An informational history of the British Diplomatic Service


  • Alistair Black

In October 2009 the BBC aired a short series of radio programmes entitled Parting Shots. The programmes featured a series of final communications, called valedictory despatches, from British Ambassadors leaving their posts to take up duties elsewhere or retire from the Diplomatic Service. As opposed to being merely vehicles for conveying reflective and summary knowledge about countries for the benefit of successors as well as the Foreign Office in London, some despatches contained discourteous and injudicious comments about ambassadors' host countries and their people. The sensitive nature of these types of despatches, combined with their ease of dissemination electronically, made inevitable the severe circulation restrictions that were placed on them in 2006, leading to their effective demise. Our new knowledge of the past existence of the valedictory despatch immediately raises the question of the history of diplomatic communication, including issues related to the mediation of diplomacy by technologies and techniques conducive to knowledge sharing. This project synthesises evidence from secondary sources on the history of British diplomacy that highlights its information and communication aspects. Primary sources are also exploited in the form of valedictory despatches from British ambassadors abroad and publications on diplomacy contemporaneous with the time being studied. The traditional, stereotypical image of the diplomat is that of gentlemanly intellectual, 'bon viveur' and adventurer, socially adept and thus skilled in the art of negotiation. However, an investigation of the history of diplomatic information and communication practices – from the era of manuscript and messenger through to the ages of the telegraph and telephone, and now that of the internet – reveals the diplomat less as gentlemanly negotiator than as knowledge manager, as a collector and conduit of information designed to enhance the knowledge of policy-makers. The historic knowledge-management role of the diplomat highlights the part technology has played in the world of diplomacy, including the relationship between the ambassador abroad and the political centre. It also offers a further perspective on the ways in which technologies open up new possibilities, intended and unintended, often fraught with ambiguity and potential for enhancement and disruption. In turn this offers lessons for further consideration of what can be termed the Dark Side of Knowledge Management, and for organizational communication in general.

Courtesy of Wikimedia/British Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Funding Agencies

Research Areas: