A drop of sincerity in an ocean of false redress

AS WHEEDLING obfuscations go, it was a masterpiece, a world-class example of torturing the English language into an exquisitely evasive contortion. "I have expressed a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology," said Des Browne, as if to remind anyone who had forgotten that our Defence Secretary is a lawyer by trade.

And had he left it at that, Mr Browne would today be wallowing in euphemistic infamy alongside the former Tory minister Alan Clark, who once told a judge he'd been "economical with the actualit", and whichever Vietnam-era military bureaucrat coined the term "collateral damage" to denote the death and injury of civilians and the destruction of their homes.

Yet Mr Browne, teetering on the brink after allowing Royal Navy sailors to hawk their stories of Iranian captivity to the media, hauled himself back with a single word: "Sorry."

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Granted, the word had to be pulled from him like a bad tooth, and he evidently enjoyed the experience about as much. And yes, he was motivated in part by the urgent desire to save his skin. But he said it. A politician stood up in the House of Commons and said: I made a mistake. Sorry.

It is an eloquent comment on our times that something so simple seemed so remarkable, and so refreshing.

It also remains a rarity. Struck by Mr Browne's example, I asked Tony Blair yesterday whether he believed politicians should be more willing to apologise. As he nears the end of his premiership, the Prime Minister is given to slightly more reflective discussions about the nature of modern politics, and he endorsed Mr Browne's example, insisting that, on the whole, "politicians are willing to do that where it is justified".

But did he want to offer examples of his own well-intentioned mistakes? No, thank you, though he did allude to a sort of apology he made in 2004 over his case for invading Iraq. (The statement in question reminds us that the PM, too, is a lawyer: "I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.")

Still, it's not just politicians who seem to struggle with the notion of a simple, whole-hearted apology. We may be living in a hyper-advanced market economy, but the free market, in my experience, signally fails to provide one very important commodity: sincerity.

You'll know what I mean if your bank has ever made an error with your account, if your train has ever been late, or if someone has ever failed to deliver goods or services to your home on the day they said they would. Sure, you'll have had some sort of response to your despair, but more often than not it's "an expression of regret that can be equated with an apology", instead of a simple "Sorry, we messed up."

Apology and redress have become mechanised functions, Jesuitical ritual phrases intoned to avert the risk of recriminations. Sincere concern for another human being doesn't seem to come into it - the sole purpose of most corporate "apologies" is to limit liability, to manage an awkward situation.

When they occur at all, that is.

RETURNING from a holiday in Egypt last week, I was delayed by just shy of 33 hours because the airline concerned (it is called XL.com - anyone planning a holiday should take note) apparently sees no need to maintain its aircraft properly, to have a standby in case of mechanical failures, or to ask its staff not to abuse its customers.

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By way of apology, I and the other 300-odd people hugely inconvenienced were offered a legalistic pro-forma letter to pass to our insurance companies and employers. At the time of writing, my requests to XL for an apology have gone unanswered. Mr Browne's example notwithstanding, sorry really does seem to be a damned hard word to say.

In the spirit of honesty, it should be pointed out here that we media types aren't exactly paragons of virtue when it comes to apologising for our errors. We're getting better, I think - see The Scotsman's weekly Ombudsman column - but there's still an instinctive journalistic reticence about admitting anything less than omniscience.

So let me expose a few blemishes of my own.

My mistakes range from the petty to the grave. At the low end of the scale, I misspelled "Huntly" in Aberdeenshire in an article last week. Mid-ranking transgressions include my failure during the 2005 general election campaign to give the Labour Party a fair chance to respond to a news story suggesting a party election broadcast had broken parliamentary rules.

And at the top, nearly seven years ago I was in Zimbabwe, reporting for this paper on that country's parliamentary elections. I concluded at the time that there was still a glimmer of hope that Zimbabwe's battered democracy would rein in Robert Mugabe. As subsequent events have painfully illustrated, my coverage failed to reflect fully the scale of vote-rigging and intimidation that took place, in large part because I wasn't brave enough to go to those parts of the country where state-sponsored violence was the worst. So I'm sorry for all of those mistakes, and doubtless many others. Am I a worse journalist for admitting them? I'm certainly a happier one.

A study by Cambridge University academics yesterday said Britons were among the unhappiest people in Europe. Apparently, our misery correlates directly to our lack of trust in our leaders and our institutions. Hardly surprising when so many of them are so unwilling to look us in the eye and say "sorry" like they actually mean it.

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