Interview with Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications, United Nations

Edward MortimerEdward Mortimer is one of Kofi Annan’s trusted men. For more than eight years this former journalist from The Financial Times, who travelled all over the world in his previous job, has been in charge of making the world understand Kofi Annan’s message in a simple and broad manner. He has a double job-Head of the Speech-Writing Unit and Director of Communi-cations. It’s a challenging position, and Mr. Mortimer kindly accepted to answer our numerous questions about it. As he put it himself, one of the main characteristics of a journalist is curiosity. So perhaps here you can satisfy your own curiosity about him.
Q : Director of Communication : does that mean that you are looking after the image of the Organization ?
The United Nations has, of course, a large department of Public Information. There is also the Office of the Spokesman. I am Director of Communications in the Office of the Secretary-General, and my particular job is looking after the image of the Secretary-General and making sure that his message reaches the world.
Q : Do you think it’s difficult for the message of United Nations to come across ?
It can be, yes. The message can be complex, and it is always easier to reach people with a simple message. You may be able to reduce it to something very general, but then it might not sound very interesting. Then there are the sensibilities of Member States. They are always ready to remind us that we are only civil servants. They say that we are not there to make policy but only to carry out the decisions. This does not make communication easy. We are always steering a rather narrow and sometimes twisted course between these different constraints to avoid offending governments, while at the same time actually trying to tell the public something that the media will find worth reporting-something that the public can understand and see the importance of. There are some issues-a good example is human rights-where quite often one would like to say more. For instance, one would like to be very frank about the shortcomings of some governments, but it may not be our place to do so. It is best if the Member States speak for themselves.
Q : The speeches are a powerful way to get the message across to the public. So when you write the speeches, how do you develop them ?
Well, it varies because there are many speeches and the circumstances are different. Some speeches are given on a particular occasion, like the recent opening of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the same week there was the opening of the Peace-Building Commission in New York. On these occasions we receive input from the relevant departments within the United Nations. For the Human Rights Council it came from the Office of the High Commissioner, and for the Peace-Building Commission from the Peacebuilding Support Office.
Sometimes the Secretary-General may speak on any subject he likes, for instance at a university commencement. Then, of course, we have to discuss with him the themes that he wants to deal with. According to his instructions, we would go to different places to ask for ideas. Sometimes it is a subject he has spoken about before and we more or less know what he would like to say. We always have to liaise with the people who are organizing the event-for instance a university, the government of a Member State, or the Office of the President of the General Assembly. We need to know how many minutes he should speak for, who will speak before him-these are typical ways of making sure the speech is properly prepared.
The most difficult speech to write is when there are contradictory ideas coming from different parts of the organization. In such situations, we become a sort of internal peacemaker and reconciler.
Q : If somebody has to write a speech, what advice would you give them ?
My headline for this topic is « one size does not fit all ». The most important thing about speech writing really is the person for whom you are writing the speech. You have to be able to hear that voice inside your head, so that you can feel that these words will sound right coming out of that mouth. What might work for one speaker might not work so well for another.
Q : Is it a real challenge to write a good speech ?
Yes, I think this is true, because you have to make it sound right and get the structure right. A speech should not just ramble along. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. You should consider what headline you would like to see if a newspaper reported that speech-and think about what headline you do not want to see. Sometimes there can be just one line in a speech that will be picked up by the media and used as a headline, and it may distract attention from the main message. Only a very short extract from the speech will ever be used on radio or television, so you need to ensure that the memorable bit can be easily identified.
Q : Does the Secretary-General learn his speeches by heart ?
No, he does not. Sometimes, on a very important occasion, he will rehearse them. For instance, we set up an auto-cue for the speech he gives every year to the General Assembly at the beginning of the General Debate. He will practice it, generally the day before, but this is very unusual.
Q : Do you go to listen ?
On these occasions I sometimes make suggestions at the rehearsal. I may adjust the text because something I have written does not sound good when spoken : use a different word, or divide a sentence.
Q : Over the years what are the memories that you cherish the most ?
Well, some of the big speeches, like in 1999 when he spoke to the General Assembly about intervention and he said that « sovereignty should not be a shield behind which you can commit terrible crimes with impunity ». This was not a message that a lot of Member States wanted to hear at that time, but now it has become part of the official doctrine of the organization-under the heading of « responsibility to protect ».
Another time was, of course, the speech he made in Oslo in 2001, when Kofi Annan and the United Nations jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a very beautiful ceremony.
Q : You have been working in this position for eight years, and Kofi Annan is going to retire at the end of the year. Do you have any plans for your future ?
I have spent most of my life as a journalist, so it was in a way an aberration for me to become an international civil servant. It was never really the career that I expected to pursue, so now I am actually past the retirement age for both a journalist and an international civil servant. But I hope I can still be useful. Actually, one thing I would like to do is to write a book about the United Nations, because I feel that very few people really understand what the United Nations is and how it works. They tend to think of it as a body that is always the same and has its own policies. Actually, it is really a meeting place. You have many different governments pushing and pulling the whole time and all the decisions are the outcome of this interaction. Of course, as civil servants we play our part since we are supposed to carry out the decisions, but the actual decisions are reached between governments. I suppose most people know this in some sort of general sense, but they do not have any conception of how it works in practice. I think it is a very valuable institution and I would like to write a book to explain that – a book which I hope I could make entertaining by illustrating it with anecdotes from my personal experience during eight and a half years on the famous « 38th floor ». Nevertheless, the system also breeds a great deal of frustration because at its centre is compromise, and compromise means that you do not get everything that you want. So I think it is easy to blame the institution for what are in actual fact disagreements between countries.
Q : Are you saying that it is easy to blame the organization for what is really the fault of governments ?
I do not even want to say that it is the fault of governments, because I think the governments all have their own positions and they have a perfect right to those positions. It is just that it can be very frustrating. Some governments expect the UN always to agree with them, or anyway to espouse their view of the world and the way it should be organized. When they face strong disagreement they tend to blame the institution itself, as well as the other countries that disagree with them. The obvious recent example is the disagreement in the Security Council over Iraq and the campaign of extreme and unfair criticism of the UN which followed, in some countries.
Q : Do you think that this is due to a lack of communication ?
You can explain it like that to a certain extent when you are a serving official, but it is difficult to go into detail because you would then be obliged to make observations about the way your bosses behave, and they do not like that. And also, as long as people know that you are putting out the official line they may not take what you say seriously. When you are writing as an independent person, it is easier.
I’m a journalist who has spent eight years working for the UN, and it has been a wonderful learning experience for me. Now I will go back to being a journalist and I want to tell my readers what I have learned. That is the spirit of how I would like to approach it.
Q : Somebody once said : « once a journalist, always a journalist ». Do you miss the profession from time to time ?
Of course, you miss the freedom to express yourself, but on the other hand you have privileges which journalists do not have. I think the first qualification for being a journalist is curiosity, and I would say that this is the main reason I came here. I wanted to observe the institution, see the processes by which decisions are reached, and how they are carried out and put into practice-or not. You can think about journalism as a long-term enterprise ; not just writing something each day for publication the next. Some journalism is the fruit of a long period of research and observation.
Q : Have you become a specialist in international relations ?
A journalist is never really a specialist because his job is to listen to the specialists and then put what they have said into words that ordinary or non-specialist people can understand. I think that is also true for a speech-writer, especially one working for somebody like the Secretary-General, who heads an organization. He has to deal with all the different aspects of its work-peace-keeping, humanitarian assistance, development and political matters and so on. So I’m always dependent on people who are more specialized than I am to provide the basic facts and ideas. Then, quite often, I have to simplify these ideas and find ways of presenting the facts which makes them interesting and easy for an audience to follow-an audience which, by definition, does not know much about it.
I think that when the Secretary-General speaks he is not simply addressing the audience in front of him, but also the public outside. That is why he needed a journalist to do this work for him, because he wanted to speak to the world in a language that would be clearly understood. He did not want what he calls « UN-speak », an internal jargon that people working in the United Nations use among themselves.
Q : What do you think about language capacities when you read UN documents ? Is there too much « UN-speak » or has it improved ?
Well, I do not know whether it has improved that much, but I think to some extent that every organization generates its own language, and probably its own way of thinking. There is a particular problem about international organizations. I always remind myself that I am very privileged because I am working in my mother tongue. That is probably the reason why I was chosen for this job, because I am somebody who is used to writing and speaking in what has become the international language-English. Frankly, in New York, and probably in Geneva too, English is the language which is most used in the UN. It is certainly the one the Secretary-General expresses himself in most often. Almost by definition, most people working in the United Nations are not native English speakers and they had to learn the language. They are then expected to write and communicate in it the whole time. One has to make some allowance for that. Of course, I wish that people were better trained in writing English because I think clarity in language is very important. If the language is not clear it means that there is ambiguity that can give rise to misunderstandings. Ambiguity is very useful in poetry, but it can be quite dangerous sometimes in international relations.
There are also situations when it can be useful. There are times when people are able to agree on something precisely because it has more than one possible meaning. A very famous example in the United Nations was in 1967, Resolution 242 on Peace in the Middle East, where it talked about Israelis withdrawing from territories occupied during recent conflicts in the 1967 War. The omission of the definite article (the) was clearly deliberate because it left open whether they had to withdraw from all of the territories or just some of the territories. There was a mistake in that case because the French translation says « des territoires », so the Arab countries always like to refer to the French text, whereas the Israelis refer to the English text.
Q : What if the new Secretary-General comes to you and says : « Mr. Mortimer, I would keep you here ». What would you say ?
I think I would say : « Thank you very much, Mr or Mme Secretary-General. I hope that I have been useful to your predecessor, but I think you need your own voice. Just as you would like to be seen as a new Secretary-General, you will need a new speech writer who will write for you. » I should resume my life as an independent writer, where I can write in my own name.
Q : Do you think your name is too closely connected with Kofi Annan ?
Some people might think so. However, I think that a Secretary-General would always want to put his or her distinctive mark on the Organization. I think speech writing is a very personal thing, so I would expect that a new Secretary-General would want a new speech writer. As far as I am concerned, I think after eight years it is time for me to do something else.
As a journalist I have been privileged to witness some remarkable events, in particular Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the revolution in Iran in 1979. And yet I think working with Kofi Annan has been the most interesting time in my professional life
Q : What is so great about Kofi Annan ?
I think he is a remarkable person, and I think he has an extraordinary diplomatic skill. A capacity to make people feel that he is on their side and that there is something to be gained by co-operating. I think also that the whole world wants to hear the Secretary-General, and whenever some big event happens in the world everybody is expecting him to play a role in it. That makes it particularly interesting to be part of his team.
Q : It seems like you are never bored ?
No, that is one thing about it. I have hardly been bored for a single minute in eight years.