advice he might offer to Sutton Valence pupils, he said: “Do what you want to do. Do it well. And never give in.” 

Robert’s passing brought forth a torrent of obituaries, and although some of them highlighted his contrarian tendencies and entrenched convictions, all recognised his extraordinary talents and achievements. 

In the 1980s he had bought a house in Ireland and took Irish citizenship. On his death, Irish President Michael D. Higgins wrote: “With his passing the world of journalism and informed commentary on the Middle East has lost one of its finest commentators”. 

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