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In Diplomacy, Apparently There Are Some Things Online You Can't Un-Say [UPDATED]

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, November 8 2011

In October, British ambassador to Sudan Nicholas Kay published a blog post on his official blog that tackled hunger in Sudan head-on.

"How do you celebrate World Food Day in a country where hunger stalks the land?" he asked in the post, apparently angering Sudanese officials.

Reuters reported last week that Sudan's foreign ministry had summoned Kay in response to the post. Sudan Tribune, a Paris-based, nonprofit online publication, reports that Kay apologized for the post:

The British Embassy in Khartoum confirmed to Sudan Tribune that Kay met with the undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs Ambassador Rahamtalla Mohamed Osman describing the meeting as ’cordial.’

The Embassy said, ’The Ambassador understands the government’s concerns and will take them into account for future blogs.’

Reuters reports that Kay vowed to keep blogging, but that post appeared to have been deleted sometime after I accessed it on Nov. 3. Jimmy Leach, head of digital engagement for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, wrote to us in a Twitter post on Nov. 11 that it had just been moved, and remained unedited.

That wasn't how things looked when this post was first published; at that time, attempts to access that post directly or through Google searches redirected me from the post's URL to a landing page for Nicholas Kay's blog. On that homepage, Kay's "World Food Day" post was nowhere to be found; it now appears on the landing page for Kay's blog.

"@techpresident The post you claim is missing bit.ly/rVz6bZ is here tinyurl.com/bvuvp9n , unedited," Leach let us know. "On a new platform, that's all."

The incident still illustrates a delicate line that diplomats must walk online, one between authenticity and the sensitivities of officials in other states.

"There have certainly been cases before where the British government has had to apologize for something one of their ambassadors had been blogging," Carne Ross, himself a former member of the British Foreign Office and now head of the diplomatic advisory group Independent Diplomat, told me today. "The trouble with it is it's an inherently risky medium, both Twitter and blogging, because it encourages personal insight and by definition that is different from the official line."

By the time someone makes it to a position as ambassador, Ross said, that person is a spokesman for their state. An ambassador should know how to calibrate their remarks to stay near that official line, he told me — but it's not surprising that "personal insight" into a government as sensitive as Khartoum's has caused a stir.

This post has been updated.