From Valedictory Despatches to Twitter?

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The Ambassadors’ Parting Shots

Today on BBC Radio 4 Matthew Parris kickoffs a 5-episode program on the passing of the valedictory despatch. That’s the traditional final telegram home in which British ambassadors could “let their hair down and settle a few scores.” That is, they could say whatever they wished in their final telegram home. The series features declassified Foreign Office files alongside interviews with the diplomats who wrote them. These files were released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act. Click here to hear the episodes. Click here to hear a clip now (additional excerpts read by actors).

The BBC also interviewed our blog friend, three times British Ambassador Charles Crawford, who left the FCO in 2007. Ambassador C gave it a thumbs up: “The BBC series is well researched and should be well worth a listen if you are interested in the way diplomacy has evolved, both for better and worse, in recent decades.” He further writes that the valedictories were canned when he was in Warsaw, and that he sent two from there: “– one on the philosophical aspects of the end of communism in Europe (extracts from which readers in a world scoop here have seen: The Final Submission); — one describing my Lifetime Career Oscar Achievement Awards, a self-indulgent but droll list of the best and worst moments of 28 years’ service.” Read Charles’ post here.

You can read below some of the valedictory despatches (pdfs) included in the series.

Andrew Bryson , the producer of the BBC show writes that “this centuries-old tradition survived in the Foreign Office through countless changes of government, upheaval and wars – before coming to an abrupt end under Labour in 2006. Perhaps the remarkable thing was that it lasted so long.”

He reports that the final straw was a 2006 valedictory from Sir Ivor Roberts, then the outgoing British ambassador to Italy. “It was fitting that his parting shot, the last of the genre, should also be a classic. He told of a Foreign Office under siege by management consultants, efficiency drives and Wall Street business-speak mumbo-jumbo:”

“Can it be that in wading through the plethora of business plans, capability reviews, skills audits, zero-based reviews and other excrescences of the management age, we have indeed forgotten what diplomacy is all about?
Sir Ivor Roberts, Rome, 2006

Apparently, hours after this telegram was sent, ambassadors then received word from Whitehall that the practice was to be discontinued.

The report says there was concern for the “growing tendency of these valedictories to leak.” That or could it be that they no longer write them “mainly because no-one is interested to read anything longer than a text message?” Or perhaps a tweet at 140 characters?

So instead of texting “most difcult assgmt, glad wl soon b out of here” you can actually say “sucks to all this; time to go home and start a garden while wifey starts her own career.” Or “Nine countries, six continents, three wives later – thank you it has been a great ride.”

Man, you can start a whole new lit genre writing valedictories in Twitter. Except that Whitehall would cringe at that and Foggy Bottom has not done these type of dispatches; and well, it also doesn’t tweet goodbyes.

Of course, if they come around to it, and your valedictory is longer than 140 characters, you can fix that with Twitzer – a Firefox extension for Twitter that will short tweets that seem to cross the 140 limit. Once installed, the extension will fetch all the Twitzered text from and update the Twitter site itself.

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