Standing recently outside the Frontline, a London club for foreign correspondents and their admirers, a female professor offered a cigarette to the veteran war reporter beside her. ‘Thank you,’ he said, narrowing his eyes like a character in a pulp movie, ‘but I only smoke when I’m under fire.’
It’s the sort of self-mythologising line you hear all too often at the Frontline, where members preen like latter-day Hemingways amid lovingly curated war-reporting memorabilia — shrapnel-damaged cameras, scorched press cards, and so on — often in the admiring company of young freelancers and students.
The Frontline is much more than just a hacks’ hangout; it hosts talks on foreign affairs, debates and book launches. My first visit occurred a decade ago, when I was a student at Yale spending a summer in London and a journalism professor urged me to check out the place. I don’t recall the exact topic of the panel discussion that evening (something about the Balkans), but I do remember the types who made up much of the audience: earnest, prone to bloviating and oneupmanship (judging by those asking questions from the floor), and with the kind of political views you encounter in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section.
The Frontline Club has been serving up braggadocio with a side of leftish politics since 2003. More recently, it became well-known as the London headquarters of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, before he took up residence in the Ecuadorian embassy.
One of few remaining wealthy supporters of the Australian hacker is Vaughan Smith, the Frontline Club’s founder. A celebrated former freelance cameraman and one of the two surviving founder-members of the swashbuckling Frontline News TV Agency, Smith hosted Assange for nearly a year at Ellingham Hall, his family’s stately home in Norfolk, while the latter was on bail awaiting judgment from an English court on the Swedish request for his extradition on rape charges.
Since 2010, when Assange used the club to announce the release of secret Afghan ‘war logs’ stolen from the US Army, Frontline has been one of his biggest boosters. Before holing up at Smith’s ten-bedroom estate, Assange slept in one of the club’s bedrooms. Frontline has also offered Wikileaks office space and hosted several events on its behalf. And it was at the Frontline Club that Wikileaks held a celebratory press conference last month after a UN panel ruled that the British government had ‘arbitrarily detained’ Assange by posting round-the-clock police patrols outside the embassy. Nevertheless, Sky News foreign affairs editor Sam Kiley, a club stalwart, insisted to me that, ‘there is no Frontline Club position on Assange’, adding that he personally believes that ‘Assange should face the music’.
Vaughan Smith is a classic aristocratic radical with libertarian leanings. He had been a captain in the Grenadier Guards, and then became a cameraman, making a name for himself during the first Gulf war when he donned his old uniform, created a false ID and bluffed his way to the front. He had already set up the Frontline agency with several pals who had become video journalists after public school or the army, and was an outspoken campaigner for cameramen to get better treatment and more credit from international news organisations. ‘I’ve been shot more times than I have been credited by the BBC,’ he once declared.
Smith’s support for Assange seems to verge on worship and dismays some of his friends. It survived not only Assange’s breach of bail — which cost Smith his £20,000 surety — but the ingratitude that Assange routinely dishes out to all his radical-chic supporters. (Anyone interested in just how narcissistic, paranoid and unpleasant Assange can be should read Andrew O’Hagan’s article in the London Review of Books about his experience as ghostwriter of Assange’s memoir.)
In 2010, I met Assange at the Oslo Freedom Forum and heard him deliver a harangue in which he compared Guantanamo Bay to Auschwitz. It’s not clear what it is about Assange that Smith finds so compelling: his brilliance as a hacker, his anti-establishment stance, his obsessive anti-Americanism, his womanising, his adoring young cult followers, his James Bondish talk of safe-houses and assassination plots, or his unshakeable confidence.
It seems odd that anyone who has spent much time with Assange wouldn’t be a little troubled by the way his behaviour contradicts his stated ideals — such as his threatening Wikileaks staff with £12 million lawsuits if they leaked its own secrets. However, as one member explained to me, ‘You’ve got to understand, Vaughan is a nice, well-meaning posh boy with lots of courage but politically very naive.’
It’s a testament to Smith’s fortitude that he could tolerate the world’s worst houseguest for quite so long.
The sad thing is that Smith cannot see why Assange is unworthy of his or Frontline’s support. After all, the club was founded for a noble purpose. Smith began it in 2003 in honour of colleagues who had been killed in pursuit of the news. It was supposed to be a place where journalists who had been through the horrors of war could decompress with their own kind and give each other moral support.
From the start, Frontline advocated for freelance journalists, cameramen and photographers. Jamie Linville, a London-based American writer, recalls one of the club’s first events, an effort to get news organisations to provide low-cost dangerous-environment training for freelancers: ‘Christiane Amanpour, the moderator, held the feet of news chiefs to the fire,’ he says. Since then, freelance reporting from war zones has become even more dangerous, while news organisations have become less likely to provide insurance, safety training and healthcare.
Later on, the Frontline devolved into something rather less idealistic, a watering hole and performance venue for the kind of blowhard who might boast that he personally had liberated Kabul from the Taleban.
A British journalist I interviewed told me, ‘When Frontline first started I was very keen to be a member. I’d been through really hardcore post-traumatic stress syndrome.’ She hoped the club could be a ‘containing vessel’ for recovering journalists. Yet it soon dawned on her that she was being too idealistic: ‘It’s been “My war story’s bigger than yours” from the outset.’
If humility is in short supply at the Frontline bar, you also don’t encounter much diversity of opinion at Frontline events. The baddies are usually America, Israel and the West. Terrorists are ‘resistance’ fighters; Britain’s security services are a greater threat to freedom of speech than Islamists, who are more sinned against than sinning. This is perhaps another reason why Assange and the Frontline ethos are so compatible. No one really goes to the Frontline to hear genuinely fresh ideas; they go to have their prejudices confirmed, or to hear Flashmanesque tales of derring-do, or both.
Jonathan Foreman, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts for the narrow range of views expressed at the Frontline in this way: ‘Foreign correspondents like to think of themselves as mavericks but in practice they tend to be herd animals, hanging out in the same hotels and bars and forming a group consensus about the rights and wrongs of any conflict.’
The Frontline might be doing more of a service to freelancers if it hosted serious discussion about the ethical traps of conflict reporting. These range from overreliance on, and exploitation of, local fixers to the temptation to make stuff up if it fits the preconceived narrative of a particular conflict.
Anyone who’s spent time in the game knows that some famous war correspondents don’t just stretch the truth about their own heroics but also about the news they report, rather in the manner of Wenlock Jakes, Evelyn Waugh’s fictional superstar reporter in Scoop. Among the Frontline’s star members and most frequent speakers are a journalist who infamously wrote at length about a West Bank ‘massacre’ that never happened, another who won a prize for an ‘interview’ with a Taleban executioner who did not in fact exist (she later claimed he was a ‘composite’), and a third, legendary on Fleet Street for his inventiveness, who used to file dispatches datelined Beirut from a flat in Belfast.
It would be wrong to say that everything about the Frontline is bad. The Frontline Fund raises money for the families of local fixers and support staff killed working for international media — a worthy cause. Moreover, as a London-based journalist told me, ‘The restaurant really does have good food.’ (Much of it organically grown at Smith’s 600-acre Norfolk estate.) But the cuisine doesn’t offset the boasting, the cliquishness and the bien-pensant politics.
The sad truth is, a club that began as a kind of shrine to cameramen killed in the line of duty, such as Rory Peck, has become a temple to journalistic self-regard.