News reporting from some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones is not a job that appeals to everyone, but some have made it their own personal mission statement. Natasha Tsangarides interviews Vaughan Smith, independent war zone journalist and founder of London's Frontline Club.
What were your motivations for opening the Frontline Club?
I had run, for 15 years, a small news agency called Frontline News, which I started with three friends with a view to try to cover war zones. I’d been a soldier and we thought we could make loads of money. We didn’t make very much money but after a short while we really got into it and I think became very appreciative of the idea that journalism could be something worth having a go at.
Anyway, cutting it slightly short, we did ok. I think we became good journalists. We risked our lives as well as our livelihoods, whereas others were just risking their lives. We were getting killed a lot faster than them because we were, in some regards, in a slightly riskier situation because we had no back up, no support. We lost 8 people in 15 years. The other problem I had, not only that we were getting killed, was we were finding that the price that we could get for our material was going down and not up. In the end, we also found that it was quite hard to do business with large broadcasters who weren’t well able to assess your value to them and we found that they wouldn’t pay us on time and I got so annoyed by all of this and so annoyed that people were getting killed, my friends who weren’t even making a proper living wage, that I thought I should stop. At the same time, I needed to do something to stay in the industry. I thought we had a lot to contribute. It seemed to me that I had lots of contacts in the industry. We had a very good reputation for integrity and courage and things like that. We thought, “Right, let’s start the Frontline Club!”
A lot of very good journalists feel dissatisfied; they are doing celebrity interviews instead of doing real news stories so there’s an environment which has made opening a club for people who are serious about news and love it and became journalists because they wanted to travel the world and report on what is going on in it; there’s a widespread feeling in my view and of some amazing people, that the industry hasn’t quite worked for them in some ways and isn’t anymore. I think it has become appealing for people to set upon a club that isn’t just an industry common room but is somewhere which brings in the best in the industry. We set it up with certain values. We claim to champion, rather grandly, independent journalism. Well, we may not be its champions but we certainly support it. And the great thing about independent journalism is that everyone thinks they are doing independent journalism.
Looking at some of the films that you have screened here, a lot of them could be seen as activist style documentaries or certainly pushing some kind of political opinion. Does this reflect your commitment to screening documentaries with political messages?
I think we have a commitment to the debate. Very often, we have arguments about what is acceptable and what’s not. And I do not subscribe to the idea, personally which I qualify, that there’s really very much that shouldn’t be discussed. I think the great failure of political correctness is that it has allowed people to retain unacceptable views without displaying them and ultimately I don’t think it’s made society better – what it’s made is a society unable to face things and discuss things and get into things and ridicule bad ideas because you can’t mention them. And I think that, in a sense, the politicisation of the ability to talk is a very bad idea: get everything out into the open, however ridiculous, and shoot it down.
You mentioned earlier about people not doing journalism how you did it before. How did your method differ and do you think that mainstream journalists today can have the same values of integrity that you did?
I don’t think it’s a matter of individual integrity. It would be appalling for someone like me to tell everybody now that they were much worse than we were because that’s just rubbish. What I think is possibly true is that the environments we work in are different and the pressures that are on us might be slightly different. We all have mortgages and I think that that can be a problem for journalists. A newspaper can change the words of a writer and they have people employed to do just that. In video, in TV news, you have a whole train of people all influencing the output of things. For example, the Americans have screen approval. You would be in the field and have to ring back to get your script approved. No one can deny that news output is falling. It’s no secret that news is going down in some regards. I think it’s very misguided. I think we’re failing our society – we tell it that it wants crap, so we give it crap. I think that there’s a massive marketing failure when news organisations can persuade the general public that being clever is not cool. Being informed is somehow not desirable. I suspect that the real problem is that good news is more expensive and doesn’t have the same returns. Now, I am no expert in this, but certainly if I’m committed to anything, it’s to ensuring there is news of diversity and quality available tomorrow. And I suspect that there will be more available on the internet than on the television. But mind you, it’s all the same now.
I’m not sure that I agree with you here.
…You don’t have to agree with me. I’m the one being interviewed….
You think that the main or the big issue is funding. I would argue that it is politics.
You could easily be right. But I don’t just think it’s funding. I think it’s a sense of will. I think it is part funding… but I also think what you’re saying is absolutely right. I think that what you’ve seen is a deterioration of available models in journalism: the privately owned newspaper is gone, and what you get left with is corporates who subscribe to a common agenda in terms of the news agenda. In a sense there’s a tendency to recruit storytellers rather than really good journalists. I think that corporates have narrower agendas in what they are trying to achieve. I’d like the club to be supporting something that didn’t have quite such a narrow approach to what news was and be part of the ability for individuals to get a message out or messages out, the product of good journalism. Because I don’t think good journalism is a complex thing to sell.
What’s your opinion on the so-called War on Terror at the moment? Do you think that it’s balanced, that it’s objective, that there is room for dissension against the war in the mainstream media?
I think there’s so much anger in journalists, and amongst the whole population, that we’re in war at all because we never wanted to be. It was quite clear that the country was not behind the war. I don’t think we’ve got over that, we’re so pissed off that no one’s apologised for getting us into this mess in the first place and no one’s been honest about saying we’ve made a mistake and this is what we’ve got to do to fix it… I’m not sure I can quote much more because everyone thinks it’s just been fucking awful.
And the fact that so many people are pissed off with the war – do you think that that has been represented?
Well, certainly it has. And it has led to an anti-Americanism, which is really anti-Bush, not anti-America. One thing I’m pleased about in this country is that we don’t suffer from that awful liberal tendency in America to blame their loss on the Iraqis. Even the liberals in America will say “Oh, it’s the Iraqis who haven’t accepted this wonderful thing.” What they’re not saying is how many Iraqis are being killed in this awful war that we initiated and didn’t find these Weapons of Mass Destruction. And how we have managed to destroy the origins of civilization, all the monuments that represent that and failed to guard the museums, and they’re not asking those questions. I don’t think their journalism is asking those questions – but that’s America – Here, we are. You do see those questions but I’d like to see more. I think we need to understand that we have a responsibility not only for our soldiers who are being killed but also for those they are killing. You can’t blame the soldiers for it because that is what they are paid to do but you can blame the politicians for getting it wrong.
What do you think are the key challenges facing independents in today’s world?
Broadly, ignoring the very specific Middle Eastern issues we’ve been talking about…. Making a living is the biggest one. I think picking up the right skills is a challenge, but it isn’t the skills but the approach to independent journalism which is the skill. One can learn to be a reasonable cameraman and this, that and the other, but understanding an approach to good journalism and how to deliver something that serves a use rather than positioning a certain viewpoint I think is the most important thing. I get frustrated when journalists think they are the only ones who can cope with journalism because it’s such a difficult trade – it is not. You know, it’s basic. You’re trying to tell the truth, you’re trying to be fair, that’s all you’re trying to do. The individual journalist is pushing an idea, an opportunity that they’ve never had before. It’s come from the ability to deliver the product from the internet and mobile telephones and around the corner in a way that they can retain ownership of – they don’t need a large organization to broadcast, they don’t need a large, expensive camera to film with, and they’ve got a computer and the internet and all of those things have come to a point where they are almost viable now. For example, you don’t need an IT team of 70 like The Guardian has to have a fantastic website. You can go and get white label software and for nearly nothing you’ve got a cracking site. This puts the emphasis and the strength into the person with the contacts, the journalist, and not the technician.
What do you think are the ethical types of questions that come up as a frontline journalist?
There are hundreds of them. I think the key fundamental ability one needs to be useful in journalism is the ability to try to be fair, to attempt to be fair. The first ethical question is: have you really got a right to do this and pretend to be a journalist or are you just going to out something? There are ethical questions everywhere you go. I can illustrate one. I remember being in Grozny and coming across after a shell had landed, a bloke with no legs wriggling around and needing help. What do you do? One thing’s for sure, you need to have thought what you’re going to do before you reach a situation like that. So I would certainly suggest that there are no ethical answers, and there isn’t one for that one, but I think that people, if they’re going to do that kind of frontline journalism, need to appreciate very clearly why they are there. Are you there to take the record, are you there because you’re a concerned individual who wants to learn more and tell other people and are prepared to help other people along the way and become some sort of participant? At what point does it become untenable to not become a participant when someone is dying in front of you who would like to spend their last 30 seconds on this planet with someone rather than alone in the cold? I don’t know. It’s a serious job if you’re going to do it properly and I’m aware of situations and I’ve seen situations where journalist have behaved absolutely appallingly, where they’ve seen dying babies and filmed them, rather than try and save them. So, there are a plethora of these things. I think you will be compelled if you are doing a story to answer these questions. When are you intrusive and when are you not? Can you afford to be more obtrusive if you’re good at your job? At what point are you actually helping? Does telling the truth actually have an impact as it’s supposed to? These are complex things which don’t really have answers. I have my own little answers but it’s the question that is the answer in a way.
Is it all worth it?
We pay a price. I see in the club here people who have been doing this job, they’re probably very talented but the fact is there is a lot of drinking. People suffer. There are a lot of broken marriages. People come back and can’t handle this domestic thing anymore. I’m divorced once and I kind of think, “Would I have been if I hadn’t been in this job?” I don’t know, maybe I would have been. And personally I don’t think I’ve suffered from anything like post traumatic stress disorder, but I know a lot of people who have found life difficult and a lot of people, even more people, who end up aged 55 or 60, alone and drinking an awful lot because they’ve spent their lives running around the world thinking it wasn’t selfish. But perhaps it was. And so I think that you don’t necessarily get everything you hope for, but yes, you get some interesting times.
1st August 2007