WikiLeaks: Titter ye not, but gossip is the key to diplomacy

When, a few years ago, I wrote a book called DC Confidential about my time as a diplomat, I was accused, among other things, of peddling gossip.

But, as the leaks of U.S. diplomatic cables reveal, a big chunk of diplomacy invariably includes tittle-tattle about people in high places. It always has done.

Our man in Washington: Sir Christopher Meyer says that gossip is an essential part of the diplomatic merry-go-round

Our man in Washington: Sir Christopher Meyer says that gossip is an essential part of the diplomatic merry-go-round

At the Congress of Vienna in 1814, which settled the map of Europe after the Napoleonic wars, the Prussian foreign minister reported most ungallantly to Berlin that the wife of Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the British delegation, '…is very fat and dresses so young, so tight, so naked'.

British diplomats, for their part, reported that the French foreign minister, Talleyrand (called 'a silk-stockinged sh*t' by Napoleon), had embarked on a scandalous affair with the wife of his nephew.

Fast forward 196 years and what do we find but a similar appetite for scurrilous revelation in the U.S. State Department.

After the U.S. embassy in London reported that a Labour cabinet minister was a 'hound dog' around women and had to apologise to one for harassing her, the reply from the State Department was that the '…analysts appreciate the excellent background and biographic reporting' (the blogosphere appears pretty confident, by the way, about the identity of the philandering mutt).

In similar vein, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is called 'feckless, vain and ineffective', with 'a penchant for partying hard'. President Sarkozy of France is 'thin-skinned and authoritarian'. North Korea's Kim Jong Il is 'a flabby old chap'.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Character assasination: Nicholas Sarkozy, left, was described as 'thin-skinned', while Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was labelled 'feckless and vain'

And so it goes on, giving an impression that American diplomats and the State Department itself are more interested in gossip and personalities than geo-politics and international relations. But, of course, these things cannot be separated. When I was appointed ambassador to the United States in 1997, I was told by Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to 'get up the a**e of the White House and stay there'.

Behind the crude language was an excellent, crisp instruction. I was not only to report, and try to influence, White House thinking, but also to get alongside the main personalities from the President downwards and to report on them too.

At this point, policy, politics and gossip come together. Soon after I arrived in Washington, the Monica Lewinsky scandal exploded. Since Bill Clinton's survival in office (a major British interest at the time) depended in large part on whether he had had sex with Lewinsky, and, if so, what kind, I found myself reporting to London the results of delicate inquiries into certain sexual practices and how Lewinsky had managed to get stains on her favourite blue dress. If these reports were to be leaked in isolation, they would read like prurient gossip from some drooling diplomatic voyeur.

The truth is that personalities and high-grade gossip play an indispensable role in diplomatic reporting. Governments and their leaders need to have accurate pen-portraits - warts and all - of the people they may have to deal with across the negotiating table.

I sent Tony Blair a detailed picture of President George W. Bush before their first meeting in 2001. The U.S. ambassador in London did the same from his end, briefing President Bush about Blair. Our leaders need also to understand who is up and who is down in an administration.

In 2002 I spent almost as much time reporting on the clash of personalities inside the U.S. foreign policy machine as I did on the preparations proper for the Iraq war. When I was a young man in our embassy in Spain in the early 1970s, the big question was who would take over from the ageing dictator General Franco. Madrid was abuzz with speculation.

I was fortunate enough to become friends with one of Franco's granddaughters, who passed me gossip from inside the family of the highest grade.



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Despite rumours to the contrary, I was able to reassure London that Juan Carlos would become king on Franco's death.

So, as Frankie Howerd might have said, 'Titter ye not' at the gossipy bits in Wikileaks. They may not be the most important in a set of revelations which I have so far found fairly underwhelming.

But that may change after a week of further disclosures.

Will confidential diplomacy survive this episode? Of course it will because it is indispensable to global relations. But the U.S., and maybe other governments, need to review urgently how they circulate, store and protect classified electronic communications.

As to gossip, I am sure the 'analysts' in the State Department will kick themselves not to have known that, when in Washington as Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson liked nothing more than to talk to his dog from the phone in the ambassador's Rolls-Royce.

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