Inside Out – October 06

Every so often at the Frontline Club there’s a debate that underscores why Vaughan Smith decided to establish it in the first place. That debate took place at the tribute to Martin Adler, the Swedish freelance, who was shot dead in Mogadishu in June.

The debate centred on whether broadcasters or news agencies had a responsibility or moral duty to disassociate themselves from a freelance who’d been told that it was too dangerous to go to a country like Chechnya or Somalia where there was a high probability of death or injury.

Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs, said that she’d wrestled with this moral dilemma and thought initially that she had a right to tell a freelance when a broadcaster thinks a situation is too risky and that they don’t want blood on their hands if something should happen.

The thinking was that freelances shouldn’t contact broadcasters with material from places deemed too dangerous because it would encourage the next freelance who might get killed because of lack of training or experience.

The freelances, led by Smith, argued that broadcasters and agencies had no right to protect freelances from themselves and were destroying independent journalism by denying freelances the means of making a living. Smith urged broadcasters to bid against one another for exclusive material, setting aside any concern for what risks the freelance took to get the pictures or story.

There was a cautionary note from some of the broadcasters in the audience who said that freelances couldn’t have it both ways and hold them accountable – financially or professionally – in the event of an accident.

The news industry has never managed to crack insurance cover for freelances but Vaughan and Duncan Furey have pulled off a remarkable coup in developing a plan that is now available to Frontline members.What makes the Frontline Club unusual among London’s social clubs is its ability to identify an issue that ought to be discussed and within days organise an event that can generate news coverage.

I saw that happen recently when Simon Conway of the Landmine Action Group and Thomas Nash from the Cluster Munition Coalition were in the Club poring over a large map of Lebanon with red markings where Israeli forces had dropped cluster bombs (90% of them in the last 3 days of the war with Hezbollah).

These two activists had just returned from Lebanon and were preparing a report on their findings.The aftermath of the war and the threat to civilians, especially children, from these unexploded bomblets, seemed like a good story.

Within days there was a Frontline Club email invite and event notice on the website and that Friday there was a respectable turnout to hear Nash and Conway and Sunday Times correspondent Hala Jaber in Lebanon by phone link. Daniel Howden, the Independent’s deputy foreign editor chaired the discussion.

The following Monday, the Independent published a front page story on cluster bombs and carried a Thomas Nash comment.