The BBC’s recent fly-on-the-wall documentary on the FCO was more than two years in the making and the decision to let in the cameras posed many risks. Simon McGee, who served as FCO press secretary during its creation, explains the story behind the story
Inside the Foreign Office told the story of the men and women of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service in three neat and engaging one-hour programmes. But the BBC shows were the result of a process that took more than two years, including a year of exploratory discussions, negotiations and agreements before a single shot had been filmed. This is my own inside story, as the FCO press secretary for almost all of this time, of the backroom work that led to the making of the fly-on-the-wall documentary series.
Not long after the BBC approached the FCO to consider embarking on a programme, BBC executives appointed filmmaker Michael Waldman to engage with us, to drive the negotiating process and to charm the system into providing a green light. Around the time of his appointment I had a drink with a media friend who replied to news of Waldman’s involvement with two words: Covent Garden. Unknown to me, Waldman had shot to fame in the 1990s for a documentary called The House revealing the tortured innards, infighting and fits of rage within The Royal Opera House. It had become legendary for revealing corporate ugliness in technicolour and a gross warning to public relations folk and spinners everywhere of how a well-intentioned ‘insider account’ can turn around and destroy you. I left more than a little worried.
And that wasn’t even one of the big challenges. Did we have a positive enough story about modern diplomacy and the means and voices within the FCO to tell it? And would these stories resonate and convince a documentary team or would they seek to drive an agenda during a time of turmoil in our foreign policy with near neighbours? There was also the issue of ministerial sign-off. While the public believes that politicians love the media limelight – and they may be right with some characters – the vast majority are conscious of the power of media and are calculating in how they engage with it and seek to exploit it. Ministers also tend to have enough on their plates already without having to worry about television crews buzzing around them. And ministerial Special Advisers, whose primary job it is to protect their man or woman before all other considerations, are understandably sceptical of long-term projects that aim to promote a government department but may only tangentially benefit their master.
Another potential barrier was the culture in a government department with staff that are the most security vetted in Whitehall. The diplomatic traits of tone, sensitivity, reserve, and a certain amount of need-to-know-only working, amount to an environment that is naturally less open and more resistant to outside forces elbowing their way around within, asking awkward questions.
The sheer amount of time and legwork that such a project would take was also a factor. Would the FCO have the bandwidth to support such a documentary with all its complications given everything else going on? And would staff, even if they were instructed to allow a BBC television crew into their classified offices and residences, want to spend time speaking to them? And what could they talk to them about and what not? It would be a mammoth exercise.
Ultimately, we believed that the end result would be worth the gestation pain. At the heart of the project was a simple belief that the FCO had a good story to tell about what it did for Brits around the world – never or very rarely involving a Ferrero Rocher chocolate. So, we set about establishing the basic case for it, anticipating problems, and working with the BBC to win round the people inside government who would need convincing.
My initial concerns were assuaged by Waldman’s determination to find a collaborative approach by which he would get what he wanted – diplomats on film being as unguarded as possible as they went about their lives – and what we wanted: to buff the reputation and standing of the FCO by revealing the breadth, depth and character of the people within a pretty guarded organisation. The one previous fly-on-the-wall documentary series on the FCO, True Brits,was an accurate snapshot of the FCO in the early 1990s when Douglas Hurd was Foreign Secretary, with lots of smoking, chaps in grey suits, spouses (all female) and an extraordinary scene where a senior ambassador in the Gulf was interviewed complaining about how little money he makes compared to his Oxbridge and public school contemporaries. Sophisticated it was not. We wanted to tell the story of the FCO as it is today, looking and sounding more like the rest of the country than ever before and engaged in a world on behalf of Brits that is increasingly intricate, interconnected and uncertain.
Telling the story of the modern FCO meant sitting down with Waldman and his producer Chris O’Donnell and thrashing out potential story avenues. We debated overseas missions known for certain types of work, such as consular or conflict; the personal challenges faced by ambassadors, such as being based in a remote country or on a frontline; the relationship between ministers and officials; the FCO responding in times of crisis or natural disaster abroad; multilateral bodies; and topical foreign policy challenges. We also needed to set up a mini casting operation to establish who might be willing to, and capable of, taking part.
After presenting a sensible filming plan, the finishing touch in convincing ministers and Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon McDonald to back the programme was dealing with the issues of security and diplomatic sensitivity. We established sensible procedures and boundaries with Waldman that satisfied the security folk without compromising editorial freedoms. We also agreed that matters filmed or overheard that were clearly classified would be respected; any grey areas would be discussed.
More than a year later, the series had aired and I had been out of the FCO for many months. Waldman and I caught up over lunch and set about dissecting the episodes like the schnitzels before us. Like others in the FCO who had given the project their blessing, I had been apprehensive. Waldman had constantly pushed the boundaries that we had sought to establish, which makes him a good filmmaker but a tricky FCO house guest. Who knew what nuggets he had got out of a first-time ambassador halfway around the world? Would he air the frank remarks questioning the incorruptibility of an African president that he had filmed a senior FCO figure utter in a private moment? I once snapped awake in the back of a minibus in the Foreign Secretary’s convoy, stuck in New York traffic, to find Michael filming me and the rest of the Foreign Secretary’s team, some dozing in their seats and others staring intently at their iPhones, at the end of an arduous week.
The FCO came out of it well and the main reason was that Waldman had created a documentary that was genuinely fascinated with the organisation and people within it, and did not allow the project to be side-tracked by the fame of its political head. His first film on the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2017 was as devoted to the story about junior diplomats running around Manhattan and being in awe of their jobs, as it was about the efforts of the Foreign Secretary and our ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft to apply diplomatic pressure on the Burmese government for their murder and persecution of Rohingya Muslims. And the third episode captures the sheer variety of challenges and difficulties that Brits face abroad, and the diplomats and consular staff who are there to pick up the pieces and help get people home. I think the programme worked because of the trust that had developed over its two years in the making. As time went by, Waldman and his crew could ask to go pretty much anywhere, and did, albeit under the watchful eye of FCO fixers/minders Nikki or Ed who accompanied them to the front line in eastern Ukraine, Mongoliain the middle of its notoriously frozen winter, and the Caribbean after devastating typhoons.
But Waldman wouldn’t have been doing his job if I didn’t have some gripes. The second episode followed Boris on official visits to Lisbon and Paris, and in my view went a little far in framing him as a lightweight joker, including comedy music and video editing to get the most entertainment value out of Boris’s repeated attempts to record one of his overseas visit twitter videos. It also went quite far in seeking to contrast the specialist diplomatic knowledge of senior officials with the generalist and non-expert approach of politicians, with the end result that the former looked whip-smart and the latter dumber than a rock. Waldman also managed to get a shot of Boris snoozing in his airplane seat towards the end of a long day thanks to a compartment shutter left open for two seconds too long. It was of course an accurate account of what Boris was doing at that very moment though not representative of the work that usually goes on in that seat. But Boris is big enough to take it and by the time the documentary aired the department had a new political master to fuss over anyway.
What mattered most to me and others who enabled its production was that ordinary diplomats had their chance to tell their family, friends and countrymen about the extraordinary things they do on our behalf. I hope that the risk we took in backing the project more than two years ago leaves the FCO and our diplomats a little better understood and valued. That can be no bad thing these days.