Leading Article: Who's sorry now?

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The Independent Online
THIS has been a vintage week for apologies. An Australian official says sorry for having described the presence of disabled people at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria as an 'embarrassment'. Timothy Clifford, of the National Galleries of Scotland, retracts an intemperate remark that could have lost Canova's The Three Graces to Britain. And the government of Chile grovels to its South American neighbours for subsidising an artist who immortalised Simon Bolivar on canvas as a half- clothed transvestite.

These incidents raise a broader question: is saying sorry a good thing? Or was PG Wodehouse right to maintain that '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'?

When it comes to apologising for actions, Wodehouse is on weak ground. In government or business, an apology from people at the top can show that an organisation is properly repentant. But contrition must be accompanied by an attempt to do better in future, or the apology becomes debased coinage. Passengers groan when they hear the words 'British Rail regrets' precisely because they expect to hear the same regrets, and suffer the same delays, tomorrow.

It is easier to see the futility of apologising for holding an opinion. With pounds 1m at stake, Mr Clifford had the strongest possible incentive to eat his indiscreet words about John Paul Getty II. But when the opinions expressed are crass or offensive (as is the case with the Australian official, or with the Japanese cabinet ministers who make a habit of saying rude things about black people in America) the public should be grateful to the speakers for their frankness. By unwittingly revealing their true feelings, the speakers are less able to dissemble in future - and, in some cases, are likely to lose jobs for which their prejudices make them unfit.