Hamilton Whyte

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William Erskine Hamilton Whyte, British spy, diplomat and propagandist, (born 28 May 1927, died 20 July 1990) His career included the following postings: Counsellor HM Embassy Kinshasa 1970-71, Director-General British Information Services and Deputy Consul-General (Information) New York City 1972-76, Head of News Department Foreign and Commonwealth Office London 1976-79, CMG 1979, Minister (Economic and Social Affairs) UK Mission to United Nations New York City 1979-81 (Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative 1981-83), High Commissioner in Nigeria and Ambassador (non-resident) to Benin 1983-84, KCMG 1985, High Commissioner in Singapore 1985-87, married 1953 Sheila Duck (two daughters, and one daughter deceased), died Ford Sussex 20 July 1990.

According to an obituary in the Independent:

HAM WHYTE was in many respects an undiplomatic diplomat. That helped to make him an outstanding head of the Foreign Office's News Department and, during two tours in New York, a brilliant promoter of British interests through the media. Everyone testifies to his unconventional demeanour and appearance. A younger colleague remembers attending the new entrants' course on his first day at the Foreign Office, expecting Carlton-Browne of the FO in a bowler hat and Ham turned up in bicycle clips and pink socks. He went in for seersucker suits, bright shirts, fashionable ties, alarming clothes by Foreign Office standards, said another colleague. His behaviour could also be alarming by Foreign Office standards. His office walls would be adorned with nudes by his painter wife, Sheila. He often bicycled to work at Embassy or office. His charm, to which not all were prey, enabled him to get away with an irreverent and flip approach. His vocabulary, off the record, was thoroughly undiplomatic; an avid reader of Private Eye, his political masters were 'Wislon' and 'Hilda', his briefings on the Falklands war featured the 'Argies' and the 'sheep-shaggers'.
After Oxford and the navy (1945-48) he was in MI6 for a while, where he would have made a good character for Le Carre. He transferred to the Diplomatic Service in 1955 and began his long affair with New York in 1963 when posted to the UN Mission. However, the career for which he was to be best known began in 1966 when he became the deputy head of the News Department under Donald Maitland. Senior information jobs at the Foreign Office normally go to professional diplomats, not press officers, a system which has stood the FCO in good stead over the years. Some diplomats take to information work, others hate it and do not. Ham Whyte loved it. He had the temperament to live dangerously and soon discovered that calculated indiscretion is the indispensable secret of success in the information field. It was said that he was incapable of delivering false information; the truth would always be revealed on his wry, expressive face.
Journalists adored him but beneath the attractive and flamboyant style, as Sir Donald Maitland testifies, there was always a hard professional discipline. He was, simply, very good at the job. The result was his becoming Director- General of the British Information Services in New York. BIS in those days (1972-76) had a staff of about 90 at its Park Avenue offices; under Whyte it was turned into a New-York-style PR agency on behalf of the British government. He built up an astonishing array of contacts, particularly in the media.
Party-giving in New York is a hotly competitive business but his were fashionable events at which you were likely to see such media mega-stars as Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters. He became brilliant at placing information in the New York media market and could get bookings for visiting British ministers and celebrities on the big-audience breakfast shows. He appeared himself on television, quite unusually for a diplomat below the rank of ambassador, and succeeded in persuading New York that at least there was another, British, side to the Irish Question, no mean feat. His deputy at BIS was Michael O'Shea, later to become press secretary at Buckingham Palace, who says of him, 'In New York he was quite remarkable for his style and flair. This was PR at its absolute best.' He became, for ever after, a New Yorker at heart and by adoption.
His reputation made him the obvious choice to head the News Department when James Callaghan became Prime Minister, taking Tom McCaffrey with him to be Press Secretary at Number 10. Ham Whyte and Tony Crosland were not made for each other. Crosland failed to appreciate the seriousness and professionalism beneath the flip manner. With David Owen, surprisingly perhaps, he hit it off. His deflective, wry sense of humour was a foil to Owen's often abrasive style. 'He was a fabulous companion to travel with,' says Owen, 'enormous fun, but a wise head too.' The Ham Whyte style, however, had made him enemies as well as friends; it got up Establishment nostrils, was regarded as too eccentric and unconventional for his own good. After Owen, his career prospects for a while seemed bleak. But he was rescued by Anthony Parsons, who had taken a shine to him on his visits to Tehran, and now took him with him back to his beloved New York to be number two at the UN Mission. There, during the Falklands War, his range of contacts and his access to the media came into their own once more.
Africa was his other professional love and interest. Early on he had spent a couple of years in Congo, travelled frequently and extensively in mainly Southern Africa during his news department spells, and made African friends in New York. He was an ideal choice as British High Commissioner to Nigeria, where he went in 1983. Sadly for him, loving it in Lagos, he was made a reprisal in the Dikko affair. A Jak cartoon at that time showed him being delivered to the Foreign Office in a wooden crate. His time was served out as High Commissioner in Singapore and, on retirement, he took up business interests in New York.[1]


  1. Peter Jenkins 'Obituary: Sir Hamilton Whyte' The Independent (London), July 23, 1990, Monday, SECTION: GAZETTE PAGE; Page 25