Say what you mean and mean what you say

Gordon Brown’s spectacular own goal this week – instantly dubbed “Brown’s ‘bigot’ gaffe” by the media – may well be the defining moment not just of his election campaign but of his political career. As Roy Greenslade put it in his Guardian Blog yesterday:  “It was the gaffe of all gaffes. And he will pay dearly for it.”

Ah, the perils of getting out and about and talking to real people.  A slightly awkward encounter with 65 year-old widow Gillian Duffy, who talked about eastern Europeans ‘flocking’ into Britain, was turned into a full-blown disaster when Gordon Brown got into his waiting car and made what was called “unguarded comments” to an aide, little realising that the lapel microphone provided by Sky News was still turned on.

He described Mrs Duffy as “a sort of bigoted woman”. Later that day he was caught holding his head in his hands as Jeremy Vine played the comments back to the nation. Yesterday The Daily Mail helpfully produced a page of pictures which showed how the whole gruesome episode unfolded in the space of one hour.

So, what is a gaffe?  The Free Dictionary defines it as: 1. A clumsy social error; a faux pas; and 2. A blatant mistake or misjudgment.

I learned this week from a Comment if Free piece in the Guardian by Jacob Weisberg, that Gordon Brown had made what is technically a Kinsley gaffe – defined by Wikipedia as: “an occurrence of (a politician) telling the truth by accident.”  The term was first coined by American political journalist Michael Kinsley in 1992.

It could also be defined as a microphone gaffe.  Wikipedia defines this as “an error whereby a microphone is switched on in proximity of a subject who is unaware that their remarks are being broadcast.” And this type of gaffe catches out not just politicians, but sports presenters, journalists and newsreaders. But this equation is probably true:  human + microphone = disaster waiting to happen.

Gordon Brown’s remarks are included in Wikipedia’s list of political gaffes, just below Jesse Jackson’s 2008 whispered aside before a Fox News interview that he wanted to “cut his (Barack Obama’s) nuts off” after Obama had made an election speech questioning working class values. Third on the list is Prime Minister John Major’s comments after an ITN interview in 1993 in which he called members of his Cabinet “bastards”. Top of the list is the infamous ‘soundcheck’ comments made by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 during the Cold War. Although never broadcast, he said: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Curiously, Hillary Clinton’s use of the phrase ‘to misspeak’ seems to be missing from the list. She was famously caught out during the 2008 race for the democratic presidential nomination exaggerating the dangers she had faced in 1996 during a short trip to Bosnia. When challenged, she said “I misspoke”. There’s a wonderful essay in the New Yorker about the issue of ‘misspeaking’ here.

But back to the hapless Gordon Brown, if  I was putting together a ‘package’ of visuals to describe his week, I’d be tempted to use ‘I am not a robot’ by Marina and the Diamonds as the backing track. Why?  Listen to the lyrics:

I guess the moral of the tale for politicians is: always try to say what you mean and mean what you say.

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