Mis-Communicator of the Week: Maria Miller

Saying sorry nowadays really does seem to be the hardest word. Yet saying a full and genuine apology is often all it takes to protect a reputation, a business or a political career. Yes, an organisation or individual may be wounded but after not very long at all people forget and move on. If done well an apology can even enhance a reputation. So why do people feel it acceptable to use far from wholesome phrases such as: “I’m sorry if I caused offence”? 

This week has – frustratingly for someone who believes people in public life, whatever their political colour, are in the game for the right reasons – seen a re-emergence of MPs expenses as a lead news story. In 2009 claims for duck houses, toilet seats, jars of horlicks and bath plugs were included in a long list of stories which plunged British politics into crisis mode and saw approval ratings for MPs plummet. Now expenses are news again thanks to an investigation into expense claims made by culture secretary Maria Miller.   

Few have bothered to investigate the various accusations being made about Maria Miller and check their accuracy. Most people will see the headlines and sigh frustratingly thinking once again that MPs are “on the take”. One of those who has helpfully summarised the claims is the chief political commentator of the Independent on Sunday, John Rentoul, here.

Although for Miller to keep her job as a cabinet minister the Prime Minister will need to be content that she made an honest mistake, because for voters it is all about perception. Unfortunately for Miller the perception is that she is not sufficiently contrite which stems from her apology to Parliament which lasted a meagre 32 seconds. You can watch her performance here.  

The culture secretary said she "unreservedly" apologised for her "attitude to the Commissioner's inquiries” but if, as the investigation found, she did no wrong, and misinformation is being passed around about her undermining her reputation, why didn’t Miller therefore use this opportunity to set the record straight? 

If she is sorry then she needed to outline exactly what happened and why, apologising for all the things she did wrong in detail. Of course this would be a humbling experience but it is supposed to be. Apologising to Parliament is meant to be a big deal. An MP is supposed to be contrite not defiant in the manner she appeared to be.

Too often those in the wrong in the public eye seek to draw a line under an episode through saying as little as possible. When that happens the media assume arrogance or a cover-up. Fundamentally it is not how much you say but what you say that matters. This is where Maria Miller failed and is why she is my Mis-Communicator of the Week. 

Communicator of the Week is written by Ed Staite.

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