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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:09 UK time, Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Foreign Office logoA new BBC Radio 4 series starting today - Parting Shots - reveals what Britain's top diplomats have really thought about the countries to which they were posted.

It features the valedictory despatches of ambassadors, their final message home in which they were traditionally allowed to express personal and pungent viewpoints. The programmes are based on extensive enquiries both in the National Archives for the older documents and also using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain more recent ones.

The series producer Andrew Bryson explains here the mix of intriguing and amusing discoveries about ambassadorial attitudes which he made through his persistent and thorough researches.

It's a good example of how freedom of information can be used to provide detailed insights into officialdom which would otherwise be impossible until much later after the event. (Declaration of interest: I'm the executive producer of the series).

The Foreign Office co-operated by disclosing some powerfully revealing material, although it also held some documents back on the grounds of protecting international relations (these refusals included Sir Christopher Meyer's valedictory from Washington in 2003 and Sir Roderick Lyne's from Moscow in 2004).

Sir Andrew GreenThere are now some who say that the FOI Act means that diplomats may be less frank in future in expressing their opinions. These concerns are expressed in a later episode in the series by the former Foreign Office minister, Denis MacShane.

So if these fears prove true, what kind of material might no longer be committed to paper in an overseas post and sent back to London?

Here's one outspoken example of a valedictory despatch - divulged under FOI. It's from Sir Andrew Green, now chairman of the pressure group MigrationWatch, who in 2000 ceased to be Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia.


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