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Viewpoint: What has happened to the Foreign Office?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

When I first saw the headline about the Foreign Office and the Pope I thought at first this was probably a silly internal e-mail or maybe even an April Fool's joke.

Wrong.

Pope Benedict XVI
The Pope is due to visit the UK in September

One word showed that this was actually a formal document. The Foreign Office statement of regret/anger/embarrassment said it had been "withdrawn". This meant of course that it had been circulated and it was something I had trouble in getting my head round.

This did not seem to be the Foreign Office I have known.

It turned out that the list of ideas for the papal visit ("Benedict" condoms, blessing of a gay marriage etc) had been drawn up by a team "brainstorming" for the visit and was attached to an invitation to a wider meeting.

This was definitely not the Foreign Office I have known.

"You cannot be serious" was my immediate thought. It still is.

The memo was sent with a somewhat unnecessary warning that some suggestions were possibly "far-fetched" (so why send them?) and with a necessary but dangerous warning that it was not for external exposure, often a hint of something spicy to a determined leaker.

According to the recipient of the leak, the Sunday Telegraph, the memo was sent out by a young diplomat, a 23-year-old Oxford graduate, though on the say-so of a more senior official, who has been moved to "other duties". It would be interesting to know the timing of this move. Did it happen only after the leak?

No wise counsel

What does this episode tell us of the modern Foreign Office?

It tells us first that "brainstorming" has taken the place of judgment.

You can just imagine the meeting at which some bright spark proposed drawing up a list of provocative proposals. Everyone of course joined in enthusiastically, congratulating each contributor as they came forward with more and cleverer proposals. ("Open an abortion clinic? Excellent", "Fantastic condom idea. Brilliant.")

But did nobody call for a pause? Was there no wiser counsel? Not even a stray Roman Catholic at the table who might have questioned all this?

Was there no institutional memory in this supposedly international department about the persecution of Catholics in this country (Catholic emancipation did not come until 1829) and a suspicion that this list might not look good in that context?

Obviously not. Nobody stepped forward to say it was all ridiculous. And it got worse. The whole thing was circulated as an attachment to an invitation to a wider planning meeting.

The new Foreign Office

Then you realise another thing about the new Foreign Office. This "brainstorming" approach is part of a revolution which you can see there on any Friday. It is now a "dress-down" day.

Diplomats in jeans and shabby shirts (we Brits cannot do smart casual) come into the reception area to greet some of the best-dressed folk on the planet, often diplomats from small countries trying to look their best in what they, perhaps naively, regard as an august institution.

One other detail on the leaked document caught my eye. This was a chart of people said to be "stakeholders" in the papal visit. The use of "stakeholders" is a sure sign that jargon is at work and that brains are not.

And then you look on the Foreign Office website, which is loaded with blogging and links to Twitter and YouTube and Flickr. The foreign secretary himself has a blog, though it has had to stop for the period of the election campaign and is usually hidden away in an act of annoying modesty.

This is all supposed to project the image of the official-friendly and user-friendly FO.

The message is that King Charles Street is no longer the abode of Carlton Brown of the FO, an Ealing comedy film from 1959 in which Terry Thomas gives work a glancing blow after reading The Times over the marmalade.

No, this is the eco-conscious face of British diplomacy, where our ambassador to Ukraine blogs that he has been helping to pick up litter in a park in Kiev (now spelled Kyiv) as part of Earth Day.

And yet, also on the website, is news about an attack on the British ambassador's convoy in Yemen.

The world remains a serious place. Does the Foreign Office?

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


Here is a selection of your emails to Paul:

Your excellent piece about the Foreign Office adeptly highlighted the complete lack of decorum displayed by that childish memo. The memo and the meetings leading up to it were a complete waste of tax payers' money and a source of national embarrassment. Thank you also for highlighting that Roman Catholics were not emancipated until 1829 and that we are feeling increasingly persecuted.
Stephanie N.Sparrow

I wonder why these 'juniors' are allowed by their management to indulge in this kind of thing that simply heaps embarrassment on us all. And all the while living on the tab of the UK taxpayer. I simply don't understand how it has been allowed to happen but, as usual, no-one will be held to account.
James Edgar

As Catholics with both English and Scottish recusant ancestry, we have a story where a family member had been fined so many times for refusing Anglican communion that all he had was his dog. Arraigned once more he is said to have offered the dog to pay the fine. That story never made us less patriotic, but it leads to wry amusement when the traditional English "No Pope Here" boxer shorts start to show! Coming up to date, as a senior executive, there was always a clear rule that "dress down" codes did not apply if you were meeting customers or suppliers. I find it disgraceful if FO employees are meeting foreign diplomats without appropriate business dress.
Joseph Cullen (a very Catholic name!)

Good article, pity you didn't mention that the fools would not have dared to apply the same "brainstorming" outcome to Islam and lived?
Bob, Birmingham

"The world remains a serious place. Does the Foreign Office?" Well done. Thank you.
Anton Baer, Canada

To me, the Foreign Office is modernizing. As a young student, I am sick of suits running the government. You say that brainstorming has replaced sense, but I say that workplace morale is probably high, if they have the bravado to make such a memo. Religion, like any organization, should come under just as much scrutiny as any other. Why do we have to provoke hell every time religion is offended? The envoy point you brought up; they can be serious and entertained at the same time. The fact they posted such news on the FO website proves that, it doesn't disprove it. Your logic in that sense seemed flawed to me. I enjoyed your piece, even if I disagreed!
C. Alexander

I really appreciated the tone and balance of your article. I am a Catholic and found the incident offensive. I have written to the FO to register my displeasure and said I felt ashamed to be British. I do have a sense of a humour: office banter is one thing, but for the FO to circulate infantile bigotry like this beggars belief. I felt it insulted by its attitude to Catholics, Christians and, er, foreigners! They seem to have no idea that the Pope is a head of state. Mind boggling and completely unprofessional and intolerant.
Carol King



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