It doesn’t hurt to say sorry – but only when there is genuine regret

The Only Way is Ethics: We can’t apologise for our actions when we believe them to be justified

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Even though “sorry” has a reputation for being the hardest of words, in responding to legitimate complaints about newspaper foul-ups, it ought to be forthcoming as a matter of course.

A minor factual error, even a typo, might not have earth-shattering consequences, but if an individual has felt irked enough to spend time getting in touch, they should receive an apology. After all, if we have failed to meet the standards we set for ourselves, surely that is something which should lead to feelings of regret.

Even when a complaint does not raise a breach of The Independent’s code of conduct, we might well be sorry that someone has felt offended by our content. But in that scenario we can’t apologise for our actions, because we believe them to be justified. It is when a complainant and a newspaper are at odds over rights and wrongs that things can become testy.

A reader who disagreed with a comment piece recently was left dissatisfied by a response which defended the right of a columnist to express even a highly provocative opinion. They concluded that their complaint was not being “taken seriously”. Yet this was a consequence of our disagreement over the merits of their case, which is a different matter.

Even when an apology is forthcoming, it can sometimes be dismissed as being insufficiently sincere. Emily Brothers, the parliamentary candidate who was the subject of a tasteless and pejorative joke about her disability and gender in Rod Liddle’s Sun column last year, was further upset because Liddle’s apology compounded the discrimination. Her complaint about his conduct was upheld last week.

But if that can be seen to confirm the importance of apologising properly, it perhaps also emphasises the point that if regret is not really felt, it may be best not to apologise at all.

There is a strain of thinking that apologies should be enforced, that individuals or companies should be required to feel regret. Yet fundamentally we cannot force a third party to be contrite. And efforts to do so seem often to be motivated as much by vengeful desires, as for any honest hope that an apology will beget true understanding of the hurt which has been caused.

No country for white men?

Anybody who deals with complaints against newspapers will be regularly told: “you wouldn’t have said that about X”. Over the years I have seen X take on a wide variety of values: Jews, Muslims, black people, white people, Christians, men, women, the LGBT community and so on and so on. In truth, there should be no person and no group which is above legitimate criticism or comment, which is why complaints along these lines rarely bear scrutiny.

A number of recent opinion pieces on The Independent website have drawn complaints from readers who perceive them to be unjustified attacks on white men. They have argued that the articles, which highlight additional barriers faced by women and black people in society, discriminate against white men by failing to accept that they can be subject to inverse racism or sexism.

Ultimately, writers are entitled to set out their personal views. Moreover, many of those who have cried foul have done so in a way which is manifestly disingenuous: they complain to make a point.

Nonetheless, there is clearly a sizable constituency of white men in this country which feels left behind by the modern world. That is something the media should seek to understand, not simply dismiss.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard.