Martha Lane Fox: Survival of the richest

A year after her near-fatal car accident, Martha Lane Fox tells Robert Verkaik of her shock to find that without her dot.com millions, she may never have recovered
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Martha Lane Fox was the face that launched a £40m internet company and the cheerleader for a generation of young, chic entrepreneurs. It was a success story that few 24-year-olds could dream of. Then, two years ago, she stepped down from lastminute.com, the internet phenomenon she ran with her business partner, Brent Hoberman, to take a well-earned rest, travel the world and maybe find a boyfriend. But last year tragedy struck. During a holiday in Morocco, the Jeep in which she was travelling swerved, throwing her out of the back of the vehicle and on to a rock. The two friends with her, who were only slightly hurt in the accident, thought she was so badly injured that she might die in the desert.

They arranged for her to be taken to a nearby general hospital and then on to emergency care in Rabat, from where she was finally transferred to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. It was a perilous journey that probably saved her life.

Lane Fox, 32, finally left hospital in April to return to her penthouse flat behind Marble Arch in London. Today, perched at her kitchen table, her face looks gaunt, and a baggy top and trousers can't disguise the fact that she still looks thin and frail. But even though her body may be broken in 24 different places, it is still possible to discern how she was once dubbed the pin-up of the internet revolution. She explains that she still needs constant physiotherapy and can only move very slowly by the skilful use of two walking sticks. But the doctors have told her that the prognosis is good and that she will make a full ("I reckon about 98 per cent") recovery. But her overwhelming feeling is one of great fortune, because she still believes that if she hadn't had the financial resources to pay for her medical care she may not have made it this far.

"I only became of clear mind in the last few months as the morphine has left my body. But I'm lucky because I had a private medical plan. I had my own private nurses in addition to the NHS nurses.

"Getting me from the accident was absolutely critical, but then I needed round-the-clock care that I provided on my own, in addition to the job the nurses were doing - and that was through no fault of the nurses. Many of them were fantastic and I owe them an enormous debt, but I was just so ill, so infected a lot of the time and completely unable to do anything for myself."

Even after all this time there is a sense of guilt that she perhaps survived where others, though a lack of money, would not have been so lucky. "I had carers looking after me all the time, because there was a stage when I couldn't lift any limbs and had to ring a bell to have a sip of water, and they were just far too stretched. But even then there seemed to be two managers to every nurse. A huge layer of unnecessary bureaucracy seems to have been added across the NHS."

For Lane Fox, a successful businesswoman once in charge of a large workforce, the solution is obvious. "I'm not an expert on the NHS but I reckon that we could cut a massive amount out and put the money right back where it's most needed. I voted for a Labour government but it seems that something's got lost along the way.

"It's about trying to channel the resources to where they are going to have the most effective and productive result. That place is quite simple to find in the NHS - it's doctors and nurses and not a whole load of crap in between, not a whole load of form-filling managers reporting to other managers who report to other managers."

During her rehabilitation, Lane Fox has found it vital to stay mentally active. She recently helped launch a karaoke enterprise. The first bar in Soho, Lucky Voice, based on the hugely popular Japanese craze for singing in public, is already making a profit.

"This isn't meant to be what I do with my full-time life when I'm better, but I love it and singing makes you feel better," she says. "My mother was there last night with her best friend, my godmother and her husband and they were belting out 'Downtown'." But it was her continued association with the anti-death-row campaign group, Reprieve, that proved so inspirational when she was undergoing a series of life-threatening operations. She says she took heart from the plight of Ryan Matthews, a teenage American boy who faced the death penalty for a murder that Reprieve was later able to show he could not possibly have committed. Lane Fox used her own money to fund the vital DNA tests that eventually saved him from a state execution.

"He always said, 'never give up hope'. Hearing those words from a 17-year-old, mentally ill, totally screwed guy on death row... helped me in facing difficult circumstances in the biggest battle of my life. Although his predicament was totally different from mine, I could draw strength from his experience. Reprieve made me feel that I was not just lying in a hospital bed."

So when did she first know she was opposed to the death penalty? "When I was eight years old. You have to remember that I come from a very liberal family. It might sound childish when I say it but I think it's that simple; there really is no justification for executing someone. If you save one life you save the world. I like that old adage."

Her issue with American doesn't end with the death penalty. Lane Fox says she watched Guantanamo Bay with horror. "The whole set-up of it, positioning it in Cuba and taking it off US soil creating a kind of no-man's land, and the British Government's involvement. I'm very much against the war in Iraq. I take The Independent's line on this. The Bush masterplan seems to be to create right-wing Christian fundamentalism and fundamental Islam."

Lane Fox, a Westminster and Oxford graduate, says she once toyed with the idea of being a barrister but, in the end, decided to follow her gut instinct and dip her toe into the world of business. But she says she is particularly impressed by the dedication of the young lawyers and researchers who work at the coalface of America's death row.

Lane Fox helped choose the three successful applicants for Reprieve's fellowships in the US. The applicants help represent many death-row inmates, and their families, who may have no-one else to turn to.

All three of this year's Reprieve interns are women. Is there anything to read into this? No, says Lane Fox - she hadn't taken into account their sex, only that they were all "very impressive" candidates. But she acknowledges that their "spirit and determination" gives the lie to the claim made by Neil French last week that women aren't suited to some male-dominated careers, such as creative executives in advertising companies.

"God knows how out of context he was or wasn't taken. But there is a severe lack of women in creative departments of advertising. I think it's for a whole host of reasons, including sexism in that industry, because I don't see how women can't be as creative as men."

She adds: "It's similar to the discussion that's always happening about why there aren't more women in technology. And when I looked around my own technology team, which when I left lastminute.com was about 150 people, there were some excellent women but they were definitely in the minority. I have always had the view that it's not that women can't achieve any of the things men do. It's either that they haven't been encouraged in that area or that their education hasn't been geared towards these objectives."

Lane Fox says women also need good role-models in industry, but ultimately she subscribes to the Germaine Greer school of feminism. Summarising Greer's position, she quotes her as saying: "For God's sake, women in the Western world, you have it now. Fundamentally your position has changed. Stop moaning and look towards the 75 per cent of women in the world who are really screwed, still repressed by religion, poverty, the state or whatever."

Would Lane Fox rather be remembered as a dot.com pin-up or a feminist role model? She laughs uproariously and suggests this might be a comment that falls foul of the sex discrimination legislation.

"I'm flattered to be described as that," she finishes, "although I think it's slightly outdated, and I'm sure that there are a lot more glamorous role models around now."

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