The Ambassador's Undiplomatic Maneuver
LONDON There's a new catchphrase in London: Are you a skier? And it has nothing to do with winter sports. It's a quasi-acronym for Are You Spending the Kids' Inheritance? In the age of celebrity culture and instant news, cash is not the only fast currency. Former pillars of the establishment are shorting their Reputation, too.
Sir Christopher Meyer, who was Britain's ambassador to the United States during the run-up to the Iraq war, has clearly decided to cash in his gravitas chips. London dinner tables have been convulsed with argument about the propriety, or otherwise, of his publishing his surprisingly racy new memoir, "DC Confidential."
Just when Tony Blair is trying to deal with a left-wing rebellion among Labor parliamentarians as well as a newly bullish Conservative opposition, his own ex-ambassador is all over the place dismissing the Blair Cabinet as a "crowd of pygmies" and portraying the prime minister as a pushover too dazzled by U.S. power to use Britain's alliance as leverage to slow down the rush to war.
The book received official Foreign Office clearance, but the FO's power of censure extends only to the breach of official secrets. One aspect of the angry reception to Meyer's memoir from critics as lofty as former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, the prominent columnist Simon Jenkins and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is a pitfall of his own making.
The formula for a successful book launch in England begins with having it excerpted -- with maximum hype and minimum balance -- in the all-powerful Tory tabloid the Daily Mail. The deal is that in return for an enormous check and massive exposure, your painstaking research can be caricatured with big sneering headlines, damning pull quotes and snarky photo captions. Bits of social historian Hugo Vicker's elegant, scholarly biography "Elizabeth, the Queen Mother," for instance, appeared in the Mail under the headline "The Steel Marshmallow," with subheads from out-of-context lines like "She even ate the Good Boy choc drops kept for the corgis" and "Her bosom acquires a dry martini flush."
Part 2 of the promotional dance is to gin up protests that the excerpts misrepresent the book's serious, substantive thrust. Meyer no doubt thought he tempered tabloid impact by simultaneous serialization in the high-minded Guardian newspaper, but even Guardian readers check out the Mail first. And the bits the Mail wanted for its readers naturally featured the ambassador bitching about Downing Street apparatchiks excluding him from key meetings at the White House, and anecdotes about how the PM had to race back to his cabin to change when he found he was the only guest wearing jeans at a dinner the president threw at Crawford. Or the vignette of his powerful aide Alastair Campbell standing over Blair in the airplane "gesticulating forcefully while the prime minister sat meekly in his seat like a schoolboy under his instruction."
Should Sir Christopher wish to lodge a semi-official complaint for tonal misrepresentation, he could direct it to the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, a voluntary body that raps the knuckles of offending newspapers. Trouble is, he is chairman of the PCC. So he has had to content himself with the formulaic cover story of telling talk show hosts such as BBC's Sunday morning interrogator Andrew Marr that the book is fairer to Blair than the excerpts make it appear. "If you read the whole book . . .," he started to say. "I have read the whole book," Marr jumped in. "It's pretty rude."
Meyer's major argument for publishing his memoir now is the unfairness of the double standard that allows politicians to unload in real time and censure civil servants for doing the same, but the parallel is a false one. He has broken a tradition that is at the heart of the relationship between senior civil servants with long expertise in their area and their elected bosses. That tradition has enabled British governments to get along without the swarms of self-serving political appointees that afflict Washington. If civil servants can no longer be trusted to be discreet, politicians will fairly soon want to replace them with party hacks qualified only by loyalty -- and Brits, too, can then look forward to a plague of Brownies doing a heck of a job.
Meyer would also have an easier time making his case if it wasn't for the puzzling question of the book's flip literary style, immediately announced by the buzzy inconsequentiality of its "DC Confidential" title.
A popular explanation for the tonal miscue is the intervention of his glamorous, cosmopolitan second wife, Lady Catherine, who gave a playful interview with the Telegraph claiming that her husband wrote a boring and traditional diplomatic memoir until she made him juice it up with sexy detail. From her point of view, it has worked well. A third of the more than 250,000 pounds ($429,389) her husband landed from the serial rights has gone to the charity she chairs for missing children.
Perhaps it is a sign of how much Britain has changed that now the Meyer debate is moving on from "Should he have done the book?" to what is Christopher going to get out of this, long term.
The former Cabinet secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell has called for the removal of Meyer as head of the PCC on the grounds that senior civil servants must abide by a "self-denying ordinance not to reveal the confidences of their political masters." There is no denying it makes it awkward for him to adjudicate on matters of privacy, the most notorious area where the British press is a raucous serial offender. But he has a new three-year contract and can probably ride out the storm.
Then what? As the book amply demonstrates, Meyer is a man who broods darkly if he is not invited to the right dinner parties. Perhaps Meyer's calculation is that being controversial, highly exposed and, thus, more bankable for his next book may make it worth trading away the unexciting respect retired ambassadors used to get for being solid, sound and seriously engaged with Britain's role in the world.
Sir Christopher will have to deploy all his urbane charm to ensure that he won't be called out of retirement and posted to the Australian Outback as a contestant on the hit British TV show "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Outta Here."