Once upon a time the FCO did not have its ‘24/7 Response Centre’. It had a Resident Clerk. Not a single person, but a group of London-based diplomats at First Secretary level who took it in turns to work once a week at night, perched in a room awash in faded glory high in the Foreign Office main building overlooking St James’s Park.
This once was a prestigious and even primitively elegant live-in position. Back in less cost-conscious decades the Resident Clerks had a servant to cook their breakfast and keep their rooms and shoes clean. But as time moved on and telephone communications developed, it became Hard Work.
The Clerks’ tasking was simple: “deal sensibly with anything which turns up”. If the telephones were busy, they did not sleep much and staggered down exhausted to their usual office jobs the following day. If it was a quiet evening they could sleep in a small personal bedroom. Weekends were the worst. The weekend duty officer arrived at the FCO on Friday morning as usual and did not leave the building until ‘close of play’ on the following Monday. Safety aplenty, not much Health.
I served as Resident Clerk and indeed lived in my own room in the Foreign Office for some two years (1985-86). My finest hour came very early one morning.
At around 2330 hours I was called by an unhappy FCO News Department duty officer to say that the Glasgow Herald had told him in a gloating tone that they were running a copy of a Diplomatic Despatch by Sir James Craig, who had finished a distinguished career as HM Ambassador in Saudi Arabia. The point was that earlier that day an injunction had been issued in London against the New Statesman to block publication of this Confidential document, said to be full of trenchant, heartfelt and pertinent observations by Sir James on the general subject of ‘Arabs’. So the Glasgow Herald had decided to publish this tract in Scotland, confidently expecting to side-step the English courts’ injunction.
I telephoned the then new FCO Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Patrick Wright at his home. I told him that from my barrister training I recalled something about a procedure involving an overnight duty judge who could issue urgent legal orders; maybe that might work in this case? Sir Patrick said “Do your best, my boy” (or words to that effect). I telephoned Sir James and alerted him. He decamped to a friend’s flat to avoid the throng of journalists he (correctly) expected would gather at his house the following morning as the Despatch story broke big.
I then feverishly started trying to track down (with the help of the excellent Number 10 switchboard) numbers for senior English and Scottish Law officers, hoping to explain the problem and see what if anything might be done. This dragged on for a couple of hours. Eventually deep into the night the Herald were startled to receive a formal order from the Scottish courts forbidding printing the Despatch. The early editions had already been printed and carried the text, but later editions had to be changed. The key thing was that thanks to my telephoning which had triggered the Scottish courts’ intervention, the text could not be quoted.
Thus the issue fizzled out to official satisfaction. Freedom of the press had been ruthlessly crushed by the Establishment in general and by me in particular. Hoorah. UK/Saudi relations were not ‘embarrassed’ (this time at least). Phew.
Researching these BG (Before Google) prehistoric events is time-consuming so I have not yet traced a subsequent Daily Telegraph article on this drama which gave the (alas unnamed) FCO Resident Clerk a richly deserved pat on the back.
The point now, of course, is that anything similar leaked to the media today can be out and round the world via the Internet in seconds (“Crikey! FO speaks truth about Europe“). Plus Ambassadors are no longer allowed to send grand and penetrating Valedictory Despatches.
If the Herald team recall this fine episode and want a commemorative drink, I’ll be honoured if they buy me one.