Apologies

“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.

 

Ken Livingstone

Labour’s shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was critical  today of Ken Livingstone’s appointment as a co-chair of Labour’s defence review. Mr Livingstone responded by saying 

 

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.

 

Update

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.

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Apologies

  1. Livingstone has issued another apology, in tweet form:

    “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”

    You know, the sincerity of this apology is not 100% either, is it? I mean, what he’s saying here is arguably “I apologise without reservation, but here’s an explanation that does not include any actual admission that my opinion was wrong, only that I was wrong to express it and the boss asked me not to say things like this”.

    And let’s look at his claim to defence experience:

    “Livingstone says Jones was rude about him, because he said he did not know anything about defence.

    But in fact he does, he says. He says he has been interested in defence issues since he campaigned against the Vietnam war.

    And, when he was leader of the Greater London Council, he was responsible for civil defence, he says.

    Pretty obvious sitting around in the weed-smoke of a Grosvenor Square demo does not give you any real experience of defence, but it’s his claim that the GLC’s civil defence role gave hime experience of defence matters is the most dubious. You see, Livingstone’s GLC actual cancelled the GLC civil defence plan and cancelled their civil defence drills, refusing to take part in the “Hard Rock” nuclear attack drill. Whatever you may think about the rightness or wrongness of these decisions, effectively doing nothing about civil defence is not likely to give you any actual experience of it.

  2. Not to justify Livingstone, but Jones did question his fitness for purpose. Admittedly Livingstone’s riposte was very childish, but one can sympathise. Every slow, respectful and considered step towards helping the PLP accept and implement the party’s wishes is continually obstructed by resentful PLP members.
    Two wrongs don’t make a right and it is all very childish, but I am not aware of Jones apologising.
    That should be the end of the matter, but I have one nagging concern for Ken. If he was lying, when earlier this morning, he said he did not know of Kevan’s previous illness, then it will be hard to defend him. As it stands they should both apologise or be sent to their rooms.

    • “Two wrongs don’t make a right and it is all very childish, but I am not aware of Jones apologising.”

      What exactly does Jones have to apologise for? Is it not quite appropriate to question what experience or qualifications Livingstone actually has for the position he’s been placed in? Especially given Livingstone’s very weak response to those questions – essentially that his experience of defence comes from having taken part in antiwar demonstrations and led a council that cancelled all civil defence activities?

      ” one can sympathise. Every slow, respectful and considered step towards helping the PLP accept and implement the party’s wishes is continually obstructed by resentful PLP members.”

      The irony of Corbyn supporters tut-tutting about dissent in the ranks of the Labour party hardly needs pointing out.

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