Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 04:21 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 04:21 | SYDNEY

The OOPS! Award for diplomatic bloopers and blunders


Graeme Dobell

25 January 2011 12:05

Time for the OOPS! Prize, a gong handed out in conjunction with our more prestigious Madeleine Award.

The Madeleine is for stunts, symbolism or silliness in international affairs (see the first round nominees here), while the OOPS! is handed out for a much simpler achievement. The OOPS! rewards an inadvertent blunder. It can be either a mistake/misunderstanding/blooper in international relations or — just as enjoyable — an unintended moment of truth-telling.

Above, blue gums. For context, keep reading.

The first and obvious OOPS! nomination covers all those diplomats and governments caught expressing their real thoughts via the WikiLeaks gusher of secret US diplomatic cables. More than a leak, this became a torrent of involuntary truth-telling, from assessments of Kevin Rudd as an abrasive control freak to the revelation of what Singapore really thinks of its neighbours.

The WikiLeaks cornucopia is so rich it over-delivers, taking us to dimensions well beyond OOPS! WikiLeaks is just too big for this prize. The award, instead, will go to an individual attempt, not a global 'Oh, Dear!' Moment.

The next contender illustrates the mistake/blunder side of the contest. Step forward Tourism Australia, well worthy of an OOPS! for manifesting a version of their now abandoned advertising slogan, 'Where the bloody hell are you'' The government tourism body had to recall hundreds of copies of its annual report from Australian embassies and overseas offices after illustrating its chapter on visitor arrivals from South Korea with a map of North Korea. OOPS! Or to rejig the old slogan: Bloody hell! Where are you'

The next nomination expresses what we mean about accidental truth telling. It's one thing for WikiLeaks to reveal your actual, but confidential opinions. It's another to actually broadcast it yourself.

Step into the spotlight Japan's Justice Minister, Minoru Yanagida, forced to quit in November after only two months in the job. At a party to celebrate his cabinet elevation, Yanagida boasted that being Justice Minister was easy because he had to remember only two answers that could be used to deal with all opposition questions: 'I refrain from making comments on a specific issue' and 'We're dealing with the matter based on laws and evidence'. That is the sort of candour that can put a career on the skids but an OOPS! within reach.

In selecting the winner, we cannot go past a machine that created a moment of extreme cross-cultural embarrassment on the international stage. Here's the NSW Police explaining how a computer selects a code name for operations: 'Various groups of nouns belonging to a selection of themes are entered and the operation name is generated from an existing database.' Simple, really.

Thus it was that NSW Police sat down to brief US embassy officials on security plans for the visit to Sydney by President Barack Obama. The wallopers announced that the code-name for the presidential visit would be Operation Blue Gum. Quite appropriate from an Oz perspective: a blue gum is but one of the many types of eucalyptus trees that adorn this wide brown land.

Imagine the surprise of the Sydneysiders at the rapid pushback from the US side. In America, apparently, 'blue gum' is slang for a lazy African American who refuses to work. The code-name was immediately given the chainsaw treatment. Little wonder that Obama planned and cancelled two trips to Oz in 2010. Not only did the demands of US politics keep rolling over the travel date, but the karma was so bad that a computer created a cross-cultural misunderstanding of blooper proportions.

Give that computer a gong – a worthy recipient of the OOPS! Prize.

Photo by Flickr user M Hedin.