Lots of talk yesterday and today about the Lord Rennard matter.

I obviously have nothing to say on the claims/allegations, but I am interested in some of the language deployed by politicians.  Lord Ashdown, (in his words on BBC’s World at One) “a veteran of mediation in difficult conflicts”, said two things:

1. “In the current climate.”

“In the current climate” is a phrase that Lord Ashdown used repeatedly to underpin the importance of apology and reconciliation.  The difficulty with that phrase is that it implies impermanence and transitory importance of the type that is an occasional characteristic of political discourse.  In other words, it dunalf sound shallow and insincere.

2. “If I have offended you, I apologise.”

Lord Ashdown also suggested that a properly constructed apology might use the form of words “if I have offended you, I apologise.”  The killer in this phrase is the word “if”.  It utterly undermines the sincerity of the apology and oughtn’t be in the lexicon of a student mediator, let alone a so-called “seasoned practitioner”.

If anything, the use of “if” in that context is more damaging than the use of the word “but” in other contexts, ie, “I agree with you, but…”, which, on the contrary, serves no purpose other than to signal disagreement. [Top tip: try using the word “and” in place of “but”every time  and note the effect].

The trouble with apologies is that they need to be sincere and favourably nuanced.  Think, for example of the rote learned platform announcer’s “We apologise to customers for any inconvenience caused.”  First of all, the use of “any” robs it of any specificity and therefore integrity.  Second of all, in my experience, the “in” in “inconvenience” is virtually silent when rote learned.  Double whammy.

For a masterclass in the art of a non-apology, though, look no further than the immortal line from Take That’s “I want you back.” “Whatever I said, whatever I did, I didn’t mean it.”  Like that’s going to work.  Language, gentlemen, language.

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