Australian Notes

Australian notes

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

I am sorry to have to say this, but I think we all need a break from apologies.

When I was practising in media law at the Bar one of the most common forms of apology by publishers, confronted with an unwinnable defamation action, was in the following form:

Some readers may have taken our recent article as suggesting that the Minister was corrupt. We did not intend to make any such suggestion and apologise for any hurt or embarrassment caused to the Minister by this publication.  

The publisher had, of course, absolutely intended to say that the Minister was corrupt and was only apologising as part of a legal settlement that may also have involved the payment of damages.  The avalanche of public apologies over recent years in many areas has a similar element of meaninglessness.

There may be a real question about what penalty Australia’s ball-tampering cricketers deserved, given the way this conduct by players from other countries has been treated in the past, but the one pointless aspect of their press conferences was their series of tearful apologies. The ball-tampering was planned in advance and no doubt their real regret is that it was obvious on the television coverage of the match.

For a politically correct apology, however, it is hard to beat the performance last month of the editor-in-chief of National Geographic, Susan Goldberg, who referred to the magazine’s ‘appalling’ coverage of different races and nationalities over its 130 year existence.  One item singled out by Goldberg was a 1930 article describing the crowning of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia! For a totally insincere apology, on the other hand, the prize might go to Bill Clinton who said of his encounter – affair is hardly the right word – with Monica Lewinsky: ‘I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.’ As for the apology that ignores reality, one of the best examples was that issued by Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez after he had bitten Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup in 2014.  According to Suarez, Chiellini ‘suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me.’ It will be observed in this statement there seems to be no positive action of any kind on Suarez’s part.

The Prime Minister is said to be considering an apology – on behalf of the nation – to those persons identified as victims by the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.  These persons are quite rightly the subject of great sympathy in the community, but the fact is that the abuse was carried out by a relatively small group of individuals in positions of authority in public and private institutions over the post-war years. The vast majority of Australians then and now have never contemplated this kind of conduct and there is something puzzling about an apology that suggests that they were in some way responsible for what happened in those institutions.

The cult of the apology has been extended to events in modern history but why stop there? Should not the descendants of the Normans, if any can be traced now, apologise for their behaviour towards the Saxons after the invasion by William the Conqueror? And what about the descendants of the Vikings for their centuries of murder and pillage along the English coastline? In this spirit Pope John Paul II apologised in 1992 for the church’s condemnation of Galileo in 1633.  Galileo’s offence was to claim that the earth revolved around the sun and he came very close to being burnt at the stake. He retracted his claim but still spent the rest of his life closely confined to his own quarters.

It might be argued, however, that there are genuine cases of collective guilt in the modern era. The Germans, for example, largely welcomed the Hitler regime in the 1930s and could hardly avoid knowing about its policies of extermination in much of occupied Europe.  But what is the worth of an apology from a later German government to someone whose family perished in the death camps? If some conduct, like ball-tampering, is too trivial for an apology, some crimes are too great for any expression of regret. So too are some blunders. Robert McNamara confessed in his 1995 memoir that he was mistaken in his – highly successful – efforts as Secretary of Defence in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to bring about large-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War – an involvement that resulted in 525,000 US troops being in Vietnam by mid-1967. Small comfort, perhaps for the 55,000 Americans and 500 Australians who lost their lives in the conflict.

There is a ritualistic quality to so many of the apologies that are published almost every day in the media, from politicians who are sorry for what their extra-marital affairs has done to their families, to footballers who express remorse for the damage done to their club’s reputation by their night-club brawling.

There is a place for apologies in the personal relationships of individuals. For this kind of apology it is hard to go past the letter written by Abraham Lincoln to General Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863. Lincoln had doubted one of Grant’s decisions in the middle of the Civil War but, when Grant won a great victory, Lincoln wrote to congratulate him and added: ‘I feared it was a mistake, I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.’

This was a private communication by Lincoln but in recent times the public apology has become a tedious piece of theatre that we could well do without.  The best advice on this subject may have come from P. G. Wodehouse: ‘It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”

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