Wednesday 20 March 2019

Mea culpa: The art of the TV confession

Michaella McCollum is just the latest in a long line of troubled figures who've used a high-profile interview in an attempt to rehabilitate their reputations

Long rambling interview: Bertie Ahern.
Long rambling interview: Bertie Ahern.
Glammed up: Michaella McCollum gives her interview to RTE on Sunday night.
Michaella McCollum arrives at court in Peru in 2013.
Tiger Woods said he had a lot to atone for.

Ed Power

The country has been divided down the middle by Michaella McCollum's "butter wouldn't melt" interview from Peru on Sunday night. To some, the convicted drug trafficker's insistence that she was a good person who wanted to prove her value to society was a heartfelt plea for contrition. But others saw calculation and wondered why she had been treated so gently by the reporter sent to quiz her. Rose of Tralee contestants have endured tougher grillings.

One question that immediately arose was whether she had been coached before going in front of the cameras. The 23-year-old from Co Tyrone was impressively slick and manicured for someone who had spent two years in a Peruvian jail. She was relentlessly on message, too, expressing regret over her deeds and acknowledging the narcotics she had been caught with could have caused terrible damage had they reached their intended destination.

"I probably would have had a lot of blood on my hands," she said. "I potentially could have filled Europe full of a lot of drugs."

It could be weeks or months before the circumstances behind the interview become fully public though RTÉ has already insisted that McCollum was not paid for her time. What is clear is that the interview spoke of a desire by McCollum to rehabilitate her image and put her life back together.

Her appearance has also conjured the spectre of other high-profile television apologies, and the degree to which they did - or did not - redeem the person offering the mea culpa.

"The elements of a good apology are a lot of the things your mother told you when you did something wrong as a child - to identify what you did wrong, say that you are sorry and that you won't do it again," Edwin L Battistella, author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology told the BBC in 2014. "Often it is the language that is the tell of the bad apology - you find people using language that is weak and conditional. 'I'm sorry you are offended…. I am really sorry if I offended anyone - that was truly not my intention'."

Perhaps the most notorious apology that fell short of public expectations was that offered by cycling cheat Lance Armstrong when he sat down with Oprah Winfrey in 2013. Armstrong used the word "sorry" once in the interview and though he shouldered responsibly for his actions, the perception was that he had not gone far enough.

"An effective apology means giving up your argument with history," John Kador, author of Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges and Restoring Trust, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "It means letting the victims have the last word. But throughout the interview, Armstrong displayed a constant need to have the last word for himself. It's clear that he is not quite ready to do the heavy lifting of apology.

"Oprah mentioned Betsy Andreu, one of the honest critics that Armstrong smeared. Armstrong acknowledged that he called her a bitch and crazy, but disputed that he ever called her fat. Such defensiveness undermines the whole apology."

Closer to home, many of us have vivid memories of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's tearful 2006 sit-down with RTÉ's Bryan Dobson regarding Ahern's personal finances. At the end of a rambling back and forth in which he insisted he had done no wrong, he delivered the vaguest of mea culpas.

"I'm not blaming anyone… I don't want to be taking anyone's character but somebody took mine, and in a very cynical way. But it's best that I just give the true facts and… you know from the position of the Irish public they've always been kind to me about being separated. They've always been understanding and... if I've caused offence to anyone, I think I have to a few people, I'm sorry."

It may seem like an obvious point but the mark of a good apology is that it amounts to more than words, says Lorcan Nyhan, a consultant at the Communications Clinic in Dublin. "At the moment there is talk of [McCollum] doing care and helping under-privileged people. Well, does she act on that now? That is the part you really need to look at. That is the most important bit. It doesn't matter if it's the next day or is part of a continuous process. You have to follow through and make good on what you said you would do."

In the case of Armstrong, the perception is that he was a little too calculating.

"Was it an apology or more PR box ticking?" says Nyhan. "Was he saying things like 'I'm sorry for the hurt that was felt'? Did he really say sorry - did he acknowledge how he might have made people who bought his Livestrong bands feel - did he acknowledge the hurt that was done to cycling? Has he really acted on his apology or gone back and said everyone was doing it? [using performance enhancing substances]"

To accuse McCollum of being overly slick is to miss the point, adds Nyhan. Why wouldn't she prepare for the biggest media appearance of her life? It is, surely, up to the journalist to knock her off her guard with probing questions.

"There's no way of knowing if she was coached or not," says Nyhan.

"There isn't necessarily anything wrong with putting in preparation for an interview like that. You need the questions to be good. I don't think you can blame someone for preparing and being coached.

"Did she have the questions in advance? I assume that she didn't.

"You can't blame someone for preparing. It's the interviewer's job to get around that."

The question now is whether McCollum can put recent infamy behind her and resume her life. Given she is only just out of prison, it is surely too early to say. Her release has prompted a media frenzy no matter that she remains on parole and will not be able to return to Ireland for several more years at the earliest.

On the other hand, attention spans have never been shorter and the news cycle will inevitably move on to something else. McCollum may have to carry around the baggage of her conviction for the rest of her life. Or we may all have forgotten her a month from now. What can be said with certainty is that her RTÉ interview has proved more controversial than she will have hoped, and that far from drawing a line under her woes, it has merely brought her into the spotlight once again.

All apologies: A brief history of the onscreen 'mea culpa'

Lance Armstrong

Cyclist Armstrong shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he told Oprah Winfrey he was sorry for cheating his way to sporting success and wealth. But his body language did not communicate humility and this 2013 interview was widely deemed to have caused more harm than good.

Bertie Ahern

IF Bertie.jpg
Long rambling interview: Bertie Ahern.

With details of the Taoiseach's finances leaking into the media, Ahern (above) sat down for a long rambling 2006 interview with RTÉ. He issued an apology for any offence he caused but insisted he had broken no laws in receiving modest political donations.

Kanye West

The rapper went on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and broke down as he said sorry to Taylor Swift for rushing the stage as she received an award in 2009.

"I immediately knew in this situation that it was wrong... it was rude and I'd like to apologise to her in person."

Leno really twisted the knife when he asked how the artist's late mother would have reacted. All Kanye could do was dab away his tears.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods said he had a lot to atone for.

Woods did not cut a very jolly figure as he went on television in 2010 and said sorry for being unfaithful to his wife. "I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated," Woods (34) said. "What I did was not acceptable. . . . I have a lot to atone for."

Hugh Grant

Caught in a compromising position with a lady of the night, the English actor went on Jay Leno (apparently the go-to for celebrities seeking to say sorry) and offered a straight-forward apology. "You know in life what's a good thing to do and a what's a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there you have it." His career rebounded more or less immediately.

Irish Independent

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