Not so much an apology, more a tabloid PR stunt stunt

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The Independent Online
LOVE, according to the bestselling novelist Erich Segal, means never having to say you're sorry. Politicians frequently give the impression that they've adapted this dictum for their own use, substituting the word "power" for love. John Major's government, to its everlasting discredit, never apologised for anything. Tony Blair hasn't done much better, going on television during the Formula One affair in November to apologise, not for his policy on tobacco advertising, but for its presentation.

It was hardly a good start, but I don't think any of us guessed what Mr Blair's spin-doctors had up their sleeves. That was revealed only last week, when Japan's Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, acting on advice from Mr Blair's aides, finally said sorry for his country's war record. Mr Hashimoto offered his apology, not through the usual diplomatic channels, but in an article in the Sun.

New Labour has ushered in, in other words, the age of the privatised apology. There are precedents for this development, in those confessional articles in Hello! magazine in which movie stars publicly admit to alcoholism or sex addiction, but Mr Hashimoto's venture into British tabloid journalism is a first for a world leader. And it inevitably raises questions, including the obvious one of to whom the apology is addressed.

The British survivors of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps have waited for many years, with quiet dignity, for an acknowledgement of their suffering. Is Mr Hashimoto's article intended only for former PoWs who read the Sun? Why should survivors have to buy a copy to receive a belated apology for the atrocities committed against them? And isn't Mr Blair, as the country's elected leader, a more appropriate conduit for such a weighty communication than a newspaper whose chief preoccupations are lottery numbers and women with large breasts?

On Friday, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Blair's chief press secretary, Alastair Campbell, admitted his part in the placing of the article and revealed that he advised the Japanese "about the Sun, its style, and the way such an article might be expressed". Mr Campbell is a former tabloid journalist and knows the argot of his previous profession well. Even so, the mind boggles at the prospect of his trying to explain to Mr Hashimoto that phrases such as "Hey, guys, sorry about the torture!" might go down a treat.

But the most startling admission in the letter is that "the idea for the article came from the Sun's political editor in a discussion with me about Japan's desire to improve its United Kingdom media relations". There could hardly be a clearer acknowledgement that the "apology" - I think the quotation marks are justified - is merely an attempt to improve Japan's image, with the forthcoming state visit by Emperor Akihito (in May) very much in mind.

Not so much an apology, more a PR stunt. And so very New Labour in its language - Tony Blair is "a new star on the world stage", gushes Mr Hashimoto - and its presentation. Never mind the policy, so sorry about its effect on public opinion.

MR HASHIMOTO is, according to reports last week, an Anglophile who admires the "John Bull spirit". His Sun article mentions his love of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and his boyhood admiration for Darwin and Livingstone. He is also a former Boy Scout, which gave rise to a bizarre detail in Mr Campbell's letter: the information that Tony Blair's flight from Tokyo was kept waiting for 20 minutes because "we were waiting for [Mr Hashimoto's] thoughts on Lord Baden-Powell".

For obvious reasons, I was never a Boy Scout, and I managed to get thrown out of the Brownies at the age of nine. But I have long taken an interest in Lord Baden-Powell's writings and I own a copy of that seminal work Girl Guiding: The Official Handbook, first published in 1918. I recommend it to Mr Hashimoto and anyone else who retains a nostalgic fondness for the kind of Englishness Lord Baden-Powell continues to represent, surprisingly, in the minds of many foreigners.

"Then there are our friends the Japanese," Baden-Powell observes in a section entitled "Health Rules". "They are very small but very brave and strong. Like the Ghoorkas[sic] they make splendid soldiers." So far, so good, but here comes a passage which might make Mr Hashimoto and other Japanese readers cringe: "The Japs are very careful as to what they eat, and they keep themselves very clean with lots of washing and they go through exercises for their body every day which make them tremendously strong. And they keep themselves smiling and good-tempered, which also helps to keep them healthy."

There is no avoiding the fact, though, that the Japanese are - well, people of restricted growth, to use a contemporary phrase. "I am sure," writes Baden-Powell, "that every Brownie would like to make herself strong and healthy. But she can also do more than the Jap or the Ghoorka can do, for she can help herself not only to become strong but to grow big if she tries." I'm not sure whether the accompanying illustration, a sketch of a slanty-eyed chap in shorts with a rifle over his shoulder, is meant to show a Japanese soldier or a "Ghoorka". But, as Baden-Powell's caption assures us: "They are splendid fellows."

WHAT is it about New Labour and airports? A few days before Mr Blair and his entourage were delayed at Tokyo, breathlessly waiting for Mr Hashimoto's views on first-aid badges and woodcraft, his Foreign Secretary chose Edinburgh airport as the venue to announce his engagement to Gaynor Regan. Following so quickly on the revelation that he had told his wife Margaret at Heathrowthat he was leaving her, I can't help wondering whether Mr Cook isn't taking those "Something to Declare" signs rather literally. He now finds himself in the bothersome position of having both a wife and a fiancee, which suggests an over-enthusiastic commitment to the institution of marriage. It also has to be said that, of the two women involved, the present Mrs Cook appears much the happier. I wouldn't be surprised, after seeing pictures of a glum-looking Mrs Regan splashed across the front pages, if she were to develop a sudden and incurable fear of flying. As far as travelling with Mr Cook is concerned, that is.