Considering how much criticism they dish out, journalists – especially those who’ve seen combat – should be well equipped to handle a little flak. Not, apparently, the founder and most vocal members of London’s Frontline Club, a hangout for foreign correspondents and their admirers which in recent years has doubled as an advocacy organization for Wikileaks and its impresario Julian Assange. In the latest issue of Spectator Life, I criticized the Frontline as “a den of swagger and lefty self-regard” and questioned the wisdom of the link up with Assange. Led by the club’s co-founder Vaughan Smith, members have responded with a riptide of self-righteous indignation, outraged that anyone would dare express the slightest bit of skepticism or amusement about their steadfast commitment to fearless war reporting. They’ve also complained about my lack of “impartiality”, as though the piece was a report for News at Ten rather than an article in a journal of opinion.
It’s no secret that war reporters, particularly British ones, have a tendency to show-off. Indeed, the Brits invented the stereotype of the swashbuckling, hard-drinking journalistic bullshit artist. Of course, not all foreign correspondents are insufferable twits. But enough of them are for there to have developed, over a century ago, an entire literary genre based upon the type. And seemingly all of them are members of the Frontline.
After my editor Toby Young offered Smith a right-of-reply, he turned in a 1,700-word barnstormer. Given that this was longer than my original article, and was peppered with insults, Toby offered to publish it in abbreviated form. After threatening to “take this matter further” if Toby didn’t print the unexpurgated version, Smith turned to Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City College and Guardian media blogger, who printed the rebuttal in its entirety at his own parish. Smith also posted “the Toby Young edit” of his piece on his own website, the contents of which reveal not only that he is a verbose pseud, but that Toby is a fine and discriminating line editor.
Smith uses most of his rebuttal to note the many fine deeds pursued by the Frontline Club and its members, which I acknowledged in my original piece. But like his hero Assange, who sees morally complex issues in the black-and-white hues of a perpetually enraged undergraduate fresh from finishing his first bit of Noam Chomsky, Smith is incapable of accepting that the Frontline’s charitable achievements are perfectly compatible with its serving as a redoubt for the “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English?” school of “conflict reporting”.
There’s a simple rule in journalism that the journalists at the Frontline would do well to remember: If you make a living by dishing it out, you’ve got to learn to take it.