Monday, 18 July 2011

Say it like you mean it

“I’m sorry I cheated on you – it meant nothing and I thought of you the whole time. It’s just a phase I’m going through. Can we give it another go? I promise it won’t happen again.” Whatever. Just watch out for the flying Denby.

Elton John is a fucking liar. Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word. It’s actually one of the easiest. It takes less effort than a Hail Mary, and is just as meaningless. I should know. I’m one of those people that apologises for everything. Timothy Lumsden without the overbearing mother. It’s become instinctive, like a reflex. I apologise when other people get in my way and I need to squeeze past. And if I have to interrupt a shop assistant who’s busy gossiping with a colleague, I’m the one saying sorry for cutting short the story about Donna’s tilted uterus.

So when the time comes to apologise for some actual wrongdoing, the word ‘sorry’ takes on a decidedly hollow ring. Every time we take stock of our actions, we come to a metaphorical fork in the road. The short cut involves saying ‘sorry’ and moving on. The longer, tougher route, means actually understanding what you’re apologising for, and genuinely feeling contrition for your actions.

As a child, my parents never let me get away with a simple apology. Anyone can shuffle into a room, keeping their eyes fixed on the floor, and mumble a half-hearted “Sorry”. In the few instances where an apology was called for, I had to admit my culpability in whatever misdeed had occurred, so it was clear that I knew why I was apologising in the first place.

So how should we feel about the fact that Rupert Murdoch pulled his best sadface and took out a full-page ad in every national paper over the weekend? Are we supposed to back off, douse our flaming torches, and throw the hunting dogs a pack of Schmackos? Well, I guess that depends on whether we think he means what he said. In case you missed the ad, here’s the full text:

"We are sorry. The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected. We regret not acting faster to sort things out. I realise that simply apologising is not enough. Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this. In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us."

I don’t know about you, but hearing Rupert Murdoch say “you’ll hear more from us” is about as welcome a prospect as “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.” If you can stand to, read it again. Notice there's no real admission of responsibility. Or culpability, for that matter. Without any personal pronouns, all that bad behaviour becomes the activity of some intangible third party. A bad seed with little or no connection to Murdoch or his vast empire. It’s like a prison warden apologising for the fact that he runs a building full of rapists and murderers.

In this triumph of PR spin over genuine remorse, it’s not "our wrongdoing", merely "wrongdoing that occurred". Likewise, he says "we are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered" rather than "We are deeply sorry for the hurt we caused..." Small changes, big difference. It's clear from Murdoch's mealy-mouthed mea culpa that he doesn't know, or care, why everyone is so upset. He might profess concern for "the individuals affected", but the sentiment is undermined by his declaration that Rebekah Brooks was his first priority.

Then again, should we be surprised that he struggles to show basic human emotions, like empathy and compassion? Pretty much the only time I’ve ever witnessed cross-party consensus on BBC’s Question Time, was in the various panellists’ viewpoint of Murdoch himself. Without actually invoking the name of Beelzebub, they made it clear that this was a case of better the Devil you know. Even those willing to support the floundering News Corp readily admit that Murdoch could give Emperor Palpatine the willies. And the Star Wars parallels don’t stop there either. Spineless politicians of every persuasion have brazenly admitted that, sure, he’s a force for evil, but they’re powerless to stop him. Which just reminds me of Luke’s briefing from Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, when the naïve farmboy claimed: “Look, I can't get involved. I've got work to do. It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now...”

At some point, the furore over the phone hacking will die down, and things will return to normal. The sacrificial lambs will do their time, and then settle into a well-paid early retirement. No harm, no foul. As for News Corp, they’ll be too busy focusing on demonstrating how “a free and open press [can] be a positive force in society.” Need an example of how that’s going to work? Try Fox News, Murdoch’s ‘fair and balanced’ cable news channel. Right wing commentators are keen for Fox News to come to the UK in order to break through the ‘leftist propaganda’ churning out of the BBC.

So it’s interesting to note how Fox News has been ‘informing’ its viewers about the hacking story. In a segment called Fox and Friends, which is like listening to group therapy for psychopaths, the whole issue was carefully twisted by the host and his guest Bob Dilenschneider, to conflate the News of the World with other victims of hacking. At one point, after lamenting the broader threat of hacking, the PR consultant states: “Citicorp, great bank, Bank of America, great bank. Are they getting the kind of attention for hacking that took place less than a year ago?” 

Recently, John Cook at Gawker wrote a deeply disturbing article about the heritage of Fox News, revealing that plans for such a channel were initially drawn up by its CEO, Roger Ailes, back in 1970. Ailes, and a number of other Nixon aides, were tasked with getting around the problematic truth-telling of network news, in order to “deliver pro-administration stories” to viewers in the American heartland. As the initial memo stated: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.”

I think I’ll stick with the BBC, if it’s all the same. And if anyone wants to condemn the best broadcaster in the world as being a hive of "left-wing group-think", I’ll simply point them in the direction of Stephen Colbert, who once said “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” As for Murdoch, he can stick his apology where The Sun don’t shine.

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