"Love means never having to say you're sorry." Those eight words, written by Erich Segal, who died recently, in the novel that inspired the 1970 film Love Story, rank with "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" (Gone With the Wind) and "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" (The Godfather) among the most famous lines in cinema history.
The true history of apologies is more complicated. The notion that lovers never have to use it would strike most couples as nonsense. A much stronger argument could be advanced for saying that far from being the hardest word, sorry is sometimes a rather easy one. Whether it is always used with sincerity, in the home or more generally, is another matter. I am a firm believer in the principle that while newspapers should not be judged too harshly for the mistakes they make, they should be quick to correct them and, where necessary, apologise.
Given the pressures of news gathering, editing and production, not to mention the tendency of the "truth" of any major new event to develop, the errors are inevitable. But the interests of good journalism and publishing - as well as natural justice - are served, not compromised, by a willingness to make amends. A few weeks ago, I described an obituary published by The Daily Telegraph of London on the musician Dave Swarbrick, who was unwell but very much alive when declared dead by, of all newspapers, the one he regularly bought. The apology, published next day, demonstrated suitable contrition. It was followed by further words of apology, in a private note from the deputy editor. Mr Swarbrick, after initially feeling annoyed, became quite philosophical about the error.
But apologies are not always taken at face value and can even make serious matters worse. In the libel courts of the UK, for example, a newspaper that prints an apology which has not been approved by the aggrieved party may find the gesture treated as an aggravating feature if legal proceedings ensue. The New York Times and The Washington Post did a lot of public soul-searching about their coverage of events that led to military action in Iraq, with ample recognition that they could have done more to challenge the White House analysis. Their words fell short of impressing all critics; the combative American writer Matt Taibbi called them "craven, insufficient and self-serving" before getting on to the stronger aspects of his criticism.
The British journalist Michael Henderson neatly summed up the hazards of saying sorry: "You can apologise too soon and you can apologise too late, you can apologise superficially and you can apologise for some things when perhaps you should also be apologising for others. Your sincerity and your motives are always open to question, and political considerations often play a significant role." Spoof apologies occupy a prominent place in satirical journalism. Another Daily Telegraph, in Sydney, Australia, clearly intended to cause mischief when it apologised for reporting that the 2003 touring English rugby team was boring. "This was incorrect," the paper said. "The entire country of England is boring. The Daily Telegraph wishes to apologise for this error."
But it was an Australia tour of a different kind that may have produced the classic expression of "I'm not sorry at all". In 1974, fed up with constant media attention, Frank Sinatra told the audience at his first concert of the visit, in Melbourne, that the female reporters were "hookers". When trade union solidarity threatened to disrupt his tour and even prevent his departure from Australia, the singer offered a grudgingly conciliatory statement.
Was he truly contrite? He was not. Relations between the singer and the press were not turning belatedly into a Love Story. On stage in California a few weeks later, he said: "I want to apologise to all the hookers for comparing them to newswomen." Colin Randall is contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at email@example.com