Telegrams stop, e-mails start

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ROBIN COOK is to kill off the telegram - the slow, antiquated method of communication beloved of Britain's diplomats.

Instead the Foreign Office is to catch up with new technology and introduce a global e-mail system to keep in touch with its embassies and consulates around the globe. One hundred and forty-six years after the first telegram arrived in London from Paris, the Foreign Secretary has decided that, while the telegrams constitute the lifeblood of his department - more than 2.3 million changed hands last year - they are hardly "state of the art".

The cost of scrapping the old system and introducing its sophisticated replacement will cost pounds 69m over the next three years, but Mr Cook has registered his astonishment that his predecessors had not set up a proper world-wide communication system. At the moment routine telegrams, which have been churned out on paper and sent from one teleprinter to another, take 24 hours to arrive. Urgent messages, so-called "flash" telegrams, cause alarms to sound in the communications centre in Whitehall and they are passed on at once.

The only electronics available in the Foreign Office are internal and were also heading for a crash courtesy of the millennium bug. The aim is that the new "E-grams" will be delivered within five hours even if they are not urgent. Mr Cook said there would be less scope for officials to claim that they had not seen important messages.

The new system will provide a link-up between the 221 foreign office outposts world-wide and Mr Cook insists that, unlike the Pentagon computer in Washington, it will be impossible for hackers to break into it.

"It is essential that ministers know what other governments are thinking and ... that such messages are not seen by any other government," he said.

Many of the telegrams in the Foreign Office's archives offer remarkably vivid snapshots of some of the most momentous events of the 20th century. Take for example, the message sent at 12.30pm on 28 June 1914. The dateline was Sarajevo and the news was succinct: "According to news received here heir apparent and his consort assassinated this morning by means of explosive means."

Later it was updated: "Vice-consul at Sarajevo telegraphs Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Hohenburg assassinated this morning in Sarajevo by means of explosives."

One message from the British representative in Berlin in 1933 shows how history might have been altered had different steps been taken. ("Nothing short of international action is likely to influence the present rulers of Germany and in their present temper they seem prepared to flout humane opinion.")

Telegrams will be phased out by 2000. The Foreign Office's future messages may be now be quicker; they are unlikely to be more fascinating.