Reviewing a BBC News website description of Robert Fisk

The lead article on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on November 2nd and 3rd was titled “Robert Fisk, veteran UK journalist, dies aged 74”.

Along with euphemisms such as “drew controversy for his sharp criticism of the US and Israel” and “was accused of being lenient towards the Syrian government in his reporting of the country’s long and brutal civil war”, readers found the following:

“After the 11 September attacks plotted by Bin Laden, Fisk, an Arabic speaker, spent the next two decades covering conflicts throughout the Middle East, including in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.” [emphasis added]

Robert Fisk’s Arabic language skills and factual inaccuracies were the topic of a blogpost by former Guardian Middle East editor Brian Whitaker in 2013.

“Fisk is at his most comical when he gets on his high horse and immediately falls off. Writing with (justified) indignation about the killings in Baba Amr last year, he began:

“So it’s the ‘cleaning’ of Baba Amr now, is it? ‘Tingheef’ in Arabic. Did that anonymous Syrian government official really use that word to the AP yesterday?”

Well, no. Obviously a Syrian official wouldn’t use the word ‘tingheef’, since it doesn’t exist in Arabic.

Fisk likes to drop the occasional Arabic word into his articles – they add local flavour and possibly impress readers who are unfamiliar with the language. For those who are familiar with Arabic, on the other hand, it only draws attention to his carelessness.

Fiskian Arabic is often based on mis-hearings or rough approximations of real words. […]

On another occasion, Fisk misquoted a famous Baathist slogan:

“Not for nothing do Syrians shout Um al Arabiya Wahida (‘mother of one Arab nation’).”

The correct phrase is Ummah Arabiyya Wahida (“One Arab Nation”) and Fisk had made the elementary mistake of confusing umm (mother) with ummah (nation/community/people). Apparently unaware of this error, he repeated it in the first paragraph of another column a few months later:

“For Syria – the ‘Um al-Arabia wahida’, the Mother of One Arab People, as the Baathists would have it – is a tough creature …””

Apparently the anonymous writer of this BBC report on the death of Robert Fisk can be included in the category of “readers who are unfamiliar” with the Arabic language.

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