Sunday, December 21, 2008

Should I Join the Pack And Write "Very Negative Stories" About Carl Freer?

I got a comment from a Danish journalist who questions my motive for writing about Carl Freer and Gizmondo. You can read her comment below my previous blog. Here is my answer:

Hi Dorte,

Thanks for your comment where you suggest that I have written “very positive stories on Carl Freer”, implying that I must have a “reason” for that, other than my duty as a journalist to listen to all sides, hold my judgment until I have sufficient proof, and not to engage in the sort of pack journalism that has been rampant when it comes to Carl Freer and Gizmondo. The fact that my reporting and interviews are seen as “very positive stories” says more about the current media climate in Denmark and Sweden than anything else. Does the Jante Law oblige me to write “very negative stories on Carl Freer”, and make sure that nothing Carl Freer says in an interview could be even suspected of having “a positive tone”?

As I’m sure you know from reading my stories, I have never stated that Carl Freer is either guilty or innocent, but I have made clear that I believe that much of what has been written about him reflects flawed and sloppy journalism.

As for any personal relationship, I had never heard of Carl Freer before Stefan Eriksson’s infamous crash on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, which led to a request from one of my clients to follow the story. I did what most journalists do these days when they start working on a new story, i.e. I googled. My initial view of Carl Freer and Stefan Eriksson was that they were criminals just as they were portrayed in Swedish, British and American media, and when I interviewed a traffic sergeant at the Malibu station, he gave me the same story of Stefan Eriksson and his cars and Carl Freer and his 10 million dollar yacht in Marina del Ray, but when I, after Carl’s arrest in April 2006, interviewed Steve Whitmore, senior media advisor at the LA County Sheriff's office, he told me that he had been released and was “cooperating fully with us.” But if Freer was such a hardened criminal, why would he do that? This was one of these little things you run into when you are working on a story that doesn’t make you change your direction, but leave a question hanging.

I went on to cover other stories, now and then checking for news about Carl Freer’s new venture Xero Mobile, until my editor at one day got an email from Carl Freer addressed to me. He wanted to talk. And we did, first over the phone, and later during a full day interview in New York. What he told me convinced me that he at least deserved to be heard, and when I went back and reread the stories about Gizmondo and Carl Freer, I realized that they were built on very loose ground, and that was also the case with Wired’s long piece, and the one in Los Angeles Times. One problem for the journalists was that Carl Freer – who was the brain behind Gizmondo - didn’t talk to reporters, as he was deeply suspicious of all media after the Gizmondo collapse, and as he had been advised by the investigators not talk to media while the investigation was ongoing. But now that it was all but over, and the executives at Gizmondo Europe Ltd., was cleared from suspicions of criminal wrongdoing, he was free to speak, and he chose to talk to me, as he felt from reading my stories that I could give him a fair hearing.

As I wrote in my first article after my first interview with Carl Freer, I was initially hesitant to meet him, even more so alone in a SoHo hotel-room. I still thought of him as potentially affiliated with Stefan Eriksson’s “Uppsala Mafia”, and didn’t really want to get “involved” with them, even though "mafia" in Sweden has very little to do with the real thing. Hence, he is not an old friend of mine, and no, I don’t have any financial interest in writing him up or down (I would probably have made more money from covering him if I had gone with the flow and just whacked away at this Swedish Piñata).

You also ask if he impresses me. Well yes, he does. He is brilliant, well spoken and thinks strategically. Having covered IT for over two decades, I can say that the series of IT-based projects that led to the Gizmondo made a lot of sense. He seems to be a clever entrepreneur who comes up with smart business models that integrate the latest technology with innovative business models. I don’t see why he would spend so much time and effort on actually building things and developing business models, if all he wanted to do was to scam people. And if he besides already had pocketed tens of millions of dollars from the Gizmondo Europe crash, why would he want to do it again, unless he was pathological somehow? It doesn’t make sense.

But the fact that he has a great personal charm doesn’t preclude that he still could be a crook. You don’t have to be a brute to do bad things. But you do need proof before you accuse somebody of crimes. And the only thing Carl Freer has been convicted of is – as far as I know - signing his parents’ names to a student loan check for 20,000 kronor (about US$2,500). He claims that he did so with his parents’ permission, but the bank didn’t accept that. I interviewed Carl Freer’s mom Marianne about this on April 27th, and she confirmed his story, explaining that the incident happened after her husband had left her, and that she and her son was having a hard time financially. Her husband had agreed to cover certain costs for the family, but they had problems in communicating, and there was some confusion over the details.

This incident, which occurred when Carl Freer was 17, is the only time when he has been convicted of anything. But that didn’t prevent a big Swedish newspaper from opening their major expose with depicting him as a person who rips off his parents. “I thought I was going to faint when I opened the paper that Saturday morning,” Marianne told me.

One more thing: Yes, the re-launch of Gizmondo has been delayed several times, but what does that prove? Have you ever heard of other companies delaying products? Do you remember Microsoft’s operating system “Chicago”, which after years of delays was launched as Windows 95? The fact that Media Power has been forced to delay the new Gizmondo several times proves, if anything, that they are not sitting on a secret stash, but have to struggle to secure financing and to deliver the product. Neither have they repeated the huge mistake of going public without a product to sell. Hence their dependency on private capital and Chinese conglomerates.

Part of the problem with media's coverage of the Gizmondo affair is that it is such a great story, and I would be surprised if it doesn’t end up as a Hollywood movie with Matt Damon as Carl Freer and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Stefan Eriksson.

A blockbuster for sure, but will it capture the truth? I don’t think so.

Hans Sandberg

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