The coverage of the Australian Dfat* briefing paper on Helen Clark is as unsurprising as it is depressing. Depressing in that this appears to be Martin Kay’s biggest scoop of the year (he’s dragged it out to a second article today) and no-one covering the issue seems to be aware of what these briefing papers are usually like, indicating poor contacts within the diplomatic community.
I wrote a number of leader, country, and issue briefing papers for a Pacific Islands Forum and a number of other events when I was working for a foreign embassy in New Zealand. I’ve also read more briefing papers written by others than I care to remember. Three important points from that experience can inform our reading of the Dfat bio:
1) They are kept as short and memorable as possible, preferably bullet points on a single page (interesting that the Dompost provides no image of the briefing paper, whereas in a similar position we would as a matter of course and our readers would demand it). The language is ungilded and to the point. Inevitably, this means they employed hackneyed phrasing and simplistic statements.
2) Somehow, they always seem cartoonishly unsophisticated, almost naive to a native of the country whose leader is being written about. They contain the same kind of statements a poor first year politics student might make and nothing that one couldn’t pick up from reading the papers. This can be because of lack of information, the need to keep the briefing, um, brief, because the papers and chats with political hacks are the main source of info for these papers, and because one never truly understands the politics of another country as intuitively as one does one’s own country.
3) The info is often out of date and recycled. Getting sign off on briefing papers can be a total pain in the arse, so, wherever possible, the same phrasing is reused from previous briefing papers on the topic. This can be seen in the Dfat briefing paper with the outdated reference to new governing arrangements with UnitedFuture and New Zealand FIrst. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reference to Heather Simpson as H2 was originally written back in 2000 and the reference to the Vietnam war from briefing papers written before Clark was even PM.
So, briefing papers are often simplistic, naive, and out-of-date. They serve merely to provide basic info and, frankly don’t actually get read that often – any leader or diplomat attending the PIF who is worth their salt would already have a much more sophisticated understanding of a long-serving, major regional leader like Clark than is contained in one-page of bullet points.
And what exactly does this briefing paper say that is so scandalous? Clark’s foreign policy views were formed during the Vietnam war protests and they are informed by her having chaired the Foreign Affairs select committee and being PM for nearly 9 years. Clark is left, moderately so, so what? We all knew that too. Clark operates a tight ship, yup. Heather Simpson is powerful, yup. The term ‘control freak’ is Kay’s, not the briefing’s (you would never see such language in a briefing paper).
All that this affair has shown is why such briefing papers are usually kept away from the media. The professionals writing and reading them know what they are, they read them in context, – whereas the likes of Kay can be trusted only to try to create a scandal. The most depressing thing is that this has crowded out any actual coverage of the actual forum – all the likes of Kay are bothering to tell us is that Bainimarama didn’t attend and there was this briefing paper. It’s a crying shame that that’s the best we can expect.
*(Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, not to be confused with our Mfat, and Canada’s Dfait)