Frei at The Frontline Club

February 29, 2012

By Alan Selby

A packed house at The Frontline Club heard Matt Frei regale them with tales from his long and illustrious career. The former BBC Washington correspondent, recently poached by Channel 4 News, was on fine form as he spoke to former BBC executive Vin Ray about more than 20 years with the BBC:

“The BBC is mother, and it’s been a very good mother to me, but now and again it’s a good idea to leave mother and elope with a mistress. I’ve always admired Channel 4 because it’s a cross between current affairs and news. Newsnight with a bit more of a newsy edge at a decent hour. I’ve had my eye on it for some time, and I guess they may have had their eye on me for some time.”

The event was delivered in conjunction with the BBC College of Journalism, as part of the ongoing Reflections series in which journalists including Alex Crawford, Jon Snow, Bill Neely and Martin Bell have discussed their experiences as journalists.

Frei spoke of the time he met Bell in Serbia, during the Bosnian war, and the valuable lessons that he took from him:

“He taught me the craft of television. It’s a very strange craft because it’s more about what you deny yourself than anything else, he said: ‘If you can’t say it in one minute and 42 seconds you can’t say it. Don’t bother.’”

Delivering his reflections alongside a series of memorable video clips, he discussed some of the high and low points of his career, including his coverage of the fall of the Berlin wall:

“I was told by a famous American journalist that this was the best story I would cover, and that it was all downhill from here. He was sort of right – it was such a happy event.”

He also spoke of some less orthodox approaches to stories, including one particular experience during his time in Rome:

Giorgio Armani was accused of bribing the financial police. I got an interview by saying I was a fashion journalist for the BBC – I said I wanted to talk about hemlines and colours. Halfway through the interview he turned to me and said, ‘You know **** all about fashion, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Did you pay the money?’ He said, ‘Yes, in brown paper bags.’”

With regard to the challenges facing the next generation of young journalists Frei expressed some optimism:

“I think the challenges are going to be the same: find a story, tell it well and make sure somebody is going to pay you for it. If you’re starting out now you have an incredible range of tools at your disposal – much better than the tools we had, and cheaper.”

The issue of social media was subsequently raised, and the question of what it meant for the future of sending journalists like him around the world – particularly in light of the numerous journalists who have recently been killed and injured whilst reporting from warzones:

“I don’t think most serious organisations are thinking social media will replace what they have. It’s just another source of information – if you can’t get into Syria but you have evidence on your mobile phone you’re going to use it.”

As the evening drew to a close he discussed his only regret, the fact that he had to cover the Iraq war from Washington:

“I never went to Iraq, and in some ways I wish I’d covered it. In some ways talking about it from Washington makes you a bit of a fraud: unless you’ve seen the impact of policy on the ground you can’t really talk about it.”

 Watch the full event:


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