Twice in recent weeks a high-profile TV interview has prompted headlines because of the interviewees’ refusal to say sorry.
First it was Prince Andrew whose ill-judged Newsnight interview provoked a storm of hilarity but also real outrage because he steadfastly refused to acknowledge the suffering of his pal Jeffrey Epstein’s victims.
Last night it was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s turn to decline Andrew Neil’s invitation to say sorry to the UK Jewish community, because of allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party.
Sorry is only a small word, but it is remarkably powerful and its presence or absence from the mouth of an interviewee in difficult circumstances can change the nature of subsequent media coverage.
There is no doubt that both Prince Andrew and Jeremy Corbyn prepared for these interviews. Only a fool would agree to an in-depth TV interview with either Emily Maitlis or Andrew Neil without having spent a bit of time thinking what they may be asked and how they might respond.
While the charges against both men were very different, they were both extremely serious and it was obvious that careless (both nonchalant or lacking in thought) answers would inevitably lead to criticism. In these high-stakes circumstances, it is not simply the words you do or don’t say that matter, but also the tone you adopt.
Prince Andrew clearly decided that it would be ‘honourable’ and ‘show leadership’ to front up and give full answers to all the questions. Nothing, no matter how awkward, would be out of bounds. But he ended up coming across as entirely unrepentant and solely focused on saving his own reputation. Despite being given numerous opportunities with questions like: “Is there anything else you would like to say?” he resolutely failed to say sorry to the women who were sexually abused.
His lack of compassion was compounded by his expression of regret for having gone to visit Epstein in New York after his release from prison. He was sorry for himself and sorry for getting caught out. In that context his other answers, explanations and excuses about Pizza Express in Woking and the mystery ‘no sweat’ condition just made him seem absurd.
Jeremy Corbyn (veteran leftie) quizzed by Andrew Neil (ex-Murdoch editor and Tory supporter) was always going to be incendiary. The match was provided by Britain’s most senior rabbi writing to The Times to accuse Labour of antisemitism.
Corbyn sought to adopt a calm and measured approach. But he was clearly riled by the intensity of the questions and at times struggled to keep his temper. His attempts to keep cool misfired and he appeared to dismiss the serious charges as vexatious or nothing new. Asked several times if he would say sorry, he steadfastly refused to do so. Presumably this was so as not to appear weak or on the back foot, but as with Prince Andrew, he was left looking at best unsympathetic and at worst guilty.
The clear lesson to be learned here for anyone unfortunate enough to be facing tough questions, no matter what the context, is that expressing sympathy for victims is always advisable.
If someone feels aggrieved (regardless whether you think their grievance is legitimate) expressing sorrow for their suffering is OK. It is NOT an admission of guilt to do so and ‘sorry’ immediately changes the tone of the interview.
It will be interesting to see Boris Johnson in the Andrew Neil hot seat and how he deals with the list of tough questions he will doubtless face.
Neil can choose from a long list of aggrieved parties who Johnson has insulted or let down including Muslim women, the city of Liverpool and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to name but a few.
Will Boris Johnson deploy the S word – or will he seek to dodge the question with his tried and tested Cicero meets The Beano rhetoric?
Adam Batstone is a journalist who has worked for newspapers, radio, TV and the BBC News website. He spent three years working in corporate communications before setting up his own consultancy offering media training to a wide variety of clients www.adambatstone.co.uk