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Blogs, truth and power at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

 

I went to a fascinating meeting at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on their "digital diplomacy" initiative. The ambassadors are blogging -- you can see them aggregated here.

You might think that encouraging blogging at all levels by the foreign office would be a marketing disaster waiting to happen: surely someone was going to put a foot into a pretty well-laid trap very soon. How can "our man in Lisbon" (blogging here, in Portuguese) avoid being drawn into a debate on the state of the PIGS or the Portuguese criminal justice system that will reflect badly on the brand --- UK Plc, mostly --- he is promoting and representing?

Well, the question answers itself: it is not for nothing that he is "our man". Actually, the FCO has always needed a culture of "presumption of competence" because representatives were sent many days' travel away from any check on their power. Delegation had to be real. So there is almost no institution in the world (the Catholic Church springs to mind as a contender for that title) more suited to showing off its organisational discipline under decentralisation than the old imperial foreign ministries.

The result of all this is fascinating. Read John Duncan, for example, on Arms Treaty Negotiations. Remember that it was the failure of the chemical and biological weapons negotiations that left the door wide-open for the accusation that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. A working treaty here could have prevented the Iraq war. Will the sort of transparency that comes from this sort of blogging raise these issues to the level of importance they should have?

Ian Brown, from the Oxford Internet Institute, raised the question of how an Ambassador's blog could be authentic. Surely they're just shilling for her Majesty's government, even the blog from news-poor Zimbabwe?

This is obviously the big question for government use of new media. Just as technology allowed disintermediation of finance---and so all the excesses that we are now paying for---so that disintermediation is now hitting the production of knowledge. And we don't want to happen to knowledge what happened to money ...

My own take on this is that there are two views of the business of knowledge making: you are either trying to influence outcomes, or you are trying to "speak truth to power". In the new media, you can't afford to pretend to be doing the one when you're doing the other. The FCO cannot - just cannot - speak truth to power, because it is power. But it can transparently and authentically try to influence.

The bigger question of whether there is anyone left who has the legitimacy to speak truth rather than simply seek influence is a big question for our time. Like the analogy with finance, we now operate, as it were, without a gold standard. Beware, therefore, the inflation of all claims.