GUY RAZ, host:
Here's a story for anyone whose ever written a nasty email about a colleague only to see it accidentally fall into the wrong hands.
Now, imagine you're the British ambassador to Nicaragua about to retire and you fire off the following missive.
Unidentified Man #1: (Reading) Roger Pinsent, Managua, 1967: There is, I fear, no question but that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable and alcoholic of the Latin Americans.
RAZ: Believe it or not, these kinds of notes have been a tradition for ambassadors representing Britain. They're called valedictory dispatches, the final letters back home before ambassadors wrap up their duties and move on.
They were never meant to be seen by the public, but the BBC managed to uncover a treasure trove of these letters. And Andrew Bryson is the producer there who worked on the project.
Mr. ANDREW BRYSON (Producer, BBC Radio 4's "Parting Shots"): In our ambassador's final posting, he had a bit of a license to range a bit more generally. Often, these telegrams would be circulated to the palace -Buckingham Palace - and the royal family. They'd go to the security services, the Bank of England. And over time, this tradition just grew and grew.
RAZ: These were confidential.
Mr. BRYSON: And so - they were certainly confidential. They were classified -restricted - documents. Many of these valedictory dispatches would be quite unremarkable. But, you know, for every couple of dozen that you read, you'd come across one real gem.
RAZ: You arranged for actors to read a lot of the excerpts from some of these letters for a BBC documentary that you put together. And I want to hear another one of those. This is from the dispatch by Lord Moran, who was Britain's ambassador Canada from 1981 to 1984.
Unidentified Man #2: (Reading) It has, I am sure, been a disadvantage that Mr. Trudeau has been prime minister throughout my time in Canada. He has never entirely shaken off his past as a well-to-do hippie and a draft dodger. Many of my colleagues here admire him. I can not say I do. He is an odd fish and his own worst enemy.
RAZ: Moran, of course, is talking about Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. And he later writes that Canadians are people with mediocre talent. What do you think was the incentive here? I mean, why be so candid?
Mr. BRYSON: We have actually quite a small diplomatic service in the United Kingdom compared with other European countries like France. And because it's small, it needs to rely on its public servants being completely candid in the advice they give back to ministers so that they know what's really going on.
RAZ: Did any of these letters or the ideas expressed in them make their way back to those countries at the time?
Mr. BRYSON: Very rarely. The only example I've come across would be valedictory dispatch written in the 1960s from Thailand by Sir Anthony Rumbold.
RAZ: Oh, yes. We have that one. Let's hear that before we talk about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #3: (Reading) I have very much enjoyed living for a while in Thailand. One would have to be very insensitive or puritanical to take the view that the Thais had nothing to offer. It is true they have no literature, no painting, and only a very odd kind of music - that their sculpture, their ceramics and their dancing are borrowed from others - and that their architecture is monotonous and their interior decorations hideous. But, it does a faded European good to spend some time among such a jolly, extrovert and anti-intellectual people.
RAZ: This is so incredibly offensive.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: I don't know what more needs to be said about it. But this actually got back to the Thais?
Mr. BRYSON: Well, I'm not sure it got quite that far. What happened was that this was circulated as valedictory dispatches were to commonwealth countries until…
RAZ: Places like Canada, Australia.
Mr. BRYSON: Absolutely, and that was key. It was supposed to go to, A, distribution, which was Canada and Australia and New Zealand. However, it accidentally went to a sea distribution, which was 170 commonwealth countries…
RAZ: Oh, no.
Mr. BRYSON: …including our colleagues in Malaysia and Singapore. We're getting rather close to Thailand. They're not sure quite how far it went. But this dispatch said things about the Thai foreign minister, questioning his sanity. It was really not the sort of material that you would want to see distributed that widely.
The tradition was eventually brought to a halt in 2006 after a very funny valedictory dispatch from our ambassador to Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts.
RAZ: What did he say?
Mr. BRYSON: Well, he was criticizing its foreign office under siege from management consultants and Wall Street management speak. He talked about capability reviews, and in the loop, and all these buzzwords that he said were infecting diplomacy. And inevitably, it leaked into the newspapers.
RAZ: And so after he sent this out, what, the foreign office said, okay, this tradition is over. These valedictory...
Mr. BRYSON: That's basically it. By this point, they were, of course, emails. So it wasn't many hundreds of people who received a copy, it was thousands. The fear and the likelihood of this sort of material leaking to the newspapers really drove that decision.
RAZ: It almost seems like a shame that this tradition has sort of been put to rest, that all of these pieces of history won't be recorded in quite the same way.
Mr. BRYSON: Well, that's certainly true. But much more of this material is still to come out. There have been many hundreds of British ambassadors who have written valedictory dispatches in this last 30 years. And as they are slowly declassified, we will see them. They will trickle out. These sorts of parting shots should keep us entertained for many years to come, I hope.
RAZ: They've got to be worried about that, Andrew.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: Andrew Bryson is the producer behind the BBC series "Parting Shots." He spoke with us from the BBC in London.
Mr. Bryson, thanks so much.
Mr. BRYSON: Thank you.
RAZ: You can hear more snarky letters from the BBC series "Parting Shots" at npr.org.
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