Diplomats and Journalists: Birds of a feather

Journalists like Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria have created more diplomatic tremors than the best of diplomats. Photos: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/AFP Michael loccisano/Getty Images via AFP

The professions of diplomats and journalists appear to be very distinct and specialized, particularly because diplomats are government servants and journalists operate individually or work for private enterprises. But when it comes to international affairs, diplomats and journalists are birds of a feather. Diplomats more or less perform the same functions, such as gathering information, reporting, analysing events and making policy recommendations.

The basic difference is that what the journalists write are in the public domain, widely read and debated but our writings go into the archives, read or unread. How much of it goes into foreign policy formulation and implementation is a matter of conjecture. When I am complimented today for eight books and a steady stream of op-eds in the last fifteen years since I left the Service, I wonder how impressive it would be to publish the dispatches of 37 years on cabbages and kings from a dozen countries.

What distinguishes diplomats from journalists, however, is that we are not only reporters, but also actors at the same time. Diplomats deal with developments as they occur and then they also explain how they have responded to the events even before instructions were received from the Ministry. They will naturally highlight their own role in dealing with the situation, while the Ministry gets a different perspective form the journalists. If reports by journalists are supportive of the reports of diplomats, they gain credibility instantly. But where the perceptions differ, there will be much fact-checking and endless discussions.

Journalistic diplomacy

Journalistic diplomacy has emerged as an important part of international relations. The knowledge of international relations among the common people is derived from journalists, who provide quick analyses of events around the globe. Very little of diplomatic initiatives reach the people directly. Prominent journalists also connect political leaders, who may not even talk to each other through interviews and columns. Journalists like Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria have created more diplomatic tremors than the best of diplomats. Policies are often made more in the open than in closed chambers because of the prodding by prominent journalists. With the communications revolution, journalists steal a march over diplomats by shaping public opinion.

Mutually beneficial tie

A continuous dialogue with the journalists is, therefore helpful for diplomats, taking care that they do not misuse the information to create scoops. I have seen several senior journalists providing support to ambassadors, sharing their perceptions of the local scene, which they may know better. KV Narain in Tokyo, P Unnikrishnan in Moscow, Chidanand Rajghatta, KP Nayar and Aziz Haniffa in Washington were helpful, though they remained vigilant against any failures of diplomats and did not hesitate to report aberrations. They were, in a way, sentinels of our embassies. There have been instances of diplomats, even heads of mission, coming to grief on account of reports in the press.

When it all goes wrong

Journalists, by nature, tend to look for sensational news and rush with reports, while diplomats prefer to take time and figure out implications of events, particularly for India. The time lag often creates complications and the Ministry becomes impatient initially, but appreciate the deeper analysis. A celebrated incident in Moscow was a sensational report by an Indian journalist that President Brezhnev “took leave of his responsibilities” one day in 1975. The story was carried around the globe and there was consternation all around.

Ambassador D P Dhar, who had his own sources of information dismissed the reports, but there were incessant questions from Delhi about the credibility of the report. I recall how Ambassador Dhar had to explain not only why the report was wrong, but also establishing how the story may have been planted on the journalist by interested parties within the Kremlin. Finally, it turned out that Brezhnev had just taken some leave and the report that he took leave of his responsibilities was a verbal inexactitude!

In crisis situations, where diplomats lose contacts with New Delhi, journalists become the only source of information for the Government and things get sensationalized. Our communications were cut by the military Government in Fiji for three days after a military coup directed against the Indian immigrants there and I had to act without instructions. My instinct was to remain neutral and stay in touch with the Governor General, who was still in place to find a solution. But, unknown to me, the press in India deplored the inactivity of the mission and when the communications opened, I was instructed to openly support the Indian community and the rest is history. I was expelled and we had to close our mission. The Indian community was in distress over the trade sanctions imposed by us. If I had access to policy makers in Delhi at the right time, I would have tried to tone down the Indian reaction to retain our traditional role of reconciling the two communities. But the die was cast by press reports and it took us ten years to reestablish diplomatic relations.

The interaction of diplomats with journalists in Delhi is much more delicate than in the missions abroad. The normal channel of communications is through the spokesperson of the Ministry, but senior journalists remain in touch with diplomats, with a view not only to get scoops, but also to warn them about the reaction of the public to international events. As the Special Assistant to the Foreign Secretary from 1978 to 1980, I got to know stalwarts like GK Reddy, Inder Malhotra and Subash Chakravarty and others and I had to be very vigilant about confidentiality of official matters in casual conversations with them. As responsible journalists, they were themselves conscious of my position and probed the Foreign Secretary rather than me on policy. But I had to face an informal IB investigation about premature reporting of ambassadorial appointments in certain newspapers. Though this was not very sensitive, the PMO was curious as to how these reports appeared and I became a suspect, as I was the junior most person who handled the papers. As it turned out, it was established that the ship of state generally leaked from the top and I was cleared. When I asked a senior journalist as to why he bothered to report ambassadorial postings prematurely, he said that it gave him credibility in the Ministry and the public eye if his reports happened to prove accurate!

These are mere snippets to show how closely the professions of diplomacy and journalism interact, often to the benefit of the state and sometimes against. But both support each other and work in tandem when important national issues are involved. Leading journalists who operate in Delhi may have plenty of examples to share with us. Now that I am on the other side of the fence, dabbling in TV and print journalism, I myself have a better sense of the relationship of journalism and diplomacy as interconnected professions supporting each other.

(Based on a Memorial Lecture delivered by the writer at a ceremony to confer the N Ramachandran Journalism Award on Rajdeep Sardesai by the Kerala Governor on Oct 5, 2022)

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