Mark Frankland: Journalist who left MI6 to work in Moscow, Vietnam and Washington

 

Mark Frankland, who has died suddenly aged 77, was a star foreign correspondent at The Observer in an era when that paper fielded a galaxy of renowned overseas reporters.

His hallmark was to understand (and appreciate, even love)the countries from which he reported, the polar opposite of the dash-in,dash-out school of foreign journalism. Best known for two spells in Moscow, he also served the paper in Washington, in Vietnam, in Tokyo: however nasty a regime might be, he said, his relationship with the people became "an affair of the heart".

Frankland was born into an eccentric upper-class family – enough material there for a series of Nancy Mitford novels. One grandmother was a peeress in her own right (she lived near Windsor Park, surrounded by the relics of a ruined family) and was known in the popular press as the "gypsy baroness"; his father was a philanderer who walked out when Frankland was a small boy (he was told about the divorce by his prep school rather than by his parents); his mother, after a second marriage, became an alcoholic.

Out of this domestic disorder – his mother, a former society beauty, at one stage took a job in a tobacconist's shop – Frankland emerged as a charming, déclassé, good-looking young man, who attended Charterhouse and (asa scholar) Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read history. During national service in the Royal Navy he was recruited into that élite group of conscripts, selected for their brains, who were trained as Russian interpreters. (Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn were others.)

Frankland and Peter Jenkins (who was to become a major political columnist) spent a postgraduate year in the US. The experience – they were so hard-up that when they toured the southern states they often slept in the car – excited Frankland about the US ("its energy, classlessness, and the chance to make what you wanted from your life"). His enthusiasm for the society conflicted, typically, with his mature views on the US government and its brutal conduct of the Vietnam war.

Jenkins's friendship without doubt whetted Frankland's eventual appetite for journalism; but that had to wait. He was first tapped for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), he thought because, with other undergraduates attending a Warsaw conference, he had helped smuggle a dissident Pole to the West. These were the days of George Smiley, and Frankland recalled enigmatic lunches in ill-lit Soho restaurants with ill-defined men who never quite revealed whom they served.

In the context of his upbringing he was a rebel – at Cambridge he and others had published an attack on the Suez invasion, which presumably escaped his future MI6 employers' not-so-eagle eyes – and, after a year at the MI6 HQ at Broadway House, he realised that his spying work could one day be used to support other policies of which he might disapprove. Better the independence of journalism (he first joined Time & Tide) than the unforeseeable compromises of government work.

A year after becoming a reporter, Frankland, aged 27 and with little but his Russian (and maybe his opposition to Suez) to recommend him, was recruited by The Observer to go to Moscow. It was an environment that suited his personality and professional skills, a world in which a nose for the truth was of more value than a foot in the door. He was gay (a realisation that came to him when his mother sent him to teenage balls), but discreet. When the question arose before his departure for Moscow, an Observer friend who knew the truth covered up for him.

He hoped (and liked to believe) that the Soviets did not know of his MI6 past, though it was clear by the end of his second stint that, by then at least, they did. His name may have been sent to Moscow by the spy George Blake, who also worked for MI6. In 1985 Frankland was among 25 Britons singled out for expulsion in a tit-for-tat response to the British throwing suspected Soviet spies out of London.

Frankland was cool before "cool": somewhat detached, watching the world and his nearer surroundings with a smile playing on his lips. He dressed anonymously, but well, and wasabstemious. A journalist friend said: "The great thing about lunch withMark is that you don't get drunk". The years in Moscow had taught him tohold both his drink and his tongue. In 1980 he and I ate a lunch hosted by the Soviet House of Architects. Toast followed hard upon toast, each washed down by a shot of vodka. I retired to sleep it off; Frankland returned to the hotel to read Pushkin.

He was an extremely good man, but not in any bland or feeble sense. He was kind to colleagues and to the young who hoped that he might pass on some of his ringcraft. He always did. Beyond all, Frankland was both a fine analyst and a very good writer. He was twice named foreign reporter of the year in the British Press Awards, and his memoir, Child of My Time, reveals the man, the times he lived through and a thorough understanding of the human complexities that create states and societies.

His career at The Observer endedprematurely with a changing of the paper's guard, and he retired to hisFulham house to write books, among them Freddie the Weaver, a sensitive account of the life and challenges that faced his autistic adopted half-brother. His emotional loyalty to the Observer he served so well never wavered, and there are few better accounts of what made that paper tick in the David Astor-led days than that in the pages of Child of My Time.

He is survived by Dang Thuong Nguyen, a poet and a painter and his partner for many years, by his older brother, Timothy, nephews, Nick, Mathew and Adam, and a cousin, Diana De Marco.

Robert Chesshyre

Frederick Mark Frankland, journalist and author: born London 19 April 1934; partner to Dang Thuong Nguyen; died London 12 April 2012.

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