Last week two practitioners – David Petraeus of the CIA and George Entwistle of the BBC – gave us two different examples of this ancient art. Petraeus showed us how to do it when one has no choice; Entwistle when one has.
Once there was the possibility of a security risk, the private life of David Petraeus was no longer irrelevant. There was no way out for him. This is no reflection of the puritanical nature of American life. No intelligence chief anywhere in the world can have a secret extramarital affair without becoming vulnerable to blackmail.
George Entwistle had been director-general of the BBC only since September 17, for fifty-two days. He could have stayed in office. The BBC is in the middle of a major crisis caused, among other factors, by incompetent journalism. But he knew nothing about the story that hit the headlines until after it had been broadcast. He resigned because he thought he should have known before and took responsibility.
No doubt he considered it a matter of honour. But he could have decided honour demanded that he stay and initiate the reforms necessary to enable the BBC to meet its challenges.
Falling on his sword was easier.