“If he’s upset I apologise… But he can’t blame me.”
Ken Livingstone, 18/11/2015, World at One
If you wrong someone else you should apologise. We learn this as children. If you are a public figure who insults a class of people, although you cannot apologise to anyone in particular, you should take steps to express public regret and withdraw your words.
In law, when a person commits a wrong, it is very rare for courts to order an apology. The only partial exception to this I know of is the rule that an offer to make amends may be a defence to the wrong of defamation. Defamation is somewhat unusual however as a public retraction and apology can partially undo the injury that has been suffered, which is not the case for most wrongs.
The reason why the law does not track morality is obvious. An apology that you make because you have been compelled to do so merely has the outward form of an apology. It is a core part of what it is to apologise to be sincere. A court ordered apology would lack a component part of what it means to apologise. That does not mean that they would be pointless. They are equivalent to placing the wrongdoer in the stocks for ritual humiliation. That may give the victim some emotional satisfaction, but they are not the real thing.
I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.
Mr Jones has suffered from depression, something he has given widely publicised speeches in the Commons about. Initially Mr Livingstone refused to apologise, but the leader of his party then stated that he must do so. Mr Livingstone then gave the apology that appears at the top of this post.
When is an apology not an apology?
Livingstone’s words fall short of being an apology in three ways.
First he expresses regret for any adverse consequence (“if he is upset”) but not his own action (“he can’t blame me”). This is a denial of responsibility, not an acceptance of it. Any of us may express regret for a bad thing (“World War One was most regrettable”), but it is essential to an apology that you accept responsibility for what you did.
Second the gist of what he did wrong was nothing to do with whether or not Mr Jones was upset (I suspect he wasn’t). For a public figure like Mr Livingstone to make disparaging remarks about mental illness is a public wrong, not a wrong to Jones. His duty to apologise is nothing to do with any upset caused to anyone.
Third, just as with a court ordered apology, an insincere apology may be worse than none at all, and indeed compound the wrong. Mr Livingstone might have avoided the impression that he didn’t mean it by giving a fulsome retraction quickly. By “apologising” only after being told to do so, and in terms that are at best ambiguous, he insulted all of us.
Mr Livingstone’s words on ITV were even further way from an apology than on the BBC.
His twitter feed has now carried this apology which seems better
I unreservedly apologise to Kevan Jones for my comments. They should not have been made at all, let alone in this context.I also make this apology because Jeremy is right to insist on a more civil politics and as a party we should take this seriously
This again mistakes who has been wronged, and indicates that the motive for the apology is not sincere regret but the insistence of Jeremy Corbyn on people being polite to one another.
In the evening Mr Livingstone was first interviewed on channel 4 with Mr Jones and then on his own on Newsnight. Both interviews are watchable in a gruesome kind of way, but also give the flavour of the sincerity of the twitter apology under Mr Livingstone’s name.