Although half of his friends were killed in conflict areas trying to portray a clear image of war atrocities in the last thirty years, Vaughan Smith laughs a lot. His laugh does not defy, but rather keeps alive the memory of his comrades.
A former infantry member in the British Army converted to freelance journalism, Smith has a special relation with Romania, which he first visited back in December 1989. Under the watchful eye of the Securitate, Smith decided then, along with other colleagues, to establish a sort of freelance agency for war correspondents. In the next decade, he escaped death twice. Half of his partners were not that lucky. And along with each bullet hitting his buddies, Vaughan Smith’s frustration began to grow. This is how he ended up establishing the Frontline Club in London, in 2003, which later expanded its offices in Central and Eastern Europe. In February 2014, Frontline arrived in Romania and Vaughan Smith returned to Bucharest after 25 years of absence.
“The Club very much grew out of those difficult years when we were losing our people for what we believed in”, shows Smith in an interview for Dela0.ro. “It is meant to keep that whole idea alive. It’s meant to engage journalism. It’s meant to put freelance on the same level with the industry. It’s a practitioners club and they are the core.”
In his cream-colored jacket Vaughan Smith looks like a messenger sent to remind us why we do need quality journalism and journalists. The interview is less about the profession and more about its effects in a democratic society. And the Frontline Club founder knows very well what that means: in 2011 he hosted Julian Assange because he believed it was important to protect freedom of speech and public interest against what he defines as “bullying” by the authorities.
On luck, fear and living with evil, on the Romanian revolution, the West’s sins and foreign policy, on his relation with Julian Assange, Edward Snowden’s disclosures and the future of journalism – in a special interview with Frontline Club’s Vaughan Smith.
“First time I got shot I had a mobile telephone in my pocket and it hit the mobile telephone”
Dela0.ro: Mr. Smith, in several occasions you almost got dead while doing your job. Do you consider yourself a lucky man?
Vaughan Smith: Yes, I’m inexplicably lucky. If they say a cat has nine lives, I would say I’m a bit like a cat. I have been very lucky, but I’ve been quite careful as well. I haven’t taken risks in my journalism that I didn’t think were going to be rewarded with journalism. I’m not someone who likes to take the risks for their own sake. And though I ran a news agency where half of us got killed, we felt valuable, we felt that it was worth doing, we weren’t negative about it.
It’s funny how humans can accept risks, they can get used to it, they can be normalized. I remember, when the IRA were bombing London the chance of you getting hurt was very small, but an American coming over would have been frightened because of what was going on. And I also remember being in Sarajevo when it was really difficult. You managed getting on with your life. Humans are very capable of adapting to circumstances and normalizing these risks and not really thinking to hard about them.
Are you saying that you have adapted to fear?
Maybe I have. But, look, most of these risks were taken when I was young. They say that there’s a part of the brain that really develops when you’re about 30, so younger men don’t feel the same amount of fear as older men. Maybe it has something to do with this. And I also think that, perhaps because I’m an unimaginative person, I can’t imagine being hit.
How many times did you get shot?
I got shot twice. Once, I had a mobile telephone in my pocket and it hit the mobile telephone. Otherwise it would have killed me.
That was in Kosovo.
Yes, that happened in Kosovo and it was a risk worth taking. I was one of the few journalists in the entire Kosovo and the only one at Prekaz, which was The Story. The other time happened when I was in Sarajevo and it hit my arm. I still have the T-shirt with two holes in it.
You say it like it’s something to be proud of.
Look, these are not badges of honor. They could be badges of stupidity. I’m not saying that we should all be doing this. But I do think you can get used to it and actually it could be very rewarding. Some people find it very exciting. Life is at a different pace if you experience some of these risks.
You seem to miss it.
I miss it! It’s something about being a journalist and being on the story which is incredibly rewarding. I remember I used to come back from where these stories were taking place and I was watching CNN and saying “it wasn’t like that, I was there!”.
(laughs) It’s great! It’s wonderful! I remember I came and covered this country, during your Revolution. It was the most exciting story to cover, it was the most remarkable thing. As a foreigner, it was quite extraordinary to witness that. But listen, the amount that you learn about human life from these experiences is huge, it’s something that I’ve found to be very compelling.
And actually, I think, there’s more to it. For me, I found great satisfaction in journalism because I think we all would like to feel useful in our lives. I passionately believe that providing good information to the public is such a good thing to do that I find it comforting that I don’t have a 9 to 5 job, that I do something useful. What else is useful? Being a doctor, certainly! But running a company creating widgets, is that what the world needs?
What do you think about being a politician? Is that useful?
I have met some politicians that I admire…
But you don’t find the job itself useful.
I think that power corrupts. But that’s not to say there aren’t good politicians, although they aren’t a majority. I couldn’t be a politician and anyway nobody would vote for me. That would be crazy! (laughs) Anyway, I don’t think that modern politics is a match for modern problems. I think there’s a deficit. Put it this way: we would have better politicians if we had a good, strong media holding them accountable. You can’t have a democracy without quality information to the public. You just can’t.
The media kind of resembles your mobile telephone from Kosovo, protecting us, metaphorically speaking, from the bullets.
Yeah, maybe. I don’t know of any democracy that functions without an active and independent media. Julian Assange has a good expression about this: lights on, rats out. It’s quite a hard expression, but it amuses me every time I hear it.
“We were dancing naked in front of the mirrors to shock the Securitate”
Dela0.ro: You said you visited Romania for the first time during the days of the Revolution. What lasting impression has that left on you?
Vaughan Smith: I have a business card with the two Ceausescu’s on it, which I took from his presidential desk.
So, you’ve entered the Central Committee’s building.
Well, it was 25 years ago, but I remember there were lots of shooting all the time, it was all crazy, hiding behind tanks and stuff like that, and then the army joined the protesters. Amazing! And I went into this building which I thought it was the presidency and there was this desk that Ceausescu used and on it there were five cards with the Ceausescu’s on it. I still have mine back in London. It’s my war trophy!
Was 1989 Romania your first war-like experience?
I had been in Afghanistan before. But Romania was a special place for me because my friends and I, all freelance journalists, got together with a lot of Romanian wine and decided to work as an agency. So, my old agency started in Romania during the Revolution, in the Intercontinental hotel.
Which was, by the way, full of Securitate officers.
The funny thing was a Western photographer in the hotel got lost in the lift and he reached the top floor. He said to us that he walked into a room that was full of Securitate officers looking, on TV sets, at all the guests. They were monitoring us. Anyway, after that we all tried to shock them as much as possible in front of the mirror. (laughs) It was quite funny!
What did you do?
We were dancing naked and doing all sort of revolting things in front of the mirrors, for the Securitate.
A surreal world…
It was completely mad! If you hadn’t been brought up in an environment with any real understanding of what it must be like to live under Ceausescu, Romania seemed a different planet. Of course, the people were friendly with us, but we couldn’t understand a totalitarian regime because we hadn’t been brought up in one. To see this thing collapsing and to be in a hotel where we were all watched – it’s really weird.
How much did you stay in Romania?
Three weeks. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but so much was happening. I remember going to Timisoara, where I met the most amazing woman. I found someone who spoke a little bit of English, to help me. And I met this really cool guy, a Hungarian, who said at the end of the meeting “come and have dinner”. So I went to his home, I remember this tiny little flat in this large tall block, and there’ve been no decorations on the wall except for one picture of Hungarian sausages. Kind of wishful thinking because they weren’t eating any Hungarian sausages. I shared a meal with them and it wasn’t exactly a meal, it wasn’t exactly nourishing.
Anyway, I met his wife and she spoke to me in a sort of Shakespearian English, it was really amazing. She had learnt this strange English from books, she’d never spoke to an Englishman. She was obviously very clever, she had been a doctor. And she told me of a story where she had met an American neurosurgeon who was on a tour in Eastern Europe and she managed to get to one of his lectures. She impressed him so much that he said “if you ever get out of this country, you can get to university in America”. She gave me his name and said “can you find this guy, to see if he really meant it?”.
So when I left I found him. He said that she could be a doctor in America. I put them in touch, she came through London, and then went off to America and I didn’t hear from her for 20 years. It turned out she became a neurosurgeon and an animal behavioral specialist.
You feel you’ve made your contribution?
Oh, it’s not a contribution. It’s just an amazing story, because you think: how many other clever people are locked in some impossible poverty, while the world is missing a scientist, or an incredible doctor?
Maybe it also tells a story about how Romania has evolved in the last 25 years.
It’s a completely different country. And it’s a happier country. You can’t compare. You had a totalitarian state, one of the most controlled states in the world. That whole model is gone, maybe North Korea stands as the sole example.
And yet, some Romanians, not few, tend to think that it was a good regime, that things weren’t so bad after all.
Well, there are still worrying signs here. It’s a bit troubling, but perhaps understandable. As human beings we’re made to forget horrible things from the past. For me, the real story of my journalistic career has been the failure of the West to promote human rights and liberal democracy in the way they’ve said they were going to.
I think we could have done more in Romania. Somebody told me, for example, that there wouldn’t need to be a Frontline Club Bucharest if Western media owners hadn’t pulled out of Romania.
“How much would it have cost to help support Romania a little bit more? I’m not saying that the West has the right to own Romanian media. It hasn’t. But if the Romanian public wished to do so, it wouldn’t have cost so much money to have given some really good public education material and some really good investigative journalism. It would have been very good for this country”,
Vaughan Smith, Frontline Club founder
Let me ask you this: do you think Britain is a better country today than it was 25 years ago?
In many ways, yes, but it’s such a complicated question, because we were never in your situation. My country has never been anywhere like that. We have no memory of that sort of life at all. And we’re lucky as an island nation to maintain independence – we’ve been invaded once in a thousand years, you’ve been invaded every 50 years.
Don’t forget you’ve been invaded by the Nordics, we’ve been invaded by the Russians.
(laughs) That’s true. I think in many ways we are better, richer, but there are bad things too. The gap between the poor and the rich is greater, so we’re not a fairer society. We have moved to the right politically and I thought the center was a better place for all. I think that in many ways we’ve become a nation of shop addicts.
We have a political system best labeled as cartel capitalism. Of course, there’s a long way to a sort of capitalism led by oligarchs, but they’re on the same scale. I think Britain is a changed country from what it was 25 years ago, but in some ways it’s not a better country. We’re richer and more comfortable, but are we happier? I doubt it.
“What you can’t allow is for people to say ‘we didn’t know’ “
Dela0.ro: How did you get to be a journalist, Mr. Smith? I know that you previously had a military background.
Vaughan Smith: I was a captain in the Grenadier Guards, I had a big bearskin hat. I was in Northern Ireland and things like that…
How come you didn’t fight in the Falklands?
Actually, I was very near. I joined the army six months before the war and there were two battalions in my barracks. And it was either us or them. They went. I found the army particularly restricting, it was a bit bossy and I wanted more freedom, so I kind of left. I’m sure they would have thrown me out anyway. And I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan with a group of people who were going to be journalists. For me it was a big adventure, I was a young man, but pretty soon I realized that actually it was quite useful.
What changed us was what we saw there. At first we weren’t very serious, we just wanted to make lots of money and thought it would be a good, interesting life. It’s certainly been an interesting life, but not always an easy one.
One of the most striking events – and it sounds a little bit gruesome: I remember seeing this old man in Kosovo, on a side of a mountain, in the snow, with his whole family and lots of other families under a single sheet of plastic, sleeping on soggy mattresses, the grandmother had got a chest infection. I’ve seen this image so many times – the baby dying or already dead. And you think “what for?”. And then you understand, “what it would be like if it was me?”.
We’re so bad at understanding and measuring other people’s suffering. In my country, we seem to have become very war-like, we seem to have gone back 50 or 60 years when we used to run around the world and have empire wars.
It’s called “exporting democracy”.
This is what it’s called, of course! You and I seem rightly skeptical of it because it’s absolutely crazy. I think it is better called “exporting corporatism”. But when you can relate as a human being, which you can nly do by seeing this people in war zones, it makes you think.
The classic example is Iraq. There was a survey in Britain and one of the questions was “how many Iraqis do you think died in the war?”. The average answer was 10.000. The truth is near half a million. I’m not saying that Britain shouldn’t go to war, I’m not a pacifist. What I’m saying is that we have to be responsible for what we do. If we want to go to war, fine. Suck it up, count 10.000 people or 500.000 people and ask “was that worth it?”. If it was, fine, that’s what you want to do as a nation. But don’t lie. I don’t like the way we like to comfort ourselves about what we do through misinformation, because we in Britain think we’re good people.
I’ve become a little bit belligerent and determined to insure that the public can’t escape with the answer “we didn’t know”. I remember covering Bosnia and Srebrenica, the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War. And then I went home to my parents, who weren’t really great followers of the news. At the time the British Government was playing a very bad game in Bosnia, as they were saying that “they’re all as bad as each other; the Serbs are bad, the Croats are bad, they are all bad”. You could say that we’re all capable of being as bad as each other, but it doesn’t mean we are being as bad as each other. The evidence in the Bosnian war is unequivocally that the Muslims were the primary victims.
So, I was discussing with my parents about the war, but it was only when they saw the pictures from Srebrenica that my father said – “something should be done about this”. And it was all the product of the government’s PR machine saying they’re all bad. Foreign policy is a complex thing. But I don’t think that the West has a record of doing something that isn’t in its interest.
Like in Syria?
Syria is an abomination. I just think it’s awful that we aren’t doing anything in Syria.
Let me pick up on your expression: “foreign policy is a complex thing”. The establishment – let’s call it that way – said the same thing in the 1940’s when deciding not to try saving the Jews. What followed? The count of 6 million victims at the end of World War II. What happened in Srebrenica? We counted the victims. And what happens in Syria? We’re counting the victims.
I agree with you. It’s not good enough, it doesn’t even begin to be good enough. The truth is that we clearly don’t care enough about each other. The quality of our lives, the income we get help us not to see what we don’t want to see. That’s why I believe that our responsibility as journalists and as human beings is to show these things. What you can’t allow is for people to say “we didn’t know”.
“The news industry has failed because it acts as a corporation”
Dela0.ro: You said in 2008 that you’ve been shot more times than you’ve been credited.
Vaughan Smith: (laughs) This is a freelance discussion. It’s our discussion. Things haven’t changed.
More bullets than credits for freelancers?
Yeah. But, look, some of it is changing. I am old enough and well connected enough that I am getting credited now. This is a pretty ruthless industry. You’re only as good as your last story. If you haven’t got the awards and the credits then you simply can’t raise your price.
It’s, ultimately, the kind of politics of business that we’re talking about. That’s why I find it so annoying and upsetting. If journalism is just a business, then it just reveals this massive hypocrisy where journalist or the organizations in our trade feel that they have the right to criticize everything without behaving well themselves. If you behave like a business, journalism as a whole will be suffering. If journalism is so important, then surely we have a responsibility to the trade, to the ethics of the trade.
The news industry lives in perpetual fear. Everything about the news industry is fearful – fear of being shot, fear of being wrong, fear of losing your job. I really think it’s disappointing where the news industry has failed, because it acts as a corporation. Maybe we need more ways to run journalism, other than corporations. I just think it’s too important for it just to be about someone’s business. If it’s truly about serving the public we have a responsibility to our trade and to its values, to encourage people who want to join by letting them in.
And that means treating them fairly. You’re not treating fairly someone who’s on his way to Syria by saying “if you get anything good, let me know”. So, it means “if you get shot, I don’t have any responsibility”, but “if you get something good I’ll negotiate and pay you under the market rate”. That’s exploitation and we should fight it. As freelance journalists we need to organize ourselves and we need to try to break the door down a little bit.
You seem to have a good feeling about the democratization of journalism.
Look, I would feel much more comfortable about it if we all felt part of our mission is to promote the good things that we do. We’re proud of what we do, but we don’t promote it to anybody else so they could do it too. We believe that society benefits from it, but we don’t promote it to anybody.
The Frontline Club was built out of anger. I’ve lost half of my friends, the industry denied us of the recognition we needed and I wanted to promote the ethics and the beliefs and that commitment that my friends had. There’s something about being a freelance, you can become a little evangelical, a little over the top with your journalistic ethics. It’s not a bad thing, but sometimes, as a freelancer, you can be a bit isolated, a bit purist.
Whereas, if you work in an organization you can see the world is a negotiated place and you have to be pragmatic sometimes to achieve something. What we want to do at the Frontline Club is represent the freelance side of the industry. It is a rallying point, a place where journalists can criticize each other, looking for introspection.
The Club very much grew out of those difficult years when we were losing our people for what we believed in. It is meant to keep that whole idea alive. It’s meant to engage journalism. It’s meant to put freelance on the same level with the industry. It’s a practitioners club and they are the core.
Would you say it’s successful in reaching these goals?
In some ways, it is. In other ways, it’s less. Most people didn’t think it was going to work. Well, it has worked. Its main success is retaining its independence. Financially it is stable. It’s been around for ten years, it will be around for another ten. It delivers 200 public meetings a year. These are all examples of success.
Where it has been hard? It’s a charity, so it’s a business with a social purpose. It means my wife and I have not been paid for doing it for 10 years. That might suggest it’s not successful. But if we’re prepared to do it, then it is successful
Do you think the Frontline Club will survive you?
I do. My aim is to insure that it does. And I’m quite a determined guy. On the other hand, I think that the Club is a very robust thing. I’ll give you an illustration. Julian Assange came to stay at the Club. He was not necessarily popular with British journalists, he was very contentious.
Now, you would have thought that’s the sort of thing that could break up a club. But it didn’t. Nobody has left the Club stating that to be the reason for leaving. We weren’t even attacked in the press, which showed us how robust is the Club as a vehicle for freedom of speech.
“Julian Assange was being bullied. It made sense to help him”
Dela0.ro: Do you find it unjust that the British media started speaking about the Frontline Club only after it decided to house Julian Assange?
Vaughan Smith: I’m not quite sure about that.
I’ve read about you in the Guardian because Assange was staying at your place, not for reasons related to the Club’s actual activity.
It needs some explaining. I was surprised myself, I couldn’t have envisaged me supporting Assange. But ultimately he was being bullied, ultimately they wanted to put him away. It was clearly in the public interest that he kept doing his work and the public debated. If you agree with that – and I did – you don’t have any other option. Otherwise he would have gone to jail. I was the only person, at that time, who was prepared to give him bail. I couldn’t not do it. That made sense to me.
You have to think that the Assange thing and the Wikileaks was such a big story. I don’t mind the fact that he was a bigger story than the Frontline Club. Of course he was! It hasn’t harmed the Frontline Club. It tested it. And we’ve passed that test. And also we’ve benefited from the fact that people know more about us now. That’s a good thing for me. At the same time, what I did find appalling was that the press has been more inclined to talk about Assange the character than the issues that he brought to us.
I will irritate you more then by asking what kind of person is Assange.
I will answer anyway. He’s hugely bright and hugely interesting. He can be very engaging and very charming. And obviously, he’s very courageous.
Do you think he broke the law by delivering the Wikileaks?
I know he didn’t break the law, otherwise they would have gotten him, believe me. He set it up in such a way that he didn’t encourage anybody to give him the material. He wasn’t implicated in any breaking of the law.
That means that you credit Bradley Manning for breaking the law.
Bradley Manning technically broke the law, because he was a soldier and he was contractually obliged not to do that.
How would you describe the treatment he was given by American authorities?
Brutal. But, you know, we’re talking about a country that has more people in jail than Russia. We need to see America for what America really is. There’s an amazing amount of good that comes from America, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-American. I just want to see America in a proper, informed perspective.
I think their treatment of Bradley Manning was bullying. I hate bullying. I think they bullied Assange as well, spending lots of money to destroy his name and character. That’s not a fair fight. And with Bradley Manning, I’m sorry, but when a sizeable section of society considers that the actions of someone like Manning are in their interest and the law is sufficiently cumbersome to still hammer him, and they don’t somehow discard that, I don’t think that’s justice being served. It’s something else.
Do you think the same way about the treatment administered to Guardian journalists by the British authorities after the NSA disclosures?
I am appalled about the way the British Government has treated the Guardian. There was a lot of pressure behind the scenes. They caused the destruction of Guardian computers. What I found particularly appalling was that the editor of one of Britain’s leading newspapers was expected to justify himself in front of a largely ignorant group of MPs. And to be asked by these people whether he was a patriot? You know, one of these politicians asked him whether he would have given the Enigma codes to the Nazis in the Second World War. How facile and stupid is that?
I believe that what the Guardian has done was absolutely in the public interest. The problem in Britain is we all watch James Bond films too much. We all think our spies must be cool like James Bond. We need to understand that security services have to be properly supervised like any bureaucrat, like any public servant. And this is the problem: they aren’t. Security services will build empires if they can and you can hardly blame them for that, because that’s what bureaucrats do, that’s what public servants do. There’s a proper role in trying to moderate their influence, but at the same time showing we really need their services.
This whole Edward Snowden story is fascinating. I’m convinced that one of the things that it’s going to allow the public to regain the initiative in a world in which it has lost it is the whistleblower. This whole thing about Snowden reveals that the American NSA and the British GCHQ have decided to spy on their own people rather than protect it from other people spying on them. It is more important for them to know what we’re thinking, what the whole world is thinking, rather than protect us. They even undermined Internet cryptology.
Yet, don’t you find it ironic that Edward Snowden is in Russia right now?
Yes, absolutely. I’m rather shocked that the Americans withdrew his visa in such a way that he got stranded. I’m amazed they didn’t let him go to South America, I’m sure they could have nabbed him or whatever. I just don’t understand why they left him there. Now, Snowden says – and I choose to believe him in this instance – that he didn’t take any of his stuff to Russia. I think he’s a proper whistleblower and I am uncomfortable with him being in Russia.
On the other hand, what has been enabled is for the Russians to be critical of the West and I don’t think that’s very fortunate. Nevertheless, if we are prepared to criticize the NSA and the GCHQ we need to do so in our own interest. Because those who say “the whistleblowers are helping out potential enemies” are missing the fact that actually our own freedoms have been sacrificed first in fighting these enemies. I don’t believe it’s worth it.
“Quality journalism? There’s always going to be a market for it”
Dela0.ro: Did you read a newspaper this morning?
Vaughan Smith: No. I get my stuff online. And what I do is I follow individual journalist I know and trust and there’s where I get my news.
Would you be willing to pay for online content?
I think people should pay for something that’s of quality. That said, I do not subscribe where there are barriers. I have on occasions given money to journalists that have the facility because I like to support freelancers. But I don’t subscribe to newspapers that have paywalls.
So you said ‘no’ to the New York Times?
Yes, correct. I’m not paying. People send me articles from them.
Would you say that the demand for quality journalism is growing or shrinking?
I’m not sure we’re very good at working out where the demand is. I think the need remains and that the demand for good information is not disappearing in any way at all. I just think we’re slightly lost in a situation where the whole journalism model is in flux at the moment and it hasn’t settled down, we don’t know where it’s going to go.
Do you see a future for the methods of good old journalism?
Yes, there will always be. I do not believe you can ever replace someone with a really good understanding, a sophisticated thoughtful understanding of what the public interest is.
It’s a lot more expensive to produce.
Still worth it. Look, it’s always going to exist. The BBC is going to be around, maybe fewer newspapers, but there’s still going to be classical journalism. There’s always going to be a market for it.
Mr. Smith, thank you for this interview.