Inside the Foreign Office
Sir Simon McDonald, the wonderfully smooth head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, confesses that at dinner parties his wife often kicks him under the table to stop him talking about his job. It’s not really his fault. The FCO covers so many fascinating countries, so many of the world’s wicked issues that everyone wants to know about his work. So does he tell all? Of course not. His skill as a diplomat is to make people think they are sharing a confidence but when they look back they find that what felt interesting didn’t tell them much of substance at all.
Unfortunately such diplomatic sleights of hand make for bland television, as was apparent in the BBC’s series Inside the Foreign Office. True, the three programmes provided tantalising glimpses into the hugely varied work of our diplomats and there were some visually stunning sequences: we saw Our Woman in Mongolia, riding through the snowy wastes of that vast land as she worked to drum up trade with the UK; we went from the high Victorian splendour of the Whitehall HQ to the aftermath of a hurricane in the British Virgin Islands where an FCO crisis team had flown out to help stranded Brits; there was the real drama of our diplomats rescuing a girl from forced marriage in Iran; meanwhile our UN officials tried to balance outrage at the poor human rights record of countries like Burma with a desire for trading links.
“Meetings do not make good television – not unless there’s a massive row in which case the cameras are excluded”
There were some good vignettes. The reaction of the FCO director for Europe when told foreign secretary Boris Johnson planned to give a speech in French was a moment to treasure, as was her inscrutable expression on the plane to Paris when Boris interrupted her briefing to demand “more gags”. She was one of a number of female diplomats who featured. All, without exception, were extremely impressive. (To be fair, so were the men!)
Yet as anyone who has made “insider” programmes about government knows, much of the action takes place in meetings. Meetings, even in exotic settings, do not make good television – not unless there’s a massive row, in which case the cameras are excluded. Nor was the series helped by the then foreign secretary. Watching Boris blustering his way round Europe was not only unedifying but tedious.
The series gave little sense of the FCO’s changing role as an institution. How far has it been diminished by having to jostle for influence with the newly created Brexit department? What price its authority when modern transport and communications mean it’s the PM, not the foreign secretary, who calls the shots on the international stage? What is the impact of social media on traditional diplomacy? Can diplomatic subtleties survive in an age when the US president announces policy on Twitter?
Perhaps not all such questions can be explored in one series but they should at least have been flagged. Serving diplomats are limited in what they can say – understandably – but former officials could have filled in some of the gaps. For all its merits, Inside the Foreign Office was disappointing. In an age when everyone can post pictures of everything, taking the cameras behind the scenes no longer guarantees in itself that a documentary will be a good watch.
❱ Episodes of Inside the Foreign Office is available on BBC iPlayer