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Freedom of information killed ambassadors’ valedictory dispatches. Could blogging bring them back?
‘All I ever tried to do was hold a mirror up and show you how beautiful you really are. Shine on, you crazy diamond.’
I have just read one of the finest ambassadors’ ‘valedictory’ dispatches ever composed, except it isn’t one: it had to be posted on the internet, and was, last month. What was essentially a sometimes-exasperated love letter to Lebanon will never see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s printers. The valedictory died in 2006. So Tom Fletcher, who after four years as ambassador in Beirut had come to the end of his posting (‘Unlike your politicians,’ he tells Lebanon, ‘I can’t extend my own term’) had to write his loving, infuriated, despairing and hopeful tribute to the country as a personal blogpost.
It must have been around the turn of the century that here in The Spectator I first mentioned the valedictory. This had become a kind of Foreign Office institution. Ambassadors departing their post abroad would write a candid but carefully considered and (typically) polished formal dispatch about the country they were leaving. It could be whimsical, anguished, informative, affectionate or scornful. The quality of FCO prose was such that some were minor masterpieces, eagerly awaited by the foreign secretaries to whom all, nominally, were addressed. The letter (usually classified under the Official Secrets Act) would be formally printed and circulated as widely as discretion allowed within the Office, and sometimes as far afield as the Bank of England and Buckingham Palace.
In the Daily Telegraph on 6 August Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador in Washington — drawn, like me, to Tom Fletcher’s blog — offered a lively obituary of the institution with a link to Mr Fletcher’s blog, but (in mourning, like me, for the valedictory’s demise) is perhaps a little hard on the poor old FCO.
It was Margaret Beckett who signed the tradition’s death warrant. Briefly Foreign Secretary, she abolished the custom in 2006. I expect she was put up to it by her senior officials, and they had a reason. The last straw had been Sir Ivor Roberts’s valedictory on departing Rome. He was retiring; his knighthood was safe; so Sir Ivor lamented the FCO’s capture by the mentality of management consultancy. He described the whole thing as ‘bullshit bingo’. The valedictory leaked, choice parts appearing in the Sunday Times. The Permanent Secretary was not happy.
And you can see why. The Diplomatic Service ethos was changing; diplomacy was brisker, brusquer and more businesslike; there was less time or appreciation for fine prose. And — here we journalists have to accept some responsibility — it was less possible to keep communications confidential.
A few years later, using the Freedom of Information Act and the more cumbersome but surprisingly fruitful method of simply going along to the Public Records Office at Kew and asking, a BBC producer, Andrew Bryson, and I published Parting Shots, and later The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: two anthologies of some of the best British diplomatic dispatches. Mostly (I think) the Office took a favourable view of our endeavours, but our then ambassador in Bangkok was forced to press-release his disavowal of a predecessor’s view that the Thais were bereft of a serious culture of their own. Had that dispatch leaked at the time, it would have been dynamite. Today, it very well might leak. William Hague told me, as Foreign Secretary, that he had asked his officials whether Mrs Beckett’s ruling might be reversed, but they had been clear there was no way the valedictory could be given special protection against FoI.
So the Foreign Office are to be congratulated for allowing Mr Fletcher’s blogged letter to Lebanon (‘So Yalla … Bye’) to appear on an official FCO website. There’s enough in it that, if published as HMG’s official view, would be seen as embarrassing; no thin-lipped official would find difficulty in framing reasons to suppress it. ‘When we think we’ve hit bottom we hear a faint knocking sound below’ is less than complimentary about Lebanese politics; the revelation that HM ambassador was offered a free buttock-lift (‘its value exceeded our £140 gift limit, so that daunting task is left undone’) is hardly dignified; and ‘There are eight stages of life as an ambassador here. Seduction. Frustration. Exhilaration. Exhaustion. Disaffection. Infatuation. Addiction. Resignation. I knew them all, often simultaneously’ is more honest than it is respectful. Yet our former ambassador manages to communicate a passion that few intelligent Lebanese citizens could fail to warm to — and that’s good for Britain, too.
So I wonder whether Fletcher and the FCO may have stumbled upon a compromise future for the valedictory? Were it to become understood as a British custom that a departing ambassador is invited to express a thoughtful but candid personal view in a blog of his own which is expressly not his government’s view and which has not been vetted in advance — and that from time to time the Office might wish to publish some of these on its own website, again as a personal not official view — then might we perhaps establish a safe house for valedictory thoughts? The idea is worth testing: perhaps not so much as a sponsored pilot project, as by its becoming clear that there is no official discouragement from the practice being emulated by others.
The FCO is a competitive place. Diplomats do like to show off. Doubtless Fletcher has inspired a little office jealousy by his showy style, his crafted one-liners, his energetic phrase-making and his confessional prose. There will surely be others ready to show him how it could be done even better. And it’s always open to the Foreign Secretary to tut-tut but insist this has nothing to do with ministers, ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’, etc.
And thus, and tentatively, valedictories might rise again — maybe even getting a wider audience than they ever used to. I hope so. Something was lost in 2006.