Tim Collard is a retired British diplomat who spent most of his career in China and Germany. He is an active member of the Labour Party.
The Pope and the Foreign Office: a colossal sense of humour failure
By Tim Collard Religion Last updated: April 25th, 2010
Red faces all round among my former colleagues in the FCO, as an “official document” making some heavily tongue-in-cheek suggestions for commemorating the Pope’s forthcoming visit, including opening an abortion clinic, blessing a gay marriage, and launching “Benedict” branded condoms. How very droll. Or outrageously scandalous, depending on your point of view and degree of mental stability.
Much of the comment has focussed on the “officialness” of the document. By all means make jokes in the office, people are saying, but don’t commit them to paper. But I’ve seen no definite suggestions that it was committed to paper: it sounds like an email which had been distributed rather too widely. In a sense, I suppose, anything written by a civil servant is ipso facto an “official document”, just like even the most junior grunt can create a state secret by writing RESTRICTED at the top of a piece of paper.
As you can imagine, this sort of document circulates all the time in the FO. In the late Nineties I was the UK representative at EU coordination meetings in Beijing. After each meeting I would circulate a report of the meeting within the Embassy, couched in the most ribaldly satirical terms; sadly, none of us were inclined to take EU coordination (diplo-speak for “squabbling”) very seriously. More relevantly to the present case, just before the State Visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1999, I satirised what I saw as the FCO’s unduly obsequious attitude with a set of spoof proposals culminating in the Queen abdicating in Jiang’s favour and the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaiming him the Fourth Person of the Trinity.
Fortunately, in those days the FCO‘s access to high-tech communication was limited (for reasons of security), and I couldn’t email this stuff any further than the end of the corridor. What seems to have happened in the present case is either a) that some idiot, probably accidentally, pressed a button giving the message a far wider distribution than had ever been intended, or b) someone thought it would be a jolly clever jape to leak it.
FCO spokespersons have called this “an act of utter stupidity on the part of the official who drew the document up”. No it wasn’t. It was an act of utter stupidity on the part of whoever passed the document outside the inner circle.
Predictably, the usual suspects have blown it up into an international incident. I regret to say that our blogmeister Damian Thompson has made himself look a bit of a Charlie, heading his posting “The Foreign Office’s sick attack on the Pope: what did you expect?” No, the FCO is not institutionally secularist, Satanist or whatever: it just contains a lot of people who like taking the mickey. Chuck it, Thompson!
It is not often that one hears the phrases “Opus Dei” and “breath of fresh air” in the same sentence. But I would like to salute Mr Jack Valero, Opus Dei’s representative in Britain, for maintaining a sense of proportion. Asked for a comment last night, Mr Valero simply said that it was obviously a joke, and he was sure the Pope would see it in the same light.
Seen purely as a joke, the suggestions made were too obvious and predictable to be really funny. But the essence of a really good political joke lies in the synthetic outrage it can generate. By that standard the FCO has come up with one of the best ones ever.