Diplomats and the Press – a Relationship of Mutual Benefit?

It’s always said when trading information that diplomats are the gamekeepers and the press are the poachers – but if you deploy the right tactics the media and diplomats can have a productive relationship, says the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps

In my column this time I am going to share a few reflections from my diplomatic career about the relationship between diplomats and the press. I had the opportunity recently to address DPAAL, the members of the London Diplomatic Corps whose job it is to deal with the press (pictured above).

I was never a full time press attaché myself, but there were many occasions in my career when I dealt with the press, and I always enjoyed the relationship, and I think it was usually mutually beneficial.

I think there are three different ways in which the press and diplomats can engage with each other, depending in part on the situation or country in which they find themselves.

Cooperative relationship
In my first posting, which was a communist one-party state with a government-controlled press, my relations with the foreign press posted there were very co-operative.

Essentially, we were both trying to gather information, in a difficult environment, about what was going on. We were witnessing historical developments, of revolution and counter-revolution, which were having a profound effect on Europe and indeed the world. The press needed to report to their readers and listeners in the West; I needed to report back to my colleagues in London. In those circumstances we gathered information and shared it fairly freely.

The host government could obviously read what my press colleagues were writing, which made their editorial judgment particularly sensitive. When things got tough, and we were all confined to the capital city for several weeks, co-operation became even more intense, including on very practical things like getting news back to relatives and friends in the UK.

Friendly relationship
In other postings my relationship with the local press has been much more fruitful, and the aim from my point of view was to get across a message about what the UK was doing in the country in which I was posted.

In this case the relationship was friendly, not in the sense of people who were doing the same job, but in the sense that the press were happy to act as a counterpart to what I was doing. In one country I was keen to disseminate information about the UK’s cultural activities and co-operation with the local government on international issues, and bilaterally. In another there was a good deal of interest in the UK’s aid programme.

The press were professional, and keen to ask questions. This meant that I needed to be well briefed, and in one case to be able to hold conversations with the press in the local language.

I learnt the key lessons, namely to make everything I said as full and accurate as possible; to judge when to take the initiative in giving out information, rather than wait for questions; and to ensure that what I was saying was not inconsistent with what colleagues elsewhere in the UK government were saying. Sometimes this can be a bit challenging, if policy on a particular issue is still being formulated. The press want as much information as possible, but wont be happy in the long term if you have got ahead of the curve of policy-making in your capital.

Sensitive relations
This leads me to the final scenario, in which relations between the press and diplomats are much more sensitive – perhaps when the issues at stake are difficult, or when your country is coming in for some less than friendly press comment.

In such circumstances one has to make difficult judgments, about whether to comment on a story that is not wholly accurate, or whether to maintain a dignified silence. Each case is different, and there are no firm rules. But in general my view is that informing the press about one’s country usually makes sense in the long run.

And being proactive rather than waiting to react is also often good tactics. I learnt from my discussion with the press attachés that this sort of judgment has to be made very frequently, and that there are no hard and fast rules.

My firm conclusion is that a mutually beneficial relationship is possible between diplomats and the press. We do different jobs, and are not always interested in exactly the same things. But with mutual respect and professionalism on both sides we can often work together to our mutual benefit.