Matt Frei: Aiming for the White House

The BBC's man in Washington is targeting the 60 million 'less insular' Americans who hold passports. But despite posters of him from coast to coast, he finds he is still completely ignored at Presidential press conferences. Ian Burrell discovers why

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:28

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the West Wing of the White House, the BBC's Matt Frei is accustomed to taking up his regular place, on what was once the tiled floor of John F Kennedy's indoor swimming pool, and holding his hand aloft, in hope but not in expectation.

For six years Frei has been attending White House press conferences, as the BBC's Washington correspondent and more recently as the face of BBC World News America. And never once has he been invited to ask a question of George W Bush.

During a fleeting visit to London last week, he expresses his exasperation, holding his arm in the air, by way of demonstration. "My arm has become stronger and stronger but they just won't call me because they know it's going to be a rude question," he complains. "You don't ask the Brits."

He might as well "tie my arm to the ceiling in a permanent request" but it would make "little difference". Instead, as Frei recounts in a new book Only in America, Mr Bush will follow a ritual, which "always starts with one of the wire services, then moves on to the networks, the cable networks and, finally, the two grandees of the printed page, The New York Times and The Washington Post."

Though he ignores the BBC, the US head of state might turn to the "impeccably courteous correspondent of the Hindustan Times of India who could be relied upon to ask a benign question in incomprehensible English".

Which is not to say that Frei does not enjoy a relationship with the 43rd president, who has been known to address him as "Matt" and give him a friendly pat. As the face of the BBC in America, Frei conducted a sit-down interview with Mr Bush in the White House library in February. "He's fundamentally quite a good bloke, meeting him he's quite charming, he's not the evil creature that many people think he is, at all."

Some journalists who have had such access to George W Bush remark on how the often-lampooned president, who has an MBA from Harvard, is far more impressive close up. But Frei, 44, is not one of them. "No. I did not find him impressive," he says instantly. "Maybe that's familiarity, if you hear somebody speak every single day and you follow them on the campaign trail. He's not impressive but he's likeable."

In fact, he found himself feeling concerned for the fidgety Mr Bush. "He was nervy, he came in and he sat down, (Frei starts rubbing his hands on his shins to mimic an agitated president), 'Right, let's go, how much time do we have?' You felt like saying (Frei then reaches out to offer a pat on the knee) 'It's alright, it's fine'. You want to ask them the tough questions, but you want them to open up. You want to be a cross between Martin Bashir and Jeremy Paxman."

Frei had been introduced to Bush once before at a White House Christmas drinks party, when he asked the president about a visit to London. "I was real pissed," came the response.

"Sir?" queried the BBC man.

"Yes, pissed!"

"How so?"

"Because the demonstrations against me were smaller than the demonstrations in favour of foxhuntin'." The president then concluded the conversation with an extravagant Texan slap handshake, an indication that the journalist should leave.

Born Matthias Frei in Essen, Germany, the lifelong BBC man has been described by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News as "the best correspondent of our generation". His family moved to London when he was 10 and he was educated at Westminster School and St Peter's College, Oxford, joining the corporation after graduating. Since then he has covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Bonn Correspondent, the influence of the Mafia, as Southern Europe Correspondent, and the handover of Hong Kong, as Asia Correspondent.

But it is in America that he now feels at home, in spite of the fact that when he flew to take up the posting in 2002, the Boeing 747 had to turn back to Tokyo after two of its four engines failed over the Pacific. "Would there be South Sea garlands for the survivors," he wondered, according to the opening passage in the book.

And now he is the figurehead for the BBC's attempts to finally break America, in the post 9-11, post Iraq invasion era where many citizens of the world's most powerful nation are searching for alternative voices. "The American market is where we see an opening, the BBC has never fully conquered the biggest media market in the world and this is an attempt to do so," says Frei. "Our market is those Americans with passports, which is about 25 per cent of the population, about 60m people. These are the sorts of people who would read The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and quite a lot of people in the middle of the country, the so called fly-over country, in Kansas and Iowa and Dakota but in smaller numbers. It's essentially those Americans who are curious about the outside world."

The US networks still look inwards, he says, noting how Katie Couric, CBS's $15m-a-year (£7.5m) anchor, was obliged to commentate on agency pictures of the China earthquake last week, a story that was "10 minutes down" the CBS bulletin but remained the lead on all the British networks. "We can provide that bridge between the rest of the world and America that the domestic networks can't do because they haven't got the people. They've shut down all their bureaux. Most of the networks have one big bureau in London covering the rest of the world, one in Jerusalem covering the Middle East and an "embed" [correspondent] in the green zone in Baghdad. No-one in Africa, no-one in Latin America, they've completely slimmed down." Though CNN retains an impressive network of bureaux, it only offers American viewers its domestic news service, he adds.

This serious attempt to take on the big US networks means that Frei's profile is being raised coast-to-coast. "I was in LA the other day and nearly drove into a picture of myself that was 10ft high, which is a novel experience I have to tell you. These massive billboards with a very serious picture of me looking like I had constipation, which I didn't like at all."

The billboards show a giant-size Frei amid smaller pictures of the likes of Osama bin Laden, George Bush and the Dalai Lama. "We don't do that in this country but they do in America because it's important to identify the programme with one particular face and get that face out there in a very competitive market," says Frei, somewhat apologetically.

His anchoring style on BBC World News America is "more funky, edgy ...that sounds like a pair of jeans ...the tone is more like Newsnight – or Channel 4 News". The show, which goes out three times each evening, is being heavily promoted on the BBC website, which has a daily audience of two million in the US. "There's going to be much more synergy so that you can watch my programme on your computer, that's really exciting and much more advanced there than it is here."

The question everyone asks him in Britain, of course, is who will be the next president. Though he says his views fluctuate he "would be surprised if a Democrat, i.e. Barack Obama, didn't get into the White House. Not so much because he's a very, very good candidate, which he is, but because the tectonic plates of America have shifted so dramatically in the Democrats favour."

Hillary Clinton's "biggest mistake was she thought her candidacy was inevitable, being a Clinton, so she relied too much on the family name. She didn't see Obama coming out of the left corner with his internet appeal and fundraising ability among young people".

Frei is perturbed by the insularity of the Washington DC bubble, where government policy is drawn up in a highly-intellectual but not cosmopolitan environment. "In London, you walk down the Edgware Road and it's like the West Bank, you walk down to Piccadilly Circus and you are surrounded by foreigners, you are steeped in international juices and in Washington you are not."

He tries to get out of the city to the real America as much as possible, where willing and lucid interviewees are everywhere to be found. "You get a real sense of what the country is about because people are very happy to talk. You are in a country where everyone has a constitutionally-underpinned right [to comment], nurtured at college or at school show-and-tell and enhanced by these exuberant Methodist or Baptist services every Sunday, people just talk and talk and they do it beautifully and so articulately."

The journalist has himself enjoyed the liberation of expressing himself in print. "Writing for television is an act of castration, essentially. Good television is about what you leave out, so you don't use any adjectives and don't describe what you can already see. It's quite an unsatisfying form of writing because no-one ever remembers what you've written."

Iowa is the one state Frei does his best to avoid. "I'm sorry if anyone is out there from Iowa but Iowa is at the bottom of my list, it's flat, it's dull, it's fucking freezing in the winter and it's bloody hot in the summer, with flies the size of birds and it stinks of cow manure. The state motto is First in Hogs, as in pigs."

He is convinced that the cause of war in Iraq was not oil but rather the President's desire to settle a score with Saddam, and that the culprits for the current mess are Donald Rumsfeld for trying to "do Iraq on the cheap" and Condoleezza Rice for viewing that country as Germany in 1945 rather than "Germany in 1761, a post feudal tribal state split into different fiefdoms with a relatively low literacy rate and no industrial base".

Ultimately, though, it was Hurricane Katrina's expose of the incompetence of the Bush regime that really caused the president's downfall, says Frei, who stood amid the bloated corpses in New Orleans, filming his reports while the rescue services dithered.

As for America's view of Britain, he says that the country is still perplexed by the departure of Tony Blair and, when asked about the standing of the current prime minister, he responds "Gordon who?"

But perhaps Mr Brown should just be patient. Frei recounts an incident when he was stopped by a traffic cop in Louisiana, six years after New Labour had come to power. In his most cut glass "awfully sorry" Westminster tones, the BBC man had apologised to the officer, a man of "big belly, reflector specs, big Stetson, hand on his gun". Hearing the accent, the cop had promptly responded: "We luurve you Brits, you're our only freends, and we luurve that prime minister of yours ...Johnnie Major." That, Frei reiterates, "was in 2003".

'Only in America, Inside the Mind and Under the Skin of the Nation Everyone Loves to Hate' is published by Fourth Estate, £16.99

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments