If there’s a lesson I learnt at school that I still remember, it’s never be scared to make a mistake. It’s usually the surest way of getting it right the next time. That, no doubt, is the principle good schools operate on. But what you only discover after you’ve left is that you need a particular environment if the mistake is not to be held against you. Schools have it. Outside it’s often missing. And people who can help you learn from your lapses are truly special.
Charlie Douglas-Home, my first boss, was such a person. By the time he became Editor of The Times I had moved on to London Weekend Television. So I was particularly chuffed when he asked me to write leaders on the seven countries of South Asia.
At 27 it was thrilling to thunder through the columns of the paper, wondering if the various ambassadors and ministers were aware that the author of the views they were reading was barely half their age.
Then, one day, I got it wrong. It happened in 1985. General Zia had just proclaimed a new constitution in Pakistan, giving himself unprecedented powers as president. My leader accused him of creating a constitutional dictatorship.
In every way his position is unassailable and he can’t even be impeached, I claimed. But there I was in error. A massive 95 per cent majority could unseat him. Although such a vote was practically unlikely it was a theoretical possibility.
Around noon on the day The Times made it their top leader, Charlie rang. “Good leader this morning,” he started. “I like it when the paper has a strong hard voice.” I modestly muttered my thanks but there’s little doubt I was preening.
“The Pakistani Ambassador’s called,” Charlie continued. In those days the country was not in the Commonwealth. “He wants to chat about the leader. I’ve invited him for tea. Why don’t you join us?”
I pointed out that I didn’t think it was a good idea for the ambassador to discover an Indian was writing leaders about his country. That wouldn’t please him.
“Yes, I forgot about that old contretemps.” Charlie chuckled. He seemed pleased with the situation rather than put off. “I better handle it myself.”
Around six in the evening Charlie rang again. This time he was laughing but I soon discovered it was no laughing matter.“Pompous little man,” he began, describing the Pakistani ambassador in less than laudatory terms. “He’s all worked up about some silly mistake in your leader. Apparently you said the general can’t be impeached but there is a way of doing that. He’s demanded an apology.”
My heart sank. My throat turned dry. When at last I spoke all I could manage was a miserable squeak. “And what do you propose to do?”
“Well, I suppose we have to correct the error but I’ll bury it on page 42 where no one will ever find it!”
And that was it. Not a word of admonition. No reproach, not even a warning to be more careful in future.
The next day I had to hunt through the paper to find the correction. I can’t remember if it was actually on page 42 but I do recall that it was in the most unlikely of places and in the smallest of small print.
I don’t know if the ambassador was appeased but I was hugely grateful. I was also determined never to allow myself to get into a similar position. Had Charlie ticked me off I could have become defensive. But his support, his understanding and his dismissiveness of the ambassador made me aware that I must never cause such embarrassment again.
Alas, making light of someone’s lapses isn’t easy. Even though I benefited from Charlie’s generosity and wisdom I’ve rarely, if ever, been able to emulate him.
They say to err is human, to forgive divine. Well, let me add a rider of my own: to understand and forget is truly special. Outside of school — and your immediate family — there are very few people who do.