Foot in Mouth Disease; Are We Still on Air? A History of the Great and Good's Gaffes

Daily Mail (London), April 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Foot in Mouth Disease; Are We Still on Air? A History of the Great and Good's Gaffes


Byline: SIOBHAN SYNNOT

AN INDELICATE aside, the unwise joke, a brief flare of pique or one slip of the salty tongue. In our age of the polished soundbite, the unguarded remark is anathema to all the packaging and gloss.

U.S. Democrat candidate John Kerry thought he was safe last month because he had his back to the cameras. But the microphones recorded him telling a Chicago worker that President Bush's Republicans are 'the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen.' America presidential campaigns are a rich source of taped faux pas. Spiro Agnew, as Richard Nixon's running mate in 1968, did his boss no favours in Detroit when he said: 'If you've seen one city slum you've seen them all.' And of course President Reagan was notoriously quick to engage his mouth ahead of his brain in front of a live microphone, describing Polish leaders as 'a bunch of nogood, lousy bums' and characterized his economy as 'a hell of a mess.' Worst of all, he joked into an open microphone: 'All right, my fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.' So far there have been about five different versions of what Ron Atkinson is supposed to have said at the end of his football commentary while his microphone was still live but it's generally agreed the gist included a moronically offensive racial slur that cost him his ITV job and his Guardian column. As a TV pundit, Ron has managed to keep the world at ear's length for years because usually his gaffes are incomprehensible such as 'Beckenbauer has really gambled all his eggs,' or 'Chelsea look like they've got a couple more gears left in the locker'.

But as Ron' s experience proves, even if you are noted word-mangler, it's sod's law that a truly hideous blunder will be delivered with clarion lucidity.

Take John Prescott and his brutish relationship with the English language.

Grammar is frequently given a kick in the ribs, while whole sentences are left bleeding and bruised; there have been times when Prezza's ill-tempered pronouncements are recognisable only by reference to their dental records.

The angrier he gets, the greater the chances he will be incomprehensible - and he was incensed when he overheard the BBC political editor Andrew Marr describe a conference without Chancellor Gordon Brown as being like 'Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark'.

Unluckily Prescott's microphone was still switched on when he voiced his dismay, and his post-interview 'What's this I hear about the f****** Prince of Denmark?' was delivered in uncharacteristic clarity - just as the battleship grey John Major suddenly flared briefly into a more colourful life when, in 1993, he called three rightwing members of his own cabinet 'bastards' in an off-camera talk to ITN's Michael Brunson.

Spanish politician Jose Bono also fell on his microphoneshaped sword when he sparkily enquired at the end of a live TV debate: 'Hey - and our colleague Tony Blair? He's a complete dickhead.' An intelligent person, or even a reasonably bright fungus, would realise that wherever there is a microphone there is the potential for embarrassment, but our modern ease with technology means we sometimes forget ourselves. Back in the early days of the telephone, a phonecall was a formal affair involving a phone the size of a brick and a prescribed etiquette for discreet conversation.

Nowadays it is not unknown to walk into a public toilet and wonder why someone is having a loud, animated chat with the plumbing. In fact they are talking on their mobile phone.

These are people who are completely unfazed by when and where they broadcast their every location to make sure their vital messages are getting through. ('Hi. It's me. Not much... I'm in the loo'. …

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