The buck does not stop here

No one likes a blame culture. Especially when you’re the one taking the blame.

While News International flip-flops its way through the phone hacking palaver – offering various explanations of exactly what it was doing, who did it, and whether the evidence has been successfully deleted – one of the few things that most people agreed was adroit was Rupert’s personal apology (see right). We remember it because it has the word sorry at the top. You can argue that he is only sorry that they got caught, but you can’t dismiss the power of the apology.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask your advertising agency to write “sorry” on a piece of paper, it’s quite another to say it out loud. That’s why James Murdoch used a beautiful weasel phrase to describe the closure of the News of the World and any illegal phone hacking. Having got his sorrys out of the way at 3:30, phone hacking and its consequences quickly became a matter of great regret, so that he can get into the technical stuff instead:

Elsewhere in the scandal, Yates of the Yard went further. His impersonal regret was extreme:

Antitalknormalists use the Matter of Regret (MoR) when they are nominally in charge and bad things happen. They want to look concerned, just like ordinary people, while subtly emphasising their lack of individual responsibility. They want to stay on the outside, sadly shaking their regretful heads and tutting ritualistically, going along with the crowd.  This is especially the case when the crowd wants that head on a plate.

Transforming your apology or blame into a generic MoR means you keep a career-maintaining distance from the problem. It skips over who’s to blame and why it happened.

In the UK the MoR is also such a dull phrase as to be handily unreportable in most cases, because it provides no insight beyond the obvious: it’s like saying that something made you unhappy because it is sad. It has been quoted in stories in the UK papers more than 10 times in a month only twice – probably because if that’s the best quote in a story, it’s probably not much of a story. It was most popular in September 2010, when it was a matter of regret for the boss of Waterstones that demonstrators stopped Tony Blair doing a business-boosting book signing tour in his shops. That’s until July 2011 when, as we have seen, many of the people involved in phone hacking news stories were fond of using the phrase. Go figure.

MoRs imply a devolved responsibility that everyone can share but no one takes, and so they transform apology into a generic blanket of mild sadness. MoRs sit in the News International tactical toolbox alongside matters of profit and matters of political influence, ready to be used when they really want to say “don’t blame us”.

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1 Response to “The buck does not stop here”


  1. 1 Brett Hetherington August 8, 2011 at 11:48 am

    What a sorry business! [sic.] (It just had to be said…)

    You have hit the nail on the head here, Tim. Picking out the slippery, evasive pseudo-apologies needed doing. Their words were simply not sincere because if we really want to be genuine about making a statement admitting responsibility then we have to identify the specific act that was wrong. In that full-page letter the words were “We are sorry for the wrongdoing that occurred.” What was the wrongdoing that YOU did? Invading people’s privacy? Lying about this invasion repeatedly? Treating (mainly) innocent people as if they were crap?

    It is the details that they are not mentioning because the details are where the human-ness of their crimes are. I agree that there is power an apology. In a sincere and meaningful apology, yes. This ‘regret’ that the Murdochs and Yates mumble about is a measly attempt at facing up to the shitstorm they have sent raining through the lives of people who largely did not deserve it.


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