The News Department of the Foreign Office is responsible for managing news about British foreign policy in the UK as opposed to managing news overseas or dealing with policy questions and public diplomacy which are the responsibility of departments such as the Public Diplomacy Policy Department.
Lies and power
John Pilger relates his experience of the News Department:
- Mark Higson was the Iraq desk officer at the Foreign Office in 1989 when the British government was still giving Saddam Hussein almost anything he wanted, secretly and illegally, a year before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Higson, who resigned in protest, was one of the few British officials commended by the Scott inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq scandal. He described "a culture of lying" at the Foreign Office.
- "The draft letters I wrote for various ministers," he later told me, "were saying that nothing had changed, the embargo on the sale of arms to Iraq was the same."
- "Was that true?" I asked.
- "No, it wasn't true . . ."
- "And your superiors knew it wasn't true?"
- "Yes. If I was writing a draft reply for a minister, replying to a letter from an MP, I wrote the agreed line. I also wrote replies to go to members of the public. The letters were awfully polite. But we were all quite well aware that nothing had changed: that Jordan was being used [to get arms to Iraq]."
- "So how much truth did the public get?"
- "The public got as much truth as we could squeeze out, given that we told downright lies . . ."
- I went to the Foreign Office that same year, 1989, to interview Lord Brabazon, a junior minister. The subject was Cambodia. The Thatcher government was then supporting the Khmer Rouge-led coalition and the SAS was secretly providing training in mine- laying. Like its part in the arms-to-Iraq scandal, the Foreign Office was lying about it. (Two years later, the Major government owned up.)
- I was met by a minder from the news department, Ian Whitehead, who took me aside, as he was no doubt used to doing with journalists, and told me to "go easy" on the minister. With the interview under way, he began shouting that I had departed from the "agreed line of questioning". No "line" had been agreed. These days, the style is less obtuse, but the aim is the same. Senior broadcasters and commentators pop in to the Foreign Office without any material favours expected; for them, the flattery and "access" are enough. Thus, much of the world is represented in terms of its usefulness to western "interests".
- Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, 1944-7
- Kim Darroch, 1997-8
- Osbert Lancaster, 1940-44
- Rex Leeper, 1929-34
- Donald Maitland Head, 1965-7
- Nigel Sheinwald, 1993-5
- Rosemary Waugh, 2002
- Ian Whitehead, 1989