Media, Politics, Multimedia

Analysis: Loose lips sink ships – and politicians too

By Branko Brkic 29 April 2010

Gordon Brown's latest gaffe is a classic example of a politician under pressure, fighting for his political life. And he's not the first, or the last, to forget his microphone is still on.

Thursday night is Britain’s final televised, three-way political debate in the run-up to voting on 6 May. It’s an increasingly furious election campaign. And, following a little moment near Manchester recently, everyone will be on the edges of their seats, waiting, ready to pounce on incumbent Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s next gaffe.

Brown’s opponents, David Cameron of the Tories and Nick Clegg of the newly resurgent Liberal Democrats, certainly will be prepped and ready should another toad pop out of Brown’s mouth.

By now, in an age when virtually everything a politician says is photographed, taped, recorded, Brown and his handlers should have been very careful about what’s said – and to whom. Brown is in a race for his political life and is trailing his opponents with one week to go. The strain is obviously starting to show.

Used to the savage, witty, cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate, and increasingly dragging a reputation as something of a bully behind him, Brown has not been at his best at rallies, meet-and-greets and set speeches. So his handlers decided to roll out a kinder, gentler Gordon Brown that would include some warm, fuzzy, one-on-one meetings with constituents in Rochdale, near Manchester, including some specially selected, wavering Labour supporters.

Coming out of one of those meetings, with a certain Gillian Duffy, they apparently talked about nearly everything, but most particularly the Labour Party’s special bugbear, immigration policy. Duffy’s comments had ranged over the usual suspects – the deficit, education, health, social security benefits – and then she suddenly switched gears to one of her pet fears about immigration. “All those Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?” she asked the PM.

Brown’s response was a variation on his usual noncommittal comment about immigration: “A million people come from Europe, but a million people, British people, have gone into Europe,” he replied. Then he told Duffy it had been “very nice to meet you, very nice to meet you,” and then boarded waiting campaign transport. All fine so far – but then in an aside, he called the event “a disaster” and Duffy “a bigoted woman” – all of this right into a live microphone, and directly into the annals of immortal political ignominy. Or, as BBC correspondent Gary O’Donoghue wrote on the Beeb’s website, “People often talk about political gaffes in terms of car crashes, but this was no car crash. This was a multilane, multivehicle pile-up of enormous proportions.”

Watch: Gordon Brown open mic incident

Brown’s judgement about Duffy’s political acumen immediately hit the Internet to feed the instantaneous global 24/7 news cycle  – the original event and Brown’s follow-up penance became irresistible to people who follow politics – and it may well have written the final page of the Brown prime ministership.

Confronted by a recording of the event, Brown first tried to wriggle off the hook, saying he was wearing a microphone to assist broadcasters and that “they have chosen to play my private conversation”. Not good.

Back to the Duffy household to eat some crow, Brown said, “Sometimes you say things you don’t mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes when you say things you’ll want to correct them very quickly.” While it is not clear what Duffy thinks of the whole thing, it’s clear she’s discovered the power of the media. According to reports, she has just hired a media handler and will be selling her story to the newspapers.

Watch: Gordon Brown’s apology

Gordon Brown’s microphone malfunction now joins a list of famous gaffes that include:

At the height of the Cold War in 1984 US President Ronald Reagan was about to appear on a radio interview and, as a sound check, 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.”

In 1993 British Prime Minister John Major, after an interview with ITN, forgot about the recording equipment and referred to members of his own cabinet as “bastards” and promised to “crucify” them, saying of recent revelations, “I can’t stop people sleeping with other people if they ought not to”.

During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W Bush called The New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major league asshole” just before a campaign speech to vice president Dick Cheney, whose response, “big time”, was equally audible.

Most recently, current US vice president Joe Biden was overheard muttering words that don’t go into family newspapers in describing the passage of the Obama administration’s healthcare reform package.

And yet, microphone gaffes will keep occurring. Politicians are human too. Sometimes they let their guard slip, caught by the always-ready mike nearby. And it looks as if the mishaps will increasingly decide the fates of elections and entire countries.

By J Brooks Spector

For more, read the New York Times, the Guardian and the BBC

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Main photo: Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks with resident Gillian Duffy (L) during a campaign stop in Rochdale, northwest England April 28, 2010. Brown was caught on tape describing Duffy as “bigoted” after she confronted him on the economy during a walkabout in Northern England on Wednesday. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett


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