- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
Vladimir Putin’s government has vetoed House of Cards.
Russia’s United Nations delegation on Tuesday blocked a request by the producers of the popular Netflix political drama to film two episodes in the U.N. Security Council, citing the need to keep the world’s leading security chamber available for unanticipated crises, according to a series of confidential email exchanges between a Russian diplomat and his Security Council counterparts. The emails were obtained by Foreign Policy.
The Russian action came less than a week after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office recommended that the 15-nation Security Council allow the cable television series to film in its chamber during off-hours to raise public awareness about the organization. The decision doesn’t foreclose the possibility that the producers of the show might shoot in another section of the U.N.’s gleaming headquarters at Turtle Bay. FP first reported on House of Cards‘ filming request last week.
But for viewers of House of Cards, Russia’s action appears to have killed off the tantalizing possibility that television’s most ruthless and devious political leader, President Frank Underwood — who is played by Kevin Spacey in the show — or one of his envoys would be given a seat at the Security Council’s horseshoe table, an iconic setting that has launched military interventions from Korea to the Persian Gulf.
But the show is in good company.
More than half a century ago, the United Nations rejected a request by director Alfred Hitchcock to film a murder scene from his 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest in the U.N.’s North Delegate Lounge. Many top U.N. officials have long regretted it.
"The U.N. Department of Public Information is of the view that cooperating with the production would provide an excellent opportunity to raise awareness among a large audience around the world regarding the world of the Security Council, and of the organization in general," British diplomat Michael Tatham wrote Thursday in an email to his Security Council counterparts, including the U.S., China, France, and Russia. The U.N.’s public affairs office, he added, "has reviewed the scripts for these episodes and judged them to be appropriate."
The British delegation — which will hold the presidency of the 15-nation council in August, the month that House of Cards‘ producers wanted to schedule their shoot — urged council members to raise any objections by Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. or consider the request approved.
A Russian diplomat, Mikael Agasandyan, answered less than a half-hour before the deadline.
"Upon thorough reflection, we are objecting to the proposed filming in the Security Council," Agasandyan wrote in an email to council members late Tuesday afternoon. "We are of [the] opinion that the Security Council premises should be available at any time and on short notice. Besides that, we consistently insist that the Security Council premises are not an appropriate place for filming, staging, etc."
Technically, Russia’s action doesn’t amount to a formal veto, which can only be cast in response to a vote on an issue. But with most of the council’s procedural decisions made by consensus, a decision to break consensus has the same effect.
Despite Russia’s strenuous objections, some council diplomats were still holding out hope that Moscow might reconsider, noting that it once objected to a proposal by Norway — which recently underwrote the financial costs of the Security Council’s renovation — to host a Security Council inauguration ceremony, only to subsequently relent. "Not sure it is completely off the table," said one council diplomat. "There still might be some discussion going on…. But I might be wrong."
China also expressed reservations about the virtue of filming the series in the Security Council. But it left open the door to reconsider if the council’s members were granted script approval.
"I think Mikael’s argument is reasonable," wrote Bo Shen, a political counsellor at the Chinese mission to the United Nations, referring to the Russian decision to block filming. He said China’s officials "think council members should have a rough idea on scripts for those episodes which are relating to our work. DPI [The U.N. Department of Public Information] judged them to be appropriate but could not represent views of council members. Based on that, we regard the current information are insufficient before making a decision by the council."
House of Cards is immensely popular in China. But it has also shed an unflattering light on the country, including a storyline that had Underwood orchestrating shady land deals with a corrupt Chinese businessman. Though the program’s harshest criticism is directly most sharply at America’s political class, which it portrays as scheming, backbiting, and fundamentally corrupt.
The U.N. Security Council has previously allowed the council chamber to be used for an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot of then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for Vogue magazine and for the filming of a French diplomatic comedy, Quai D’Orsay, by the French director Bertrand Tavernier.
The U.N sought to assure the council that filming would take place only late at night and over the weekend, and that the U.N. would ensure that filming would never be allowed to interrupt any emergency sessions of the council. The shooting was planned for mid-August, when most of the council’s top ambassadors are vacationing.
"The [U.N.] Secretariat have informed me that the production company that produces the American political drama House of Cards has requested permission to film interior scenes for two episodes of its third season in the United Nations complex: inside the Security Council and in the Delegates Lounge," Tatham wrote. "The scenes to be filmed on location would depict a meeting of the Security Council, as well as depicting behind the scenes discussion between ambassadors before and after the council meeting…. The executive office of the secretary-general also supports this request."
The request comes at a time when the U.N. has been actively courting Hollywood filmmakers in an effort to harness the film industries’ power to reach billions of viewers around the world, and hopefully to promote a positive image of the United Nations. In an effort to win over the Security Council, U.N. officials informed them that Netflix has global reach, with more than 44 million subscribers in 41 countries.
Unfortunately, those numbers can’t stand up to the power of a single Russian nyet.