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ON (OR OFF) The Record?

Former UK ambassador Charles Crawford descrifeb march media_400_250bes some of his adventures with the media

Readers with long memories will recall my 2009 article for Diplomat magazine that described in grisly detail the story of my leaked email about the EU Budget negotiations when I was British Ambassador in Poland:

“The leaked email caused a sensation in Poland and far beyond. The British Ambassador in Warsaw accusing Poles of being ungrateful!

The Polish media struggled to work out precisely whom if anyone I had insulted and why. Long, strange articles appeared poring over the differences between the British and Polish senses of humour. Polish politicians and government were uncertain how, if at all, to react to a private sarcastic email…

The Financial Times stirred this steaming cauldron, publishing a spoof ‘letter of apology’ from myself to the Polish nation which obliquely mocked Poles for not getting the joke. The Polish media proclaimed that I had apologised, then proclaimed that I had not apologised.

Letters and emails poured into the Embassy from Poles. Two-thirds of the emails said that I was right – Poles were feckless and ungrateful! One-third said that I should be expelled for the UK’s latest betrayal of Poland as continued from Yalta.”

Diplomats usually rather like being in a media story: it shows they are important. They do not like being the story, or at least a large part of it. That’s not what they are paid for.

Throughout the years I have had many interesting encounters with UK and foreign journalists, and watched the media
(and media ethics) changing as technology has developed.

My first overseas posting with the FCO in 1981 was as Press Attaché to the Embassy in Belgrade, then the capital of communist but ‘non-aligned’ Yugoslavia.  On my pre-posting briefing rounds I visited the then BBC Yugoslav Service (part of the World Service radio network, broadcasting in Serbo-Croat). I was proudly told that the Yugoslav authorities had never complained about the BBC’s Yugoslav language reporting, so all was well. As I came to realise, this congenial (or congealed) state of affairs was down to the Yugoslav secret police worming their way deep into the BBC system.

The first journalist I met in my life was Richard West, then with The Spectator. We met in Zagreb over dinner. He had been covering the region for years, and no doubt was unimpressed by the callow ignorance of the Embassy’s new recruit. As dinner ended he politely asked if he might polish off the wine left in my glass. Wow. It was true. British journalists really did enjoy a drink.

Back in the early 1980s there was lingering Western media interest in Yugoslavia. Tito had died in 1980. Would the country collapse? Maybe, but not yet. I met UK and Yugoslav journalists over interminable grilled meat and sljivovica to exchange tittle-tattle about the machinations of the regional Yugoslav communist elites. Happy days.

My first major media disaster came on my next posting in South Africa, on the fateful day Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister. The Johannesburg Star called the Embassy for a reaction. I conveyed an ‘off the record’ observation that after all Mrs Thatcher had done for the country it seemed ridiculous that she had been brought down by messy procedural manoeuvrings. This was before the Internet, so it was impossible to follow the drama from thousands of miles away to see what those manoeuvres meant. The Johannesburg Star interpreted this prosaic thought with latitude. Its late afternoon edition front page splashed Thatcher resignation ‘stupid’, says British Embassy! or something like that.


Luckily for me, the embarrassment quickly burned out in the global babble surrounding Mrs T’s departure. No one in London knew or cared. Probably no one in South Africa cared either.

In Moscow in late 1993 I was in the Embassy watching the live BBC TV coverage of the attempted Red/Brown coup against President Yeltsin. We could hear sporadic gunfire. At the height of the crisis the BBC reporter in Moscow proclaimed to the planet “This is an uprising of the people of Russia against President Yeltsin!” This judgement was irresponsibly untrue. We in the Embassy were busy calling everyone we knew across Russia to get first-hand reactions. Many Russians were hardly aware of the drama unfolding in their capital, or were uninterested in its outcome. We told London that the BBC was talking drivel. We were right. Yeltsin survived.

I later asked the main BBC TV Moscow correspondent about this outlandish statement by his colleague. He shrugged. “That’s what you have do say to get good ratings.” I grasped for the first time that frontline BBC news reporting was giving up on keeping facts, analysis and comment firmly distinct. It was giving up on integrity.

In 1996 I went from Russia to Sarajevo as UK Ambassador, tasked with supporting Bosnia’s reconstruction after the war. The BBC radio Today programme asked me for an interview. I agreed with the FCO in London and with Today that I would talk only about the international reconstruction effort, not the politics of the Bosnia process. That wider subject was for ministers in London.

Imagine my horror when the first question to me down the telephone, broadcast live to millions of middle-class Britishers scoffing their breakfast, was roughly this: “Well, the Bosnia peace process is an obvious failure, isn’t it?” The BBC producers had lied to me! But so what? I had a micro-moment to focus myself and respond sensibly. I was trapped. It was hopeless to try to avoid answering the question, or to say that it had been agreed that I would not be asked about pointed policy issues.

The moral of these stories for diplomatic dealings with journalists? Print journalists and TV/radio journalists are completely different phenomena.

With print journalists you never have any real control over what they say you said. Their job is to sell newspapers. They need a ‘story’. You may have no idea where anything you say fits into that emerging story. Their story may change for them too as events unfold or they talk to someone else. Usually they record you faithfully and fairly (enough). Sometimes you get burned. But unless you have been catastrophically stupid or indiscreet, it all goes well enough.

With print journalists you need to establish the rules. Ask directly before the interview gets going how they plan to refer to you. It’s no use trying to agree the rules after the interview/conversation. Horse? Bolted.

As I became more experienced as a UK official I started any interview by asking how the journalist expected to describe me in print, and getting that clearly agreed. On or off the record? Attributable, or non-attributable background? A senior UK diplomatic source; a senior British official; a senior Western diplomat; a British diplomat; someone close to the discussions? The more the agreed description of me was remote and ‘unattributable’, the more I’d talk freely. If the journalist at the end asked for a specific quote or two ‘on the record’, that was easy to give too once we both knew what I was saying overall.

Print journalists find this easy to deal with: it suits them to build with senior contacts a relationship of friendly professional mutual respect. The more accessible and helpful you as a diplomat are in helping them do their job (e.g. by giving them new angles, or making a quiet call or two to help them get a senior interview), the less reason they have to make a public fool of you or the policies you’re advancing.

TV/radio work is completely different. You are there as you. It’s next to impossible to agree in advance any ‘rules’, or to expect them to be respected if you do agree them. The presenters don’t have time to care about you or their relationship with you. They have one ear listening to you. The other ear is listening through headphones to the producer teeing up the next slot. TV/radio presenters are happy if you talk coherently in more or less answering their questions. It’s even better for them if you say or do something idiotic or intemperate. They are skilled in pushing back mercilessly to show off to their viewers/listeners.

Let’s leave the last word to Lord Curzon: “The journalist whose main duty is speed is likely sometimes to get an advantage over the diplomatist whose main object is accuracy.” Is that still true? Is there any real difference these days between a journalist with a laptop and a diplomat with a laptop?


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