Robert Fisk: Swat the flies and tell the truth – live on al-Jazeera

 

Robert Fisk
Saturday 11 June 2011 00:00
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'This is al-Jazeera." The familiar "jib shot" as the boom swings the camera down from the height of the studio, and there is Sami Zeidan or David Foster or Darren Jordan or Nick Clark or Ghida Fakhry.

And, reeling with exhaustion just behind the two floor cameras after 12 hours – live on the hour, almost every hour – is your hero. Just a touch of the hands to the hair – see how vain you get within 24 hours of being the "presenter's friend" (a "yuk" expression that lends itself only to television) – and you are following the lady who's just wired you up on to the stage while they're showing a PKG (yes, a "package") from the Libyan border.

There's a kind of cathedral-like hush in the vast al-Jazeera studio even when they're not going live from the floor, a pitter-patter of key-boards as everyone emails everyone else sitting two seats away. "Now Bob Fisk, you've lived here for more than 30 years, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent. Tell us what this really means." And of course, off I waffle about Obama, Aipac, Bashar al-Assad's wife (she's in London – where else?), about the fact that the Brits and the French have run out of bombs to attack Gaddafi and are buying more from the Americans.

I quote Ataturk on Libya – he found the rebels outside Benghazi "hopeless", but no one emailed Nato with the quotation before the whole fandango began – and I warn David Foster (who keeps opening and folding his spectacles in a rather over-professorial way) that revolutions don't always end happily. "Remember the French revolution of 1789 that ended in the Terror?" I pontificate. Quick as a flash, Foster goes for me. "Well, I don't personally remember, Bob, but then again you're older than me." Aaaaagh!

But the great thing is that on al-Jazeera English, you can say what you want, tell the truth in other words – and thank God nothing much actually happens in Qatar, home of al-Jazeera, because I somehow doubt that the Emir, who funds this extraordinary shooting match, would be subjected to quite the same serious interrogation by its titans of journalism. But then again, both the English and the Arabic versions of al-Jazeera are, in their less than odd way, a state project, part of the nation's diplomacy, an extension of Qatar's foreign policy, an institution that helps Qatar (I hate these British clichés because they remind me of William Hague) to "punch above its weight".

Then I'm back on again, and this time, in the middle of a Fisk tirade against Western duplicity in the Gulf, a bumblebee-sized fly whizzes round the head of the presenter and bashes into my nose. I give it an enormous swat and suddenly realise that the viewer will not see the fly, just Fisk bashing himself in the face. In a millisecond, I recall filming for RTE, Irish state television, from the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut in 1982 and how – a ghastly but all too relevant memory – the flies moved from the corpses to me and how I spent much of my report swatting my own face. Irish viewers couldn't see the flies. So "My goodness!" I cried aloud to the presenter, live and on air, "You've got a rogue fly in your studio." Then my eye moved towards one of the cameras, only to see a stray cat wandering across the studio. Was it normal to have wildlife on this scale in their state-of-the-art studio? I quickly discovered that it was. There is another stray cat and he/she once went on air, a set of furry paws walking carefully along the top of the screen behind the presenter's head and visible to viewers around the world. It became another bit of the al-Jazeera legend – along with George W Bush's insane desire to bomb the studios, which would certainly have put paid to the cats – and the laid-back element to all this is part of the station's charm. No one knows, for example, how many viewers it has. "Millions and millions," one reporter tells me with a shrug of the shoulders, "but there is no ratings system in the Arab world." But it's the number three channel in South Africa, number two in Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population on the planet. And it's very definitely number one for the munchkins in the State Department's Middle East section who watch it obsessively and often in the White House too.

To call the al-Jazeera staff multicultural is an understatement. Among them: South Africans, Nigerians, Chinese, Malaysians, Brits, New Zealanders, Brazilians, Lebanese, Iraqis and, very occasionally, a Qatari. They live in a world of "9-G" and "12-G" and I'm told I've to be on at "16.12-G", and desperately I count one hour behind London time for GMT and add two to bring it to Beirut time and realise that I'm not on until 7pm local. As I work this out, I see one of the cats finishing off a pie which an editor has left on his desk. It becomes a bit of a dream. From New York, Daniel Levy, former assistant to Ehud Barak in Israel, launches into a bitter attack on Netanyahu. I say on air with a big grin that I agree with everything Levy says. "Stop there, Bob. Daniel, I have to ask you how you feel when Bob Fisk says he agrees with everything you say." Levy: "I'm honoured." Reeling, I am.

It's two days before I learn that the voice behind "This is al-Jazeera" is Mike Walker, the British "team leader" of the picture department, and I knock on his door. "My daughter is a bit embarrassed," he tells me, "but she thinks it's cool." I bid farewell and he shouts: "This is Robert Fisk." I run for my life. Al-Jazeera Wildlife would make a good channel. Or al-Jazeera Comedy.

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