Once upon a time diplomats were rarely seen or heard in public. To do their vital work of privately communicating messages between national leaders they needed to be discreet, anonymous, detached, aloof, rarefied. In a word, invisible.
When I joined the Foreign Office in 1979 the rules on such things were clear and strict. UK-based diplomats would never appear in the British media: that was what Ministers were expected (and wanted) to do. Overseas it was slightly different. British diplomats had some discretion to respond to foreign media requests for interviews and statements, but when in doubt, they should check with the FCO News Department in London. No Foreign Minister wanted to have their breakfast ruined by opening the newspaper to find a sensational report of something unexpected or unwelcome proclaimed by an FCO official overseas.
Back then these limitations on diplomatic media appearances made sense: the media themselves were restricted. In Britain and elsewhere there were a tiny number of TV stations and relatively few newspapers. Official foreign policy pronouncements could – and should – be rationed accordingly to keep everything at a suitable level of sobriety.
This all changed. Along came new technology, CNN, the internet, Twitter and Facebook, a proliferation of TV channels available across the planet at any time of day or night, digital radio, blogging. A Tower of Babel. A tsunami of noisy words, comment, pseudo-analysis and even, now and again, some facts. The media are increasingly no longer something separate or ‘above’ the general public. The media are the general public.
Or the general public are the media. Perhaps the most startling thing about the grisly death of Colonel Gaddafi was the way so many Libyans swarmed around him taking pictures and videos with their mobile phones for speedy transmission to their friends or to myriad internet outlets. At this historic moment, the so-called mainstream media in effect were not defining the story. They were chasing to keep up with it.
Diplomatic practice inevitably has had to change to deal with these completely different circumstances. Not all foreign services have the same approach, but the Foreign Office in London now expects British diplomats to be ‘out there’ actively selling British government policies. And not only policies: British diplomats are expected to show that they are busy and effective in helping British citizens overseas. If any sort of significant disaster takes place potentially involving British citizens, Ambassadors are under instructions to drop what they’re doing and hurry to the spot. When they get there they must engage actively with any local and international media outlets to show that they are on the case. At one point FCO guidance went so far as to give detailed instructions on how best to emote in front of TV cameras, with a view to trying to persuade British TV audiences that they ‘care’.
Today’s modern media maelstrom strikes fear into the hearts of most diplomats, normally modest and straightforward folk who just want to get on with the job. It’s more than disconcerting to face the risk that almost any indiscretion or mis-spoken word at a closed session meeting might be caught by someone with a telephone dictating device or video camera and then within seconds dumped on the internet, to great embarrassment. The space between public and private has shrunk alarmingly, not only for diplomats of course.
A consequence of vastly inflating the total media space is that supposedly serious media outlets themselves have been radically dumbed down. TV and radio presenters alike desperately need instant stories to make their programmes stand out amidst the hubbub. By far the best outcome for any TV presenter interviewing a diplomat is that diplomat making a fool of himself or herself in front of the camera, or at least saying something unwise and controversial. Attempting to explore complex issues in a meaningful way will be a long way down the presenter’s list of priorities.
My own first encounter with the horror represented by the modern media came in Moscow in late 1993, when a rag-tag assortment of disgruntled communists, fascists, mystics and other eccentrics tried to overthrow President Yeltsin by taking over the parliament building and then storming the national radio tower on the edge of Moscow.
We gathered in the Embassy as many Chancery diplomats as could safely get there and started to telephone any contacts we could find in Moscow and across Russia to see what was happening locally. It soon became clear that the dramatic events being shown on international TV represented an incredibly isolated if vivid phenomenon. At the height of the battle at the radio tower, the BBC TV correspondent proclaimed to a startled world that they were witnessing ‘an uprising by the people of Russia against President Yeltsin’. This was totally untrue. The Embassy that night gave the British government a far more accurate account of what was happening.
After the crisis subsided I confronted a top BBC journalist about this appalling coverage of such an historic story. He shrugged, saying that the BBC operated this way to maintain its market share in the ratings war.
Three years later I was in Sarajevo soon after the Bosnia conflict had ended. The Radio Four Today programme in London asked to interview me ‘live’ as the British man on the spot. The BBC production team who set up the interview assured me that the questions would be straightforward and factual. They lied. The presenter quickly started to press me about the merits of the British government policies to implement the Dayton agreements – was not this ambitious attempt to rebuild Bosnia doomed to failure? I did my best to try to respond in a measured way, acutely conscious of the fact that in a live broadcast to several million listeners I had no room at all for manoeuvre or error, and that the slightest hesitation might come across badly.
Live radio interviews are difficult. Live TV interviews are far worse. The greedy cameras pick up every little gesture and eye movement. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying; it’s how you look. During my time in Bosnia I was asked to do a live CNN broadcast with the late, great US diplomat Dick Holbrooke. The camera was set up to film us against some or other dismal background, but the interviewer himself was sitting comfortably in a CNN studio in faraway Atlanta. As I tried to answer questions coming from thousands of miles away into my ears through headphones, the man behind the camera was gesticulating to me to keep my eyes focused on the camera so that I did not look weird. This is quite hard to do: in any real-life conversation one’s eyes move to and fro naturally.
Since leaving the FCO I have done media and presentation training for diplomats and others. And I have learnt a lot in the process.
In one exercise in basic TV interview technique, each Ambassador in turn was interviewed by me and then faced the horrid spectacle of watching the interview played back, to see what had worked (or not). The questions were all as easy as I could make them. We then watched the screen. Both the Ambassador and I were amazed to see something neither of us had noticed previously when the interview was being recorded: the Ambassador had sat there with arms crossed, nervously tapping himself again and again with one finger. This created a bizarre impression for anyone watching.
In another case, the diplomat concerned gave a nice interview but, perhaps through nerves, perched her hand tensely on the table and kept it there. When we re-ran the video our eyes were drawn ineluctably towards this scary hand, which started to loom on the screen like the scuttling, disembodied hand from the Addams Family.
One basic lesson came through loud and clear when I trained new FCO diplomats. In a mock interview, one had to act the role of a British spokesman, the other an American spokesman. The young man tasked to pretend to be American was nervous. Yet when we played back the video, he was far more effective. In his nervousness he had said very little, but what he had said came across on the screen as conveying toughness and determination. By contrast his colleague who played the British spokesman had been relaxed and cheerful. Much too relaxed and cheerful: he came across as friendly but frivolous.
My heartfelt advice to any diplomat facing a TV or radio interview? Have only one or two (maximum three) points to get across. Sound positive and firm! Don’t feel obliged to answer the question: simply use the question as the springboard for conveying your core points, then stop. Above all, keep it simple. The more you say – and above all the more you try to be clever – the more you open yourself up to a devastating jibe from the interviewer. Oh, and when the interview ends remember that the cameras may still be filming you until you’ve left the studio…