Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

The relationship between diplomats and diplomatic correspondents

Published on 08 July 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

A network of friendships and mutual dependencies draws diplomats and correspondents into an elite community of foreign affairs specialists (Phillips Davidson, 1975).

There is a distinct, if subtle, difference between a journalist and a diplomatic correspondent: the former comments generally on international affairs as part and parcel of their daily routine; the latter is a specialist, fluent in the specialised language spoken by diplomats, skilled in interpreting the various nuances of diplomatic speak, and well connected in diplomatic circles. While the diplomat’s prime objective is to promote and to pursue their country’s interests, the diplomatic correspondent is not similarly constrained. They are free to unleash their individual ideology in their interpretation and reporting of events. Indeed, their conclusions might well be coloured by personal experience, beliefs, and political bias.

Back in autumn 1975, W. Phillips Davidson, then Professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University, published an article in the Journal of Communication titled ‘Diplomatic Reporting: Rules of the Game’. This has become the benchmark for the state of diplomatic correspondence pre-Internet. In it, Phillips Davidson defines the diplomatic correspondent as ‘a journalist who regularly writes about foreign affairs, who often covers international conferences, who is allowed time by his or her editors to do in-depth stories, and whose work is respected by members of the foreign affairs community’ (Phillips Davidson, 1975).

Reciprocity: diplomats and diplomatic correspondents

The average member of the public could be forgiven for thinking that an adversarial relationship exists between diplomats and the media, particularly in light of the WikiLeaks phenomenon. The traditional world of diplomacy is regarded by many as one of secrecy and confidentiality, while the raison d’être for the media would seem to be to expose these secrets and break these confidences in the guise of public interest and transparency. While it may seem to many that it is the diplomatic correspondents who need to cultivate sources in the foreign office in order to feed their reporting, diplomats need these correspondents just as much.

For instance, should a diplomat want to make information available to the general public or even another government without directly approaching either, they can feed the story to a diplomatic correspondent for publication. Likewise, existing stories/perspectives of a county can be ‘corrected’ by the guided intercession of a correspondent who is privy to the inside story. If a diplomat is reluctant to use official channels to communicate with another government, strategically worded and correctly placed information will serve his purpose just as well (Phillips Davidson, 1975).

On the other hand, journalists of any speciality (including diplomatic correspondents) vigorously cultivate sources – insider experts who can be trusted to feed them key pieces of information. The very nature of diplomacy is such that although it may be transacted in the speaker’s native language, the complexity of the language, the subtly of the nuances, and the key messages that may be contained in the unsaid, often need professional interpretation. Diplomatic correspondents rely on their trusted sources within a ministry of foreign affairs, to point them in the right direction.

Indian journalist Bhaskar Menon describes meeting the then Indian Ambassador to the UN, Chinmaya Gharekhan in November 1990. He was at a Security Council ‘stakeout’, as the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait heralded the UN’s first post-Cold War crisis. He asked the Indian Ambassador why he had voted for the US resolution pushing for war, on foot of making a very strong statement against the resolution. ‘His reply was pure diplomatic silk. “The statement and the vote are two different things” he said, noting a nuance that I would not have perceived on my own’ (Menon, 2012).

In her next blog post, Mary Murphy talks about the medium and how it can colour the message.

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2 replies
  1. Mary
    Mary says:

    Could it be, Petru, that the
    Could it be, Petru, that the Ambassador was giving a personal opinion to Menon? I wonder.

  2. Petru Dumitriu
    Petru Dumitriu says:

    If ambassador Gharekhan gave
    If ambassador Gharekhan gave that answer to the journalist, one must take it seriously, because it is a bit intriguing.

    In reality when a UN body adopts a resolution there are three categories of statements.

    1) General statements, which ought to refer the substance of the matter under discussion.
    2) Explanations of vote before the vote, and
    3) Explanations of vote after the vote.

    The explanations obviously offer indications on the reasons that determined a certain position on the draft. If yes, no, or abstention, why so? The explanation before the vote has the additional possible function to influence the vote of the other parties. The explanation after the vote does only have the role to put on records the reasons.

    From that light, the statements should reflect, and be in harmony with the voting positions. It is unlikely that a serious declaration says one thing, and the vote says the opposite. It is not pure silk diplomacy, it is lack of seriousness.

    However, the Indian diplomacy is very serious, and ambassador Gharekhan a very skilful diplomat. If what the author says is true, it should be put in the context. I do not know the context, but I may assume that for instance India voted for in favour of the resolution 678 (1990) on the terms imposed to Iraq, while it made a statement deploring the necessity of an intervention under Article VII of the Charter.

    And, by the way, there are no „resolutions pushing for war”. Usually, the UN pushes for peace; the UN interventions are not „wars”. Yet, journalists may push for simplifications and approximations.

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