Every day brings news of fresh apologies. Ashley Cole has just said sorry about something he tweeted, Lewis Hamilton has apologised to Jensen Button. Meanwhile, the Director-General of the BBC is preparing to apologise for the many and various sins of former family favourite Jimmy Savile.
Celebrity contrition has become an increasingly important part of public life. Researching for my song “The Sorry News” (above), which celebrates the art of public apology with the help of some famous backing vocalists, I began to appreciate the many shades of sorry.
1. The full grovel. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Richard Nixon who pioneered this increasingly popular model of apology. One moment, in the famous interviews with David Frost, he was his usual defiant self, the next that oddly noble face crumpled. “I let the Americans down,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
2. The micro-apology. Almost my favourite apology on “The Sorry News” video features – very briefly – the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter. Little eyes darting irritably, lips hardly moving, he mutters “I am sorry” so quickly that he might have been releasing a burp.
3. The waffle. This newly fashionable form of apology involves embedding the message so deeply in mumbled subordinate clauses that it is almost, but not quite, lost. The best current practitioner of the sorry waffle is Boris Johnson.
4. The sincere, it’s-a-fair-cop apology. You, or your organisation, have been caught doing a bad thing. You are now in front of a public inquiry, or parliament, or a select committee. The only sensible approach, as exemplified by Jacqui Smith, Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch, is a brisk, well-rehearsed expression of general regret with only moderate sorrow in the voice.
5. The ho-ho sorry. Only the true masters of public life can deliver this type of apology and it should not, under any circumstances, be tried at home. Essentially, it turns a confession into part of a comic routine, so that the apologiser – Jonathan Ross, for instance, or Russell Brand – somehow emerges even more lovably vulnerable than he was before.
6. Full hysteria. Here is an apology which tends to work best for Americans. Jimmy Swaggart, the dodgy preacher, pulls it off brilliantly (“I have sinned against You, my Lord!”) while OJ Simpson also goes for tears, broken voice and wheedling tone, but with less effect.
7. The don’t-give-a-stuff state apology. Deployed by David Cameron (Bloody Sunday) and in Australia by Kevin Rudd (treatment of the Aborigines), this model of apology is a straightforward manoeuvre, with minimal sincerity, with the aim of heading off public complaint as effortlessly as possible.
8. Extra-strength sincerity. Watch Bill Clinton at work, or even Rupert Murdoch. What these masters of PR manage to do is not only to appear sincere but to remind us of their sincerity. Murdoch, apparently wracked with remorse, manages to blurt out, “This the humblest day of my life”, while Clinton, gazing pleadingly into the eye of the camera, tells the world, “My sorrow is genuine.”
9. The publicly personal. The most potent form of contrition is that which seems to be directed at someone close to the apologiser: Tiger Woods addressing his wife through the world’s media; Monica Lewinsky expressing her regret to Hillary Clinton on a chat show.
10. The off-camera apology. The canniest operators in public life – take a bow, Jeremy Clarkson – ensure that, however many times they have to say sorry, it is always in the relatively harmless form of print. Paper fades, but the image of the tearful eye, the croakily emotional voice, lives on.
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