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The Last War Correspondent

Matthew Fisher in the cockpit of a RCAF C-17 en route to Afghanistan in 2011. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher

News of Canadian journalist Matthew Fisher's death broke on April 10, 2021, generating an outpouring of tributes from friends, colleagues, and readers on social media. In the summer of 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing the long-time foreign and war correspondent about his family and career as well as the state of journalism. This is the story of The Last War Correspondent.

“I’ve been everywhere man. I’ve been everywhere man. Crossed the deserts bare, man. I’ve breathed the mountain air, man. Travel, I’ve had my share, man. I’ve been everywhere.”

--I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash

Early in life, Matthew Fisher knew he wanted to travel and see the world. And after working for over three decades as a foreign and war correspondent, he has accomplished what he set out to do so many years ago.

According to the veteran Canadian newspaper reporter, he has travelled to 170 countries, visited every state in the United States and every province and territory in Canada. And for the past 35 years, Fisher has spent between 200 and 320 days out of every year travelling the globe in pursuit of international stories.

Without a doubt, Fisher is highly regarded within Canadian journalism. In fact, colleagues describe him as the dean of foreign correspondents, a title that he has earned by working overseas covering revolutions, civil conflicts, wars, as well as international sporting events, including the Olympics.

By his own count, Fisher has covered 20 conflicts, placing him in a very elite group of journalists. War correspondents are a special breed, researching and writing stories about battles, soldiers, and the terrible toll war takes on civilians. And war correspondents also take calculated risks, putting their lives on the line to bring readers news of the world.

Crippled newspaper industry

However, the rise of the Internet and the decline of advertising revenues have crippled the newspaper industry, forcing media organizations to fire journalists, close newspapers, and drastically curtail international news coverage. The writing has been on the wall for years. The number of Canadian foreign correspondents has declined steadily and corporate investments in quality international journalism have diminished.

In the rapidly changing Canadian media landscape, Matthew Fisher could very well be the last real war correspondent, a throwback to a time when journalists were adventure seeking mavericks who would sleep in a different bed every night or in the back seat of a car, moving from hot spot to hot spot to get the next big scoop.

The war correspondent must be tough, resilient, resourceful, and possess solid judgement and experience in order to survive and get the job done in conflict zones where life is cheap and death is just a heartbeat away.

Matthew Fisher (right) with Lance Corporal Mark Cattabay (left) & Lance Corporal Beaut Mattiota in the turret of Black Six, a Canadian-built LAV, deep inside Iraq in March 2003. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher.

On a practical level, Fisher, who turned 64 in July, believes that language skills are important for journalists who venture into the field. He speaks English, French, and German fluently, and possesses “a basic working knowledge of Russian and Spanish.” His “big regret” in the languages department is that he can barely make himself understood in Arabic and only speaks a few words in Mandarin, because these two languages, in particular, are “mighty important for a journalist these days.”

When he first embarked on a career in journalism, did the young Matthew think that he would get to see so much of the world and experience so much excitement? “That certainly was my hope,” he replied.

When it came to deciding on a career, Fisher, at the age of 16, had a conversation with his father, Douglas Fisher, a successful federal politician who is perhaps best remembered for his career as a print and broadcast journalist after he left politics.

The teenage Matthew told his father that he didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living but that he wanted to travel. And the elder Fisher imparted the best advice that his son has ever received. “He said, ‘You make sure somebody else pays for it,’” he recalled. “In other words, travel for work.”

Matthew Fisher seemed destined to become a war correspondent. “I very much wanted to cover wars, because I grew up in a home where both my parents were veterans of Europe in the Second World War,” he said. Moreover, Fisher’s godfather was a prisoner of war (POW) after being captured by the Germans. And many of the family’s friends had been in the war. “So I heard an awful lot about conflict,” he added.

Even though Fisher started out as a sports reporter, in his spare time he “would go and spend a few weeks trying to see wars.” He recalled that the first conflict he saw firsthand, at age 19 or 20, was the revolution in Mozambique. Fisher “hung out with a group of European war correspondents”, but none of his reports from Mozambique were published by any news organization.

“Nevertheless, it whet my appetite,” Fisher said of the life of a war correspondent. He continued as an overseas sports reporter in his 20s. “But every chance I got I would try to go to a conflict zone.”

For example, while covering basketball tournaments in Mexico, Fisher would head down to Central America to cover wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. “Again nobody really wanted any of the work I produced, but it was all grist for the mill,” he said of his early experiences.

“It wasn’t actually until I joined The Globe and Mail in 1984 that I first got my chance to start doing some military journalism seriously,” he noted. He covered the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, “which certainly had a military-security dimension.”

In 1991, Fisher covered the First Gulf War in which an American led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The war marked the completion of his transformation into a full-fledged war correspondent.

Fisher has experienced a range of conflicts over the years, giving him unique insights that inform his reporting. “Without the context, you don’t really get an idea if this is a good war, a bad war, or a just war, or how the local population are reacting,” he explained. “I think the more you do it (war reporting), as with anything else in life, the more you can compare strands and make more reasoned judgements about you are seeing.”

Douglas Fisher

“He was a very well-known politician and journalist” over the decades, Fisher said of his celebrated father. Douglas Fisher was first elected as a Member of Parliament under the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) banner, defeating Liberal powerhouse C.D. Howe in the 1957 federal election.

According to douglasfisher.ca, a website devoted to the elder Fisher, his 1957 electoral victory is “arguably the greatest upset in Canadian history.” And he won re-election three times and was part of the transition of the CCF into the New Democratic Party (NDP). Douglas Fisher eventually resigned his seat, retiring from politics undefeated.

“After that, he became a journalist,” Matthew Fisher said of his late father. Douglas Fisher’s heydays as a journalist were from the 1960s through the 1990s. Not only did he write multiple newspaper columns every week, the highly regarded journalist was also a regular on CTV’s Question Period as well as having his own television show on CJOH in Ottawa. Having spent five decades on Parliament Hill, Douglas Fisher had become the “oracle” of Canadian politics, his son said.

How did Douglas Fisher react when his son told him that he was going to be a foreign correspondent? “My father always wanted me to cover Canadian politics,” replied Matthew Fisher.

“I wouldn’t say that he was hugely disappointed. But he was somewhat disappointed that I was not as fascinated by Parliament and the political scene in Ottawa as I was by being overseas. But he was quite supportive of what I did.”

In fact, Douglas sometimes provided “avuncular” advice to his son, and at other times he imparted practical knowledge about journalism and war.

Douglas Fisher (left) with son Matthew (right) in 2005. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher.

For example, on the eve of the 2003 war in Iraq, when his war correspondent son was about to accompany a U.S. Marine unit into battle, Douglas sent the younger man a poignant letter. The letter was “about how it feels as a soldier” the night before a big battle, “all the things that go through your mind,” recalled Matthew Fisher. And the message was that “war is capricious, and people will die around you, and you may survive without a scratch. And there is no rhyme or reason to it; it’s just plain luck.”

The letter “affected me quite a bit,” said Fisher. “It was a lovely note he wrote to me.”

Fallen colleagues

In Fisher’s line of work, journalists are sometimes killed reporting the news. For example, he recalled the death of Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent with the Los Angeles Times, in Honduras back in 1983. Torgerson was killed when a rocket propelled grenade hit the vehicle that he was riding in near the Nicaraguan border. Just the day before, Fisher had been out in the field with the L.A. Times reporter. “So that really brought home the dangers of the job,” Fisher recalled.

“In Afghanistan, my Christmas replacement, Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald had come over and only had been there a couple of days (after) I had gone home for Christmas when she was killed by a landmine” or Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Four Canadian soldiers also perished in that deadly incident.

“Again, it was a reminder to me of how dangerous…,” said Fisher, his voice trailing off. “I don’t know how many people I have practiced journalism with who died…just off the top of my head, I can think of eight, or nine or ten. It’s probably a bit more than that.”

There are different kinds of war reporting, some much more dangerous than others. And Fisher has often found himself in dangerous situations. “For a fairly long time,” conceded Fisher, “I reported at the deep end of the pool in quite dangerous and unpredictable situations. And you have to take calculated risks sometimes. And also know when not to take any risks at all.”