"Owen Gives Strong Support to Carter's Human-Rights Stand," the careful Financial Times headlined its account of Foreign Secretary David Owen's eloquent speech on Thursday.
Owen had issued "a ringing call for Britain - both government and people - to take an international stand on human rights." This was how Patrick Keatley, the Guardian's veteran diplomatic correspondent, began his piece.
John Dickie, The Daily Mail's respected analyst, started his article by singing out Owen's assurance that the rights campaign is now "an integral part of foreign policy in the West." Dickie also adjudged it "a ringing declaration."
But later that same day, the bell suddenly developed a tinny sound. Cracks began to emerge from 10 Downing Street and Whitehall.
American correspondents, fresh from a meeting with Prime Minister James Callaghan, reported that he was concerned about counterproductive aspects of Carter's new venture and expressed fear that Carter's stress on abuses of rights in the Soviet world could spark dangerous and self-defeating revolts.
The Foreign Office speechwriters who drafted the Owen text were simultaneously explaining that there was no difference between their man and the prime minister. If Owen's text was read carefully it could be seen that he, too, was warning against a human-rights campaign that would endanger detente and the crucial negotiations to curb the race in strategic arms.
The Foreign Office drafters complained by way of explanation that journalists inevitably oversimplify the complex and balanced thought of experts. The Foreign Office types had put in Owens mouth a sophisticated view of detente and rights, only to have it crudely reported. Owen's principal contribution to the speech, it is said, was to edit down some of its repetition and delete a De Tocqueville quote that was more in keeping with the intellectual style of his predecessor. Anthony Crosland.)
A less charitable view suggests that the confusion arose because the speech was worked on too long by too many hands: the staff had been at work on it since at least early January - "The earlier drafts were superior," one man insisted. Group-think and composition by committee had yielded its inevitable fuzzy product, according to his view.
But the best explanation probably rests on a problem not unknown in Washington. Governments frequently and simultaneously for a different response from each.
In this case, the Callaghan government was speaking to at least five different audiences at once, a trick in J.S. Bach than eto bureaucrats and politicians.
At home, Callaghan and company wanted to score points with both left and right. The right was appeased by Owen's pledge "to speak frankly" on abuses on human rights in singing out Chile and South Africa. Everybody could take pleasure in the denunciation of Uganda.
Abroad, the government had to be conscious of both Washington and Moscow. The Soviets undoubtedly will have their attention drawn to Owen's warning against making "detente so distasteful" that one side would "opt out" and to Owen's insistence on the need to "balance morality with reality."
Callaghan and Owen come to the United States this week, a country they claim to admire genuinely for its own qualities as well as for the military and economic protection it offers Britain. Courtesy and common sense seemed to dctate a need to praise Carter publicly for his initiative - "crucially important," in the words of the speech - and this, too, was done. There can be only satisfaction here that the American press like the British, generally reported the speech as an endorsement for Carter.
Yet, there is a private message that Callaghan and Owen want to bring. This is perhaps the most serious message, the one contained in background warning: do not push human rights too hard lest you stir up unimaginable troubles within the Soviet bloc and sour the Soviets on slowing down the arms race.
For the common reader on the Claphan omnibus or on Washington's subway, this exercise confirms what he always knew: diplomats are hypocrites and governments speak with many-forked tongues.
A cooler view might hold that there are limits to the number of messages that can be transmitted by one carrier, that it is impossible to send five conflicting messages at once. A one-man band is an awkward affair, very likely to produce at once. A body has discovered how to score both a trumpet blare for human rights and a high-pitched accompaniment of "but not too much."