Latest Gaffe: Another Hot-Mic Incident

James Cleverly last week added his name to a long list of senior politicians who said something unwise, only to find it had been caught on microphone and made it to the front pages.

latest gaff

It all began when Labour MP Alex Cunningham asked Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions, ‘Why are 34% of children in my constituency living in poverty?’

Cleverly was heard – at least, some people thought they heard him – responding sotto voce with: ‘Because it’s a shit-hole.’

Numerous attempts have been made to clean up the audio caught by the House of Commons microphones but technology has not conclusively proved whether the offensive comment was about the constituency in question, Stockton, or was in fact, as Cleverly later claimed, unparliamentary language aimed at Alex Cunningham.

Either way, it has been a talking point in Stockton and at Westminster, although I doubt many other people care much.

The Guardian decided to go and ask people in the street in Stockton to voice their disgust at the besmirching of their town, only to find that most people they spoke to agreed with the Home Secretary.

This latest mini-drama is in the traditions of a long line of senior politicians sharing what they really think in a way that is caught on mic, and unexpectedly becomes public. The damage is that it shows how they really think, in this case about poverty and the hollowed-out towns beyond the commuter belt.

The Week calls these hot-mic incidents, and the latest edition lists some of the most famous (although the article is behind a paywall). These include:

1993 John Major’s comments about ‘those bastards in the cabinet’.

2010 Gordon Brown describing Gillian Duffy, a Rochdale pensioner, as a ‘bigoted woman’ after she grilled him on camera about immigration.

David Cameron as PM had a number of such incidents, of which describing the leaders of Afghanistan and Nigeria as ‘fantastically corrupt’ while in conversation with the Queen was probably the worst. Although humming a cheerful tune after telling the world he was resigning as PM was also pretty crass.

In 2019 Jeremy Corbyn was seen mouthing ‘stupid woman’ at Theresa May during a feisty session in the Commons. It was enough to make the headlines even though no one actually heard it.

Just last year MP Heather Wheeler had to apologise after calling Birmingham and Blackpool ‘godawful places’.

And Education Minister Gillian Keegan had to apologise 2 months ago for using the F-word when complaining after an interview about the concrete in schools crisis.

The clear PR lesson of these recurring situations is to properly apologise and try to move on. Gillian Keegan did that well and it worked. Cleverly got it all wrong by first denying and then coming up with the story of criticising the man not the town. The prevarication just ensures the story runs for another couple of days. Gordon Brown in 2010 did the apology bit quite well but the damage was too great and many commentators believe the hot-mic influenced the election result.

American politicians, the Royals and many others have been caught in the same way and as far as journalists are concerned, it all provides some light relief from wars, murder and climate change. But rarely are these incidents significant (The Gordon Brown faux pas is, in my mind, the exception).

For business people the risks of pithy asides becoming public is much less, there are way less microphones around for one thing. However, it is another cautionary tale for all those in the public eye.


Photo: James Cleverly, Flickr



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