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On Her Majesty's Service - in a new way

Tom Fletcher playing table tennis Image copyright Other

The outgoing British ambassador to Lebanon hates the image of diplomats as stuck-up champagne-drinking mandarins, and goes out of his way to prove it wrong. Along the way he has found a different way of communicating with the public, both in Lebanon and internationally, writes Matthew Teller.

"You would not believe how furious diplomats get about the Ferrero Rocher gag."

Tom Fletcher, Britain's outgoing ambassador to Lebanon, wrings his hands at the recollection of the 1990s TV ad that showed a white-gloved footman distributing hazelnut chocs to a gathering of well-groomed diplomatic partygoers.

We are, I should add, standing beside a gathering of well-groomed diplomatic partygoers on the rear terrace of the ambassadorial residence. Under a whine of cicadas, Fletcher speaks through gritted teeth.

"Almost everyone who comes to the house says, 'Oh Ambassador, you are spoiling us.' That image of a bunch of stuck-up aristocrats eating ridiculous chocolates - I'm sure they're very nice - and swilling champagne at taxpayers' expense… it's just not what we're like.

"I do not keep a single Ferrero Rocher."

It's my first ambassadorial party - and, since I'm skulking around with a microphone asking annoying questions, probably my last - but I saw no evidence of white-gloved footmen. Tom Fletcher hates pomposity.

Appointed ambassador in 2011 at a fresh-faced 36, he went out to court the Lebanese media from the off, collaborating with TV celebs and sports stars on a campaign to unite Lebanon's divided society, donating blood for victims of a bomb attack, being photographed doing a job-swap for a day with an Ethiopian maid.

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Image caption Kalkidan Nigusie, an Ethiopian migrant worker, showed Fletcher how to do her job, and then shadowed him in the embassy

On social media he has been astonishingly active, posting almost 10,000 tweets during his ambassadorship, on average six or seven per day. That drew in nearly 48,000 followers - "twice as many as the Foreign Secretary" he notes, mischievously.

That's quite apart from the accounts run by his communications team on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and other online networks.

He blogged no fewer than 69 times for the Foreign Office website. His final post, a farewell letter to Lebanon published on 31 July, attracted attention for its humour - and its candour.

"Dear Lebanon," the letter begins. "Sorry to write again. But I'm leaving your extraordinary country after four years. Unlike your politicians, I can't extend my own term."

He describes reading the country's history before travelling to Beirut and realising "that if we cannot win the argument for tolerance and diversity in Lebanon, we will lose it everywhere".

"The real dividing line," he goes on, "is not between Christianity and Islam, Sunni and Shia, East and West. It is between people who believe in coexistence and those who don't."

He runs through some of the memories that he will be taking away with him, including the time he was offered a free buttock lift. "Its value exceeded our £140 gift limit, so that daunting task remains undone," he notes, drily.

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There have also been 30-odd posts on his own personal blog - The Naked Diplomat.

"It's a bit like the Naked Chef," Fletcher told me.


Find out more

  • Listen to Matthew Teller's radio documentary The Naked Diplomat on the BBC World Service

"You're stripping away all of the garbage that goes with traditional diplomacy, the protocol and the titles and the platitudes - 'warm bilateral relations' and 'we discussed a range of regional and local issues'. The idea of naked diplomacy is to focus on what we do best without all the paraphernalia, which is trying to stop people killing each other."

One of Fletcher's bugbears is "Your Excellency", the usual form of address for ambassadors.

"I find [it] excruciating," he says. "I've blogged about how titles like that get in the way. When people are prancing around styling themselves as 'Excellencies' I think it gives them a sense of elitism and separateness which is no longer justified or useful."

Diplomats don't just call on foreign ministers, write dispatches and attend soirees - they make things happen, he argues.

Under his ambassadorship - which coincided with the outbreak of war in Syria - the UK took rapid steps to help Lebanon defend its borders. The Lebanese Armed Forces are now using British-supplied vehicles and a string of British-built watchtowers, modelled on those used in Northern Ireland, to keep jihadist groups at bay.

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Image caption Fletcher, in brown T shirt, meeting border guards on his goodbye tour
Image copyright AP
Image caption This British-built border post helped repel a jihadist attack two weeks after it was built in July 2014

Fletcher let me ride with him in his armoured 4x4 through the Beirut traffic. I was under orders from his hatchet-faced, bulging-jacketed close-protection security team not to touch doors or windows while seated, and to get out only when instructed to do so. As they blasted sirens to clear a path, Fletcher began scrolling through his Twitter feed.

"The fact that digital outreach gives me more profile locally increases the risk: it makes you more recognisable," he reflected.

"The smartphone from which I tweet is also the device which terrorists can use to track me. For security reasons I always have to tweet from the car on the way to the next place. If I tweet from the place I am, I have to leave immediately."

Other ways he made himself more recognisable include dreaming up media-friendly capers such as a 007-style photocall with Aston Martin cars on the Queen's official birthday, and a "farewell tour" that included a three-day yomp over the Lebanese hills with a TV crew in tow.

So why has an ambassador made such an effort to grab the limelight and speak publicly?

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"People have a right to authentic communication from those who work for them," he once wrote.

But there's also a more pressing concern.

"Look at the way Islamic extremists - ISIL - use these digital channels to spread their message," he says.

"They worked out before any of us the power of visuals in this medium. They've done that in a grim way but very effectively. It makes us rivals in this space, it means we are in a ring going toe to toe - and if I'm not out there trying to fill some of that space in Lebanon, then someone else is going to fill it. If I can get through to the guy who's tossing a coin as to whether to go and join a militia tomorrow, and he reads my blog and decides not to, I'm winning that battle against ISIL. This is another form of warfare."

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@matthewteller