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Living dangerously

VAUGHAN Smith, founder of the Frontline Club, told London Freelance Branch's May meeting how he his freelance colleagues started covering conflicts back in 1983 in Pakistan, when terrestrial TV still had lots of "magazine programmes". Recalls Vaughan "none of us had any background in journalism", just a "sense of adventure." He and his colleagues benefitted from the newly introduced High 8 camera format, that reduced film crews from "three people on a cable to two." They normally went on assignment on spec, selling the material "became my job."

Vaughan Smith

Vaughan Smith

In the course of covering conflicts, "half of our number was killed" in the period from 1988 to 1993, "the highest attrition rate we knew of... seven including Rory" - cameraman Rory Peck, who had "no fear" and "extraordinary charisma", who was killed filming clashes between Yeltsin loyalists and supporters of Russia's Parliament in Moscow in 1993. Rory's death inspired the foundation of the Rory Peck Trust, an industry-supported charity for freelances. Vaughan helped set it up and was a trustee for 10 years.

The Trust, says Vaughan, was originally launched to get recognition for freelances. He described a "drawer full of unhonoured contracts" accumulated over the years. When he started out "we were heavily criticised by an industry full of employed people", some told him they thought his freelance colleagues made their stories up. The Times condemned a freelance killed in Chechnya with no visa for having been "amateur," although the Times's own employee in Chechyna didn't have a visa either. The first safety course for journalists, recalled Vaughan "was inspired by freelances... who got some ex-SAS together."

The concept of "news safety" arose, starting with the BBC, who wanted to "professionalise... get better... not get killed."

By 2003 Vaughan had "had enough" of people walking into his office with their plans to go and film in dangerous places, which he didn't feel they could "do in a safe way. I'd already rang two families to tell them that their children had been killed... Out of anger" at lack of support from the industry Vaughan started the Frontline Club. "I wanted my friends... freelances killed in the course of their work... their faces and their pictures in the industry watering hole", a meeting place for independent journalists, regardless of whether or not they cover wars.

Vaughan sees the Frontline Club as a "retreat" where journalists can "disagree agreeably about things in the world". Its latest initiative is the Frontline Freelance Register support network (www.frontlinefreelance.org), now with 640 dedicated members from Mexico to the Ukraine, all of whom "risk their lives in the course of the work."