A wanted man positions himself on the frontline

Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club – Julian Assange’s pied-à-terre in London.

The wood-panelled members’ lounge of the Frontline Club is a warm and inviting space, perched above the icy streets of Paddington in west London. Two Chesterfield sofas take centre-stage in this convivial watering-hole for journalists working in, or passing through, the British capital.

Today, the lounge is busier than usual for an afternoon in early December. Camera crews from Danish, German, Italian and Swedish TV channels are preparing to interview the Frontline Club’s founding director, Vaughan Smith. Just hours earlier, Smith had made public the fact that Julian Assange had been using the club as a base, and that on Assange’s arrest, he offered Frontline as the bail address for the WikiLeaks founder. As the crews position their lights and tripods, Smith arrives. Smiling, in a dark suit, the man who was an award-winning cameraman himself, is at ease, familiar with the processes of news production that are unfolding around him. Smith speaks with the voice of a man talking from the heart, deliberately and passionately.

I begin by asking why he chose to take such a prominent stance in assisting Assange. ”I got very worried about the manner in which certain things were happening, which suggested political pressure,” says Smith. ”For example, the Swedish court case where the charges were dropped because of not enough evidence: he requests to leave Sweden, is allowed to leave, and the charges reappear. Little things aren’t right.” Reflecting on the trip he and Assange made voluntarily to Kentish Town police station the previous day (where Assange handed himself over), Smith was surprised to find a video crew inside. ”The police decided to let in a crew. It’s a bit odd isn’t it?”

Smith is perplexed by the refusal of the London court to grant bail, and what might have influenced that decision. ”I’m not a legal expert but there seemed to be a good case for bail. I saw Assange make the decision to hand himself in. He was basically saying: ‘Look, I said I was going to do it, so I must.’ And he did. He wouldn’t have done that if he was then going to run.”The practical appeal of the club to Assange and his team is clear: cosy attic bedrooms, available to club members at modest rates for central London, each with free Wi-Fi, widescreen televisions, power showers and a place for a laptop. ”It’s not an organisation that needs a head office. We went into the relationship on the basis that Assange wanted a venue for a press conference,” says Smith. ”He wanted to meet journalists in what he thought was a safe venue.” Was a deal cut to place WikiLeaks here, or to give it preferential treatment? ”No, nothing like that,” says Smith. ”It was their choice to use us as a venue. We’re a club full of journalists who like the company of interesting and well-informed people.”

With a certain irony, Smith talks about Assange’s need to keep his own communications discreet while at the club. ”He didn’t advertise where he was,” says Smith, who  believes the press ”sexed up” the notion of Assange in hiding, to Assange’s detriment. ”He was at the club for a large part of the time when people thought he was hiding out. Journalists were meeting him but still there were these stories. According to his legal counsel, the police knew where he was but didn’t call him in. He wasn’t a fugitive but he was presented as one, and that didn’t help his bail case. He was at the police station within nine hours of hearing the police wanted to speak to him.”

Smith is careful to reinforce that the club is an independent organisation with 1500 members, to which he is answerable. ”Overwhelmingly there’s been a positive response to what we’ve done. Some members would like us to take up a proactive support, but I’m not sure we can do that. We stand for transparency. We set up the club to represent our idea of independent journalism. … I am not saying that every WikiLeaks release is desirable. I’m saying that if one is able to stand back as I’ve tried to do, and think ‘could this impact the world in a good way?’ I believe it can, though I accept it may take time to see that.” I’m keen to probe deeper into Smith’s views on whether the release of the US embassy cables presents problems for citizens, who need governments to be able to conduct foreign relations behind closed doors. Does he have sympathy for that point of view?

”I do. But you can look at this in several ways. I’m not saying this is not troubling. It is in many ways. But what is also troubling is the manner in which we’ve gone into two wars [Afghanistan and Iraq]. Fundamentally I don’t believe it is a journalist’s job to hold onto information and not leak: it’s the governments’ job to do better at looking after their secrets.” How convinced is Smith that the allegations made against Assange in Sweden are politically motivated? ”I’m very suspicious. I do not believe that our country’s, and perhaps others’, legal structures are robust enough to withstand the intense pressure that we’re getting. Oddly, the leaks reveal that. If Julian Assange is made into a martyr then it’s not going to help the causes of his critics. The rule of law needs to be seen, very clearly, to work.”

As the other journalists in the room mill around beside us, Smith shares a last insight before being ushered to another interview. ”There’s a very interesting relationship between the media and Julian Assange. With WikiLeaks, Assange has effectively put up a huge, vast mirror. In it, journalists are looking at themselves, and we’re not all liking what we see. It’s a time to think about our trade. We need to have a bit of courage.”

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