When sorry seems to be the hardest word

When sorry seems to be the hardest word

Peter Ungphakorn



Compare and contrast. First: “Today as First Minister I categorically, unequivocally and wholeheartedly apologise.” Then: “I am sorry if any words of mine have been so taken out of context and so misconstrued as to cause any kind of anxiety.”

Yes, two leading politicians were apologising in their parliaments, and both on the same day earlier this month — November 7. But the apologies were not the same, and their impact was very different.

The first came from the head of the Scottish government, Nicola Sturgeon, and was about what is now seen as a serious injustice to gays under a Scottish law that has now been abolished. The second was by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in the UK parliament, about a false statement he made a few days earlier to a parliamentary committee.

Sturgeon’s went down well. Johnson’s did not. More about both shortly.


What have I got to do?


Political apologies are not as rare as they used to be, but they are still difficult to make. Sometimes they’re not needed at all.

Help could be at hand. Perhaps. Apparently someone has invented a Facebook app called “sorry”, to let people send apologies to one another. Using this “app-ology innovation” the aggrieved person can accept or reject the apology. If we have the app and the apologiser is famous, we can all choose whether to accept or reject it.

If only the app had existed before. It took Australian politicians 70 years to say the simple word. Eventually on February 13, 2008, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister at the time, declared in parliament:


“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

“We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.”


YouTube video


The campaign dates back at least to 1938 when Australian Aboriginals held the first “Day of Mourning”. The “National Sorry Day”, an unofficial popular event, joined in from 1998.

In 1999 the Canberra parliament voted down a proper apology, preferring to express “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices.”

Finally, Rudd apologised in 2008. Five months later, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said sorry to indigenous Canadians, for the mistreatment of children under a forced residential school system. Since the system was run by Catholics, earlier this year the present premier, Justin Trudeau asked the Pope to apologise as well.

On the other side of the Pacific, just over a year ago, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan also apologised for 400 years of ill-treatment of indigenous people.

Britain, meanwhile, has been under pressure to apologise for slavery and the slave trade during its colonial years. It has expressed “deep sorrow” but has not apologised. According to this explanation, the UK fears doing so would make it liable for financial reparations.

Does apology work? Yes and no. In the jargon of logic, it’s a necessary but insufficient condition. Admission of guilt does pave the way for reform and healing. Follow-up work is needed if reform is to be effective, as these comments on Australia (pdf) (and these) and these on Canada show.


It was the state that committed the wrong: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (standing) apologises


A sad, sad situation


In a sense, a political leader apologising for the actions of previous generations is easy, although in Australia it still took 70 years. It’s the office, not the person, who’s taking the blame as well as expressing sadness.

That’s how Nicola Sturgeon was apologising in the Scottish Parliament on November 7. Her statement brought relief to many gays who had been convicted of what had been a criminal offence until 37 years ago, and for younger gays until only 16 years ago.

She was admitting that it was the state that committed the wrong to those who were convicted.

Scotland’s legal system is separate from England and Wales. Homosexual activity between consenting male adults stayed a criminal offence in Scotland until 1980, 13 years after it became legal in England and Wales in 1967.

And it was not until 2001, two years after the Scottish Parliament was created, that the age of consent was reduced from 21 to 16, the same as for heterosexuals.

Sturgeon said:


“The simple fact is that parliamentarians over many decades supported or at the very least accepted laws that we now recognise to have been completely unjust.

“So today as First Minister I categorically, unequivocally and wholeheartedly apologise for those laws and for the hurt and the harm that they caused to so many.

“Nothing that this parliament does can erase those injustices but I do hope that this apology, alongside our new legislation, can provide some comfort to those who endured injustices.”

(The video is here)


Changing people’s lives: moved to tears, a couple in the balcony listens to Sturgeon’s apology


With the apology came a new pardon law with “both symbolic value and practical value”. Symbolically it states that the law should not have made gays criminals. “This Parliament recognises that a wrong was done to you.”

In practice it will actually “change people’s lives”. People “who were convicted merely of showing love and affection to their partners still have to explain their criminal record every time they move job or apply for an internal promotion. That is quite simply unacceptable, and we are determined that it will end,” Sturgeon said.

“But what next?” asked the Herald, the Glasgow newspaper (incidentally one of the oldest in the world). “Ms Sturgeon said the journey is not yet complete and she is right. Homophobia is still a problem in society and the evidence from some teachers is that the Government’s guidance is not having the impact it should on homophobic bullying in schools.

“An apology for the mistakes of the past is most welcome, but more action to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated in future would be even better.”


Non-apology: the Foreign Secretary speaking in the House of Commons, November 7, 2017


More and more absurd


Meanwhile, perhaps the new app will help avoid the non-apologies, like the “regret” expressed by the Australian government in 1999 or Britain’s “deep sorrow” about slavery. Perhaps it won’t.

Even tougher are the cases when people apologise for something they have done themselves. They are admitting personal guilt, and that produces some pretty strange statements.

Accused of decades of rape and sexual harassment, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sent the New York Times a “sincere” apology, which USA Today called the “worst apology letter ever” — it committed the sin of misquoting rapper Jay-Z, on top of listing a number of lame excuses.

Weinstein’s statements since then suggest he might not be as remorseful as he wanted to convey. Perhaps he should try the app.

So, perhaps should actor Kevin Spacey. He also offered “the sincerest apology” when first accused of making sexual advances to a 14-year-old boy (although he said he didn’t remember the incident).

But he was heavily criticised for turning the apology into a confession about being attracted to men as well as women. Ben Tinker on CNN compared him unfavourably with comedian Louis CK; his apology might have been better but what he did is still unforgivable to most people.

What about politicians? “As a group, they seem to find it remarkably challenging to say the S-word, even when they’ve done something disgraceful,” wrote Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian (well worth the read, by the way).

Her helpful suggestion was to scrap “Question Time”, the sessions when MPs ask questions and the premier or ministers have to answer. Instead, have “Apology Time”, when “everyone [goes] around the chamber saying sorry for all the awful things they had done recently. People at home could vote on whether they accepted the apology, and if they didn’t, the MP would have to resign on the spot.”


The fateful words: Johnson at the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, November 1, 2017


Which brings us back to November 7 — the day of the Scottish apology — and Boris Johnson in the UK parliament. Some find him amusing; others say his he is no joke.

The previous week, on November 1, the British foreign secretary told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the lower house (the Commons) that he had raised imprisoned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case many times with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zariff. Then came this astounding statement:


“When we look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit. I hope that a way forward can be found. I must say, I find it deeply depressing; I think it is totally contrary to the interests of the Iranian people for this to continue.

“[…] Neither Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe nor her family has been informed of what crime she is supposed to have committed. That I find extraordinary and incredible.”

(Questions 73 and 76 or watch the video)


Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is British-Iranian. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, is British. Their daughter is now three years old.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charity, but not as a trainer, and not with Iranian journalists. She was a project manager handling the logistics of events but not in Iran or with Iranian journalists, and never training journalists herself, the foundation says (pdf).

Last year she took her daughter to Iran to visit her parents, the girl’s grandparents. As she was about to leave Teheran that April she was arrested, charged with plotting to overthrow the Iranian government and imprisoned for five years.

Her husband is not allowed into Iran and their daughter is being looked after by the grandparents. The family, her employer and her supporters insist she was only on holiday.

What Johnson said on November 1 was a disaster. The authorities in Iran declared it was proof that she was training journalists and Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken back to court and threatened with a longer sentence.

The uproar in the UK forced Johnson to call the Iranian foreign minister and explain that he had not meant that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalism in Iran, simply that she was only on holiday there, and that in any case the British government did not consider training journalists to be a crime.

According to the British Foreign Office, the Iranian minister replied that Johnson’s words in the committee was unconnected to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence. But his critics remained unconvinced since the Iranian judiciary and media claimed Johnson had inadvertently admitted her guilt.

Instead of doing his duty to help a British citizen in trouble, the foreign secretary had simply made her situation worse by being untruthful, critics said.


‘Sorry if …’: Johnson’s *sorry” did not go down well


On November 7, Johnson clarified the situation and faced an onslaught in the House of Commons (see text or video). Even members of his own party were reluctant to support him.

Trying to correct his words of the previous week, he announced:

“The UK Government have no doubt that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday in Iran when she was arrested last year, and that was the sole purpose of her visit.” (See text or video)

Eventually, this was dragged out of him:

“Of course I am sorry if any words of mine have been so taken out of context and so misconstrued as to cause any kind of anxiety for the family.” (See text or video)


Read it carefully. Johnson was not apologising for what he had said at all, only for the fact that some people had “so” misunderstood him. “Out of context” is his routine defence when accused of not telling the truth.

Finally on November 13, almost two weeks after his mistake, Johnson did apologise properly. Opposition shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry pressed him to apologise and admit he was wrong. He said:

“I am more than happy to say again what I said to the right hon. Lady last week: yes, of course, I apologise for the distress and the suffering that have been caused by the impression that I gave that the Government believed—that I believed—that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran in a professional capacity. She was there on holiday, and that is the view of

[MPs interrupt by shouting: ‘Say sorry!’]

“I do apologise, and of course I retract any suggestion that she was there in a professional capacity. Opposition Members must have heard that from me about a dozen times.” (See text and video)

(The full debate is here in text and video)


Whether or not anyone had heard it once, let alone “a dozen times”, by then there had been numerous calls for his resignation, or for Prime Minister Theresa May to fire him. Neither happened.


Why can’t we talk it over?


Unlike with the mistreatment of indigenous people in Australia, Canada and Taiwan, or slaves in the Caribbean, those who had committed atrocities in South Africa and their victims were still around.Sometimes apologising can be avoided through carefully mediated talking, although admitting the truth is still required. The best known case was in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.

Three features seem to have been the key to this truth and reconciliation process: victims could tell their stories, those who had committed atrocities had to disclose fully what they had done, and “victor’s justice” was avoided by examining atrocities committed by all sides.

The result was a relatively smooth transition away from apartheid. True, exactly how effective it was is debated; nonetheless it did bring to light a number of atrocities without creating new conflict. (The political decline since then is another story.)



What about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case? How much talking has there been? Johnson hadn’t even met her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, when he made those statements in parliament, despite the considerable public interest. The two have now met.

Clearly upset by his wife’s worsening situation, Ratcliffe has nevertheless stayed calm and tried to deflect the heat into the search for a constructive and effective way of getting her released.

Johnson was already due to visit Iran before the end of the year. Ratcliffe urged the foreign secretary to visit Zaghari-Ratcliffe and to give her diplomatic protection. He has also asked to travel with Johnson. How that turns out remains to be seen.

Ironically, if Johnson is forced out of office before the trip, the campaign for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release could be delayed.

Johnson is prone to making gaffes (try Googling “Boris Johnson apology”, or just read about his “thesaurus” of insults). So another big question is: why is he still in May’s Cabinet?

Most analysts say it’s because she cannot afford to upset the balance in her Cabinet between those who wanted to leave the EU, and those who wanted to stay but are now advocating a gentler departure (a “soft” Brexit). She had also recently lost two ministers for sexual harassment and political misbehaviour, and her deputy is under investigation.

As a leader of a hardline pro-Brexit faction, he probably hasn’t even had to apologise to his prime minister, whether by app or in person.


P.S. I’m unequivocally and wholeheartedly sorry this article is so long. Here’s compensation for those who have read it right to the end:


YouTube video


Image and photo credits: Nicola Sturgeon and audience — Scottish Parliament; Boris Johnson — UK Parliament; Nelson Mandela — South Africa The Good News CC BY 2.0.


Peter Ungphakorn is based on the shores of Lake Léman in Switzerland. He spent almost two decades with the WTO Secretariat, Geneva. Before that he worked for The Nation and the Bangkok Post. He now writes for IEG Policy on agricultural trade issues and blogs on trade, Brexit and other issues at https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/



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