Sorry! A short guide to apologies


By Kenneth Roy

Whatever has happened to young Adam Werritty? He has gone to ground. But it would not be completely surprising if he emerged blinking into the small light we have, guided by the hand of the incomparable Max Clifford, to make a full and unqualified apology to the people for any distress and inconvenience he may have caused.

But will that be enough? The spirit of the times seems to demand a larger gesture of some kind. Perhaps Mr Werritty could be prevailed upon by his public relations advisers to deliver his apology on bended knee, the touching scene transmitted live on the BBC News Channel, followed by a studio discussion on how convincing an apology it has been, what his body language tells us, and whether the gesture is likely to salvage anything from the young man’s few remaining prospects.

It is not quite a fortnight since his mentor Dr Fox was apologising all over the shop. Every time one turned on the telly, there was Dr Fox saying sorry. Much good did it do him. But for the assembled tribe of sorry-watchers, and the analysts of human behaviour back in the studio, it was a necessary moment of catharsis, the Oprah moment, a staging post in the crisis. All we heard that weekend was endless speculation about Dr Fox’s apology and its chances of saving his political career.

Now that he is safely despatched, and there is no further need for Dr Fox to apologise in public for his unfortunate errors of judgement, his breaching of the ministerial code, his accursed charity, his very existence on this planet, the camera continues to dwell on a close-up of his face; every pore and twitch visible, the mouth tense, the eyes haunted. This image has been repeated many times on the BBC in the last few days. It may be intended to remind us that this is the face of a man who was forced, or forced himself, to apologise. If only we could see behind Dr Fox’s eyes, contriving a piece to camera from his very soul, the BBC would be there, breaking the news.

Sir Fred, of whom there is no need for a surname, has also been full of apologies this week. Actually, not this week or last; or even last year; or the year before. But the BBC’s acquisition of a recording of Sir Fred saying sorry to a group of shareholders, before his ignominious departure from the bank, is suddenly big news (in the regrettable absence this autumn of any real news).

I did not myself witness his volte face – I was doing the crossword at the time – but someone who did assures me that it was more than adequate. A shareholder had said to Sir Fred that he would like to hear the man responsible for the mess say sorry; whereupon Sir Fred, finally bowing to the emotional requirements of the age, fulsomely obliged.

The only person who was not weeping copiously in public was the dead woman’s mother-in-law, who retained a stiffish upper lip. Her throne wobbled slightly as she declined to share in the universal lamentations.

‘I’m sorry,’ quoth he. ‘Believe me, I’m sorry for messing up your lives. No one could be sorrier than the wretch who stands before you today.’

I have just invented that saying of Sir Fred’s, as journalists do, but whatever he said, however repentant he sounded, it was important enough to justify a spot on the BBC News website and to become the centrepiece of an hour-long documentary.

The most celebrated public expression of contrition of the post-war era was Richard Nixon’s to David Frost. But this was conceded, if we are to believe the play based on the interview, by a laborious process of attrition, a wearing down of the subject over a period of 26 hours in heavy-duty instalments; and it should not be forgotten that Nixon was apologising all the way to the bank. The modern apology is a more routine utterance. It has coming to be what is expected of anyone in a tight spot.

Only journalists are excused from the tedious responsibility, although occasionally their newspapers find it financially expedient to do so on their behalf. The credo of the trade is: ‘Never apologise, never explain’. It makes the conduct of a journalist’s life relatively simple.

When, for example, I asked the late John Junor – although he was still alive at the time; indeed about to play golf at Walton Heath – if he never regretted the dreadful stuff he printed about people in his Sunday Express column, never felt a twinge of remorse, never had a compulsion to apologise to his many victims, he chortled derisively and said that, as soon as he had written something, he forgot all about it, never gave it another thought. Of course Junor was an old monster, but I suspect that his views on this matter are widely shared by the sort of people who are paid to extract apologies from others.

Britain’s flourishing apology business was formally launched in the late summer of 1997 when the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, turned on the nation’s waterworks and it was considered bad form not to be seen weeping copiously in public. The only person who was not weeping copiously in public was the dead woman’s mother-in-law, who retained a stiffish upper lip. Her throne wobbled slightly as she declined to share in the universal lamentations.

Even the Queen yielded in the end. She did not say sorry exactly. But she did the next best thing and returned from Balmoral – to utter a few kind words about the troublesome deceased, against a backcloth of her grieving subjects. A lesson was learned. There is a time to live and a time to die. But there is also a time to apologise. Live on television, if at all possible.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review