Sat, Sep 02, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The Frontline Club: a clearing house for hardcore, fearless journalism

As a way station for war correspondents and those into the more dangerous side of the profession, Vaughan Smith's club is not your average drinking hole

By Eric Pfanner  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LONDON

Vaughan Smith leaned forward in his chair and winced as a scene from Baghdad ER, a documentary film about a US Army hospital in Iraq, rolled across the screen.

"It's pretty gory," he said as the camera zoomed in on a soldier's eye, from which a surgeon was about to remove a bit of shrapnel.

While some people look away from the effects of war, Smith prefers to examine them more closely. A former officer with the Queen's Guards, an elite British military unit, he went on to become a founder of Frontline Television News, a group of British cameramen who gained a reputation for taking extraordinary risks to bring back film from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans and other war zones.

After the deaths of two of the three other founders of the agency, Smith set up the Frontline Club in London. Since it opened in 2003, the club has become a popular way station for war correspondents, as well as a busy forum for screenings of films like Baghdad ER and discussions of current affairs and journalism issues, including the safety of reporters.

"We saw friends get killed in the course of their work," said Smith, 43, who was shot twice himself while covering the Balkan wars. "We thought their work was undervalued and wanted to stimulate debate about the role of journalists."

That makes the Frontline Club very different from the London clubs of legend, where gentlemen sip port in the company of like-minded souls. In the 1980s, journalists gravitated toward the Groucho Club, which developed a notorious reputation for the number of drinks and scoops that were spilled within. In the 1990s some media types peeled away to Soho House, which has a New York outpost as well. The Wig & Pen Club, the London watering hole where lawyers and reporters mingled in the glory days of Fleet Street, closed in 2003.

But while the denizens of these drinking dens whisper about the latest affairs between members of Parliament, the Frontline Club is the place to go to eavesdrop on a conversation about, say, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan.

While the club's bar is reserved for members, who chat in English, French or Arabic, work on laptops or sip Laotian beer, there is also a Frontline restaurant, where the public can dine on Welsh mountain lamb rump or line-caught plaice, against a backdrop of photos of London during the blitz.

In a small auditorium upstairs, the Frontline Forum, supported by proceeds from the restaurant and a charitable trust, organizes film screenings, book introductions and panel discussions on current events and journalism issues. In September, for example, the forum plans a discussion of coverage of the conflict in Lebanon, focusing on the difficulties journalists face in sorting out fact from spin at a time when both Hezbollah and Israel, and their supporters, are getting better at the propaganda war.

"A lot of people won't talk about these things, but we think it's better to air them, in a neutral way," Smith said.

So, while the forum has played host to executives of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster loathed by the Bush administration, it has also screened a documentary that casts doubt on allegations of a massacre at Jenin on the West Bank by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002.

The Frontline Club has about 850 members, who pay annual fees of ?250 (US$475), though freelancers receive discounts. About 70 percent of the members are in the news media business, although bullet wounds are not a prerequisite for joining.

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