After the offence, maybe ‘sorry’ is just another word

Elton John got it wrong. Sorry isn’t the hardest word at all.

Last week, amid calls for the EU finally to ban Hizbollah — those cuddly terrorists who thought it would be fun to bomb Israeli holidaymakers last July — one Financial Times hack wasn’t convinced.

“I don’t doubt Hizbollah/Iran could be behind Bulgaria bombing but also think Israel could pay Sofia to say anything,” ruminated Borzou Daragahi, without outlining who else he thought might have had cause to bomb Burgas.

Now perhaps Mr Daragahi was privy to information unavailable to the common folk. But I doubt it, because he followed up, after hefty criticism, with the acknowledgement: “Sincere apologies and regret for ill-conceived Tweet yesterday about Israel and Bulgaria.”

It is used too often as a get-out-of-jail-free card

Unpleasant though it was, his comment wasn’t anything to get worked up about. Conspiracy theories fly around all the time, about every news story, especially in the age of twitter — just look at the speculation around the pope’s resignation.

The fact it was shared by an experienced journalist and that he referred to Israel, money and power pushed it towards questionable territory. Still, it was hardly a “heads must roll” offence. An apology was solicited, and offered. Case closed.

The problem is that’s the way it almost always goes these days. Say something appalling — directed at Jews, homosexuals, women or any other group — and “disgusted of somewhere-or-other” demands an apology. Accordingly, any residual outcry is made to disappear by the culprit bandying around such phrases as “sorry”, “ill-judged”, “not my intention to cause offence” or some other eloquent expression of remorse.

“Calm down dear,” snarked David Cameron, swiftly followed by: “I deeply regret that” (an apology, no doubt, crafted by a harried adviser).

It’s partly the media. No sooner has an unwise slip occurred than it is a hot topic on Twitter, or “breaking news” on Sky. And because controversies boil so quickly, there is insatiable demand for the next chapter, for the anti-hero to acknowledge his mistake. The mea culpa has become the inevitable next step after the faux pas. Once offered, the villain of the moment can move on.

But we don’t help. The moment someone causes offence we go in guns blazing with demands for an apology. We’ve seen it recently, with the Sunday Times, ever so “sorry” after it was pointed out that satirising Israel’s leader as a bloodthirsty killer on Holocaust Memorial Day was rather insensitive. Subscribers threatened to switch papers, people screeched. Now the apology has been delivered, calm reigns again.

Aidan Burley gave an “unreserved, wholehearted and fulsome apology” following his fun-filled stag weekend, and his party leaders soon lost interest. Paul Flynn acknowledged — after repeated requests — that his remarks about Matthew Gould were “clumsily expressed”, and the fuss went away. “Sorry” really is a very useful word.

But here’s the thing. What if it’s too easy? Of course everyone is sorry when they realise it might be expedient to show remorse.

Yes, apologies can be sincere. We’ve all said things we regret; if someone recognises the error of their ways, so much the better. We are right to demand that a hurtful jibe is reconsidered. But there is a crucial difference between admitting error, and expressing regret only after it is solicited. An apology given grudgingly is merely a sticking plaster that does nothing to heal the wound.

“Sorry” is cheap, used too often as a get-out-of-jail-free card. As toddlers, we learn the currency of an apology — its power in convincing parents we won’t punch our sibling again, or deliberately spill our veg all over the floor. And, as adults, surely all of us have apologised for something, while privately thinking we are in the right.

So, in the case of public figures, who backtrack at the first sniff of controversy, why should we be convinced by a swift about-turn? “I apologise sincerely for the unintended offence which my words caused,” said David Ward, after being reprimanded for his Auschwitz and “the Jews” jibe. Except, quite clearly he didn’t, since he followed it up with comments about boycotts and the pro-Israel “machine”. As an apology, it’s worthless

How many times can we hear an insulting remark — about Auschwitz, or Jews and money, or anything — before we stop accepting “sorry” as a response? If an apology becomes de rigueur after a thoughtless jibe, how long before it loses all meaning? Wrongheaded slurs should be challenged by facts; false accusations condemned. An apology makes all the difference when offered willingly. But the danger is that, if all we ever ask for is “sorry”, all we will get is a word

Last updated: 9:45am, February 18 2013