Email and a 24/7 news cycle ensure that news of the royal birth will reach the rest of the world moments after Buckingham Palace makes its announcement. But diplomatic protocol demands that some traditions continue. Dominick Chilcott, who was based in Washington from 2008-11 as Deputy Chief of Mission and is now ambassador to Ireland, describes how Britain’s diplomats will learn about the arrival of the Prince or Princess of Cambridge.
Q: How will you and other envoys first get word of the royal birth?
Chilcott: Look, we’ll be glued to our TVs and radios for news as soon as the Duchess of Cambridge goes into hospital. Buckingham Palace will make an announcement and the world’s press will convey the good news around the world. That’s how we’ll hear about it first – from the 24/7 media, like everyone else.
Q: But surely there’s a more “official” way for you to get the news.
Chilcott: Yes, of course. The Foreign Office will also inform all British missions around the world about the royal birth by diplomatic telegram.
Q: Which details do you expect to get?
Chilcott: We expect to be told the date and time of the birth. We’ll also be told the sex of the baby. I don’t know what other details we’ll get. We have been warned that we may not know the name of the baby straightaway; the name may not be made public for one or two weeks.
Q: Are you then expected to pass the news on to British expats – or to the leader of the country in which you are stationed? If so, how?
Chilcott: I don’t think we’ll need to pass on the news of the royal baby to our host governments. But we may, I suppose, get instructions officially to inform host governments. They will, of course, be only too aware of the birth from the media. And the same goes for British expats. But we will be flying the flag all day to celebrate the royal baby.
Q: Is all this very different from, say, the way you learned about birth of Prince William, or the way ambassadors used to learn about the birth of earlier heirs to the throne?
Chilcott: It wouldn’t have been very different for Prince William’s birth. But in the days before the 24/7 media, far-flung diplomatic missions might have got their news first by diplomatic telegram, depending how well they could tune their radios to the BBC World Service short wave signal. And especially in Commonwealth countries and other places with close connections to the Royal Family, it would have been an important duty to inform the local government about the birth of a royal baby in line to the throne. Diplomatic telegrams these days are very different from how they were even when I joined the Diplomatic Service 30 years ago. Then, they were the only form of rapid written communication and involved staff at either end sending and receiving the message. Now, they’re really just a particular kind of email.
Q: How often do you get these modern “telegrams” and do they typically come directly from Buckingham Palace, from the Foreign Office or from Downing Street? What kinds of news arrive like that?
Chilcott: Diplomatic telegrams get sent from London by the Foreign Office, though the Foreign Office can issue them at the request of other government departments, too. They convey all sorts of information, from instructions to ambassadors to make representations to their host governments to reports of important government initiatives. Telegrams with royal news are pretty rare. And all diplomatic missions, of course, still send reports of their activities and developments in their host countries back to London by these modern telegrams.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the telegram and its role in communicating news to diplomatic outposts?
Chilcott: It is said that the Rothschild’s bank made a killing in the markets by being the first institution to learn of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. It’s always been important in international affairs to send and receive information as fast as possible. I used to live in London in a place called Telegraph Hill, named after the signalling windmill that was part of a chain of such machines that by a sort of semaphore sent messages between the Admiralty in London and the channel ports. The technology for sending messages has changed over the years. But the network of diplomatic missions around the world, which is an organization whose currency is information, still depends on the speed and the confidentiality of its communications to do its work well.