Politics, KFC and the new ‘culture of apology’

Poultry excuse: KFC blamed its chicken shortage on DHL, the delivery firm it works with.

What do apologies mean in today’s world? Damian Green, Oxfam’s boss, Fergie, KFC and Blenheim Palace have all recently said sorry. That word is becoming more common — and more controversial…

When Kate Maltby accused Damian Green, then Theresa May’s deputy, of sexual misconduct, she was expecting an apology — not a resignation. Instead, the writer got the latter, but not exactly the former.

Green resigned in December. Yesterday, he told the BBC’s Today programme, “If [Maltby] felt uncomfortable, I’m sorry.” However, he added that he did not believe he “did anything inappropriate”, pointing out that he resigned for other reasons. In a tweet, Maltby implied that she was not satisfied by this.

Green’s comments will sound familiar to anyone who follows current affairs. Public figures have mastered the art of appearing sorry while dodging blame. Roundabout phrases like “I deeply regret” and “mistakes were made” are typical; “ifs” and “buts” are frequent. Everyone from Ronald Reagan to Justin Timberlake has used them.

With the spread of social media, awkward apologies have become even more common. People’s behaviour is scrutinised more closely than ever, and each mistake is met with calls for contrition. The so-called culture of outrage has given rise to a culture of apology.

In the past 24 hours, the following have said sorry: Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy, for swearing during a football match; pop star Fergie, for her poor rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner; Blenheim Palace, for hosting a bad Chinese New Year party; KFC, for running out of chicken.

Another example is Mark Goldring, the boss of Oxfam GB. As his charity was engulfed in sex scandals, Goldring apologised. He also qualified those apologies — in one interview, he defensively said that at least Oxfam was not “murdering babies in their cots”. Yesterday, he apologised for that remark.

Apologies are a crucial way to show remorse and restore trust. That said, some believe that the pressure on public figures is too high. Among them is writer and actor Tina Fey, whose comedy has been accused of political incorrectness. “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies,” said Fey, “and I’m opting out of that.”

Is she right?

The hardest word

’Fraid so, say some. Apologies are sometimes necessary, but nowadays they are often issued even when they are not. Clearly, all this contrition does not satisfy us, as we keep asking for more. That is because the word “sorry” loses all power when people are forced into saying it without meaning it. Time to calm down, to live and let live.

Sorry, reply others, but that’s nonsense. Would you rather go back to the bad old days, when people easily got away with their crimes and misdemeanours? Instead of asking for fewer apologies, we need to pile even more pressure on those who give insincere ones. Genuine remorse is very important in society. Let’s make sure we get it.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to say sorry when you don’t mean it?
  2. Has the “culture of apology” gone too far?


  1. Over the next week, keep an “apology diary”, noting down every time you say sorry. How many of those were justified? Does the exercise change your approach to apologising?
  2. Research Green’s and Maltby’s interactions, then watch Green’s interview on the Today programme in Become An Expert. In pairs, write the answers you think he should have given (you may choose to leave them as they are). Then explain your reasoning to the class.

Some People Say...

“Never apologise — it’s a sign of weakness.”

John Wayne, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Maltby says that Green touched her leg and sent her a “suggestive” text. Green denies the first incident; he describes the second as a “joke”. Soon after Maltby’s claims became public in autumn, retired policeman Bob Quick said that he had found pornography on Green’s parliamentary computer in 2008. In the investigation that followed, Green made “misleading statements”, for which he was sacked from the Cabinet.
What do we not know?
Green’s, Maltby’s and Quick’s accounts of these various incidents differ. However, a government investigation found Maltby’s claims to be “plausible”. Meanwhile, Green denies that he viewed or downloaded porn on his parliamentary computer, but admits that police told him in 2008 that they had found some on it — which he initially denied.

Word Watch

Kate Maltby
The journalist and academic has also worked as a Conservative activist.
Other reasons
See Q&A.
Ronald Reagan
Indeed, the expression “mistakes were made” has been used by several US presidents, including Reagan, Ulysses S. Grant, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Justin Timberlake
After JT exposed Janet Jackson’s breast during a performance at the 2004 Super Bowl, his agent said, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.”
Culture of outrage
A relatively new term that describes some people’s tendency to express outrage about social injustice and politically incorrect behaviour. It is used pejoratively, by people who do not believe the outrage is justified.
Blenheim Palace
A very grand 18th-century country house in Oxfordshire.
Sex scandal
Two weeks ago, The Times reported that Oxfam workers paid for sex — and may have sexually exploited children — in Haiti, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. The paper accused the charity of covering this up. More reports of this kind have since emerged.

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