Fixers – the unsung heroes (and villains) of foreign reporting

A publisher has sent The Sunday Telegraph foreign desk a copy of a new novel called “Baghdad Fixer”. It’s a thriller about an Iraq called Nabil who works as a fixer/translator (the two terms are generally interchangeable) for a female American journalist after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

As might be expected, the plot focuses partly on his efforts to keep her alive through car-bombings, kidnaps and the like. The twist, though, is that unlike most other “journo” books about Iraq, such as my own, it’s written from the fixer’s perspective rather than the reporter’s.

Hence some rather candid insights about how many of the Baghdad foreign press corps came across to the Iraqis. Namely, somewhat self-obsessed, not terribly well-informed, and, in speaking little or no Arabic, somewhat under-qualified for relaying the complexities of the unfolding crisis to the outside world. Though it pains me to say so, I can’t help wondering if Nabil might have worked for me at some point.

This book does, however, remind me of a general trend in recent years, which is to slightly canonise the role of the fixer in foreign reporting. It’s true in that in places like Baghdad they do a hazardous job, risking – and sometimes losing – their lives simply for the crime of working with Western reporters, aka the CIA (two other terms that are generally interchangeable in certain circles in Iraq).

As such, no award-winning war zone reporter or TV news crew makes an acceptance speech these days without an Oscars-style thank-you to their fixer, the “unsung hero” behind the headlines.

But, in the interests of journalistic balance, I should point that this cosy buddy relationship by no means covers all journalist/fixer relationships. Quite the opposite, if anything. In my experience, it’s equally common to hear journalists cursing their fixers with every last breath, denouncing them for being lazy, inept, or unpunctual. Or for having no balls. Or being completely reckless. Or for being money-grabbing charlatans. Or for not even turning up for work. Or… you get the idea.

The problem is that like journalism itself, fixing is not a profession as such. There are no professional standards, let alone international ones. Many fixers, especially in war zones and other places where they are in short supply, are simply people hired on the spot and off the street. Cabbies with a passing knowledge of English, for example, or receptionists at your hotel, or students from some local English college. Or their friend or cousin. Or their cousin’s friend. As such, the quality is liable to vary hopelessly.

Take my own first fixer in Iraq, a pensioner called Haider, who claimed to be a professor of English and linguistics at Baghdad University. Initially he impressed me by quoting Shakespeare at length. But after half a morning working with him, it quickly became clear that his repertoire didn’t extend much beyond set pieces of Elizabethan English. My own 21st-century English he could barely understand, nor speak. We parted company by mutual consent after just two days, him having demanded that I double his wage.

True, I hired Haider just after the end of the US-led invasion, when the entire world’s media were in Baghdad, and when every last half-decent fixer had already been snapped up for a wage way beyond my paltry freelance budget. But that brings us to another problem. While some fixers, yes, may be in it purely to help unearth the “truth” of what is going on in their country, others are in it more for the money. Or, at least, they certainly are once some big US network channel turns up and starts offering $250 a day, equivalent to a month’s salary in Iraq. As such, very few journalists I know have not had a blazing row with a fixer over money at some point.

Obviously, this is not the kind of thing that the international press corps, who are generally a liberal, well-intentioned bunch, tend to want to highlight. Indeed, in championing the contribution of fixers, there is – perhaps rightly – a touch of liberal guilt about the whole relationship, in which someone from a rich nation employs someone from a poor one, and occasions them to take certain risks.

Personally, I am a little more hard-headed about it, although I have my reasons. While on assignment covering the Somali piracy crisis in 2008, I was kidnapped by my own bodyguards, who held my photographer and me for six weeks in a cave. The bodyguards, in turn, had been hired by our two fixers. Which led us to the conclusion that our fixers were either very poor judges of character indeed, or, worse still, were in on the act themselves. I am not, therefore, inclined to romanticise my relationships with fixers I work with.

But after nearly a decade working as a foreign correspondent, I am fairly sure that I am not alone in having a slightly jaded attitude. Wherever foreign correspondents loiter en masse abroad, be it at a press conference or a bar, conversation will often turn to fixers, quite often with a “can’t-get-the-staff-these-days’ tone.

In other words, for all that fixers may be the unsung heroes of the foreign news business, they can also be the unsung villains as well. And in a way, it’s a shame this gets overlooked. After all, how much more entertaining would TV war-zone despatches be if you saw the blazing rows earlier in the day, where the fixer suddenly demands double the money to drive anywhere near the front line?

Anyway, the arrival of “Baghdad Fixer” has reminded me of a back-burner fantasy project to write my own book about fixers, provisionally titled “Fixers I have known”. Or, maybe, “In a Fix”. It would cover all the people who have worked with me around the world, which, looking back on it, is quite a varied bunch.

In Iraq, the Shakespeare-loving Haider was succeeded by the formidable Colonel Mohammed, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Saddam Hussein lookalike who had been in second-in-command of a tank division during the war. He was brilliant, if a little scary: some people assumed he wasn’t my fixer but my bodyguard. Following on from The Colonel was Nadim, a member of Unknown to No-one, Iraq’s only boy band, and a fan of Barbara Streisand. He used to play I am a Woman in Love while we drove around Baghdad in his people carrier, with me singing along, although for some reason he never invited me to join his band.

Others have been briefer encounters on assignments lasting only a few days, but no duller for it: Artyom, the WWII historian in Moscow; Ben, the veteran of Nigeria’s Biafran War; Spiros, the mobile-phone salesman who worked for me on a story about drug-dealing shepherds in Crete.

On a job interviewing Colonel Gaddafi’s daughter in 2010, I was even lucky enough to work with the Libyan leader’s personal translator, Fouad Zlitni, a frizzy-haired facsimile of Gaddafi himself (he is now in hiding, I think). Then, during Gaddafi’s fall, I was assisted by Othman, a 19-year-old Libyan-Scouser who told me that I looked a lot like Phil Collins. It was supposed to be a compliment. Not so bad, though, as my fixer in Latvia, a campaigner for lesbian rights, who approvingly informed my photographer that he dressed “just like a gay Latvian man”.

In Egypt over the last 18 months, I have been fortunate enough to work with a succession of  brave liberal activists, whose only problem is that they constantly criticise me for not asking sufficiently tough questions. And in Albania a while back, I worked with a heavy metal fan who was until recently the country’s only practising Satanist. We got on very well.

Alternatively, there might also be a book along the lines of “Fixers through the Ages”. In the course of researching my book about being kidnapped in Somalia, I learned about John Hanning Speke, the swashbuckling explorer who was the first Brit to go there back in the 1850s. It was considered even more dangerous for Westerners then than it is now, although Speke, who always had his trusty Dean & Adams pistol at his side, was rather better able to handle himself than I was.

All the same, he still needed a fixer to act as guide and interpreter. And in his “Journal of Adventures in the Somali country”, I was heartened to read that the chap he hired proved to be an absolute scoundrel, ignoring his instructions, ripping him off on donkeys and supplies, and generally swindling him with a “thousand and one stories”.

At one point, when they have a blazing row in the middle of the desert, the fixer simply cackles in Speke’s face and asks him where he thinks he will get anyone better from. As Speke remarks despairingly: “to have shot him would have given me great relief”.

Not to be discouraged, Speke duly completes his journey, later going on to discover the source of the Nile on a subsequent African adventure. There’s even an obelisk to him in London’s Kensington Gardens, and whenever I go through that part of London, I remind myself that just like reporters, the great explorers of the world too have their good and bad fixers. As of yet, though, no-one has chiselled the name of Speke’s Nile fixer onto his obelisk…


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