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Never forget: The mic is live

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:45 UK time, Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Today started with some people raising doubts about the role new technology was really playing in this election.

Gordon Brown and Gillian DuffyBy mid-morning we had experienced what could prove to be the key moment in the campaign - and it was all down to some rather old technology.

Getting back into his car after a difficult encounter with a voter in Rochdale, the prime minister forgot the lesson that all broadcasters learn at their mother's knee - if you're wearing a microphone or even near one, assume that it is live.

He may have assumed that once inside an armour-plated car, the mic was out of range. But it wasn't and the words "she was just a bigoted woman" came through loud and clear.

I'm told that in 1997 Tony Blair's radio microphone was controlled by a technician employed by the Labour Party, who was careful to fade it down as soon as an event or a public encounter was over.

This time the radio-mic was the property of a broadcaster, Sky, which was handling pool coverage for all stations so the party could not control its output.

What's the betting that other politicians are now thinking very carefully about who's in charge of the microphone they are wearing?

Predictably, Twitter has gone bonkers, with the term "bigotgate" swiftly making an appearance.

The news of this huge gaffe was broadcast instantly on the micro-blogging service, political journalist and blogger Paul Waugh had this shortly after midday: "That Rochdalian woman may not be voting Labour once she hears what G Brown said about her...update soon."

Gordon Brown's opponents were swift to make hay. "So this is what Brown really thinks about the voter," said the Conservative chairman Eric Pickles.

The very mischievous right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes had this obviously satirical take: "At this moment Cherie and Tony are on a yacht somewhere sunny, sipping chilled wine and crying with laughter."

Even Labour supporters appeared distraught: "Oh for God's sake Gordon, understand how a mic work[s]" said one.

You had to look hard to find a positive comment, though a tweeter called @madsyork had this: "I have a lot of respect for Gordon Brown today, actually. I'd be more concerned if he thought every single person was lovely."

Twitter sentiment graph

We have a perhaps more scientific readout of the effect on Gordon Brown's reputation from a firm called Lexalytics, which tries to analyse sentiment on Twitter. It shows the PM's "sentiment rating" plunging to its most negative level of the campaign in the minutes after the incident occurred.

Twitter sentiment graph

This campaign has been transformed first by the power of television after the first debate, and now by a gaffe created by a piece of technology which Wikipedia tells me was invented in 1949 for use in a performance of "Aladdin on Ice."

One Tweeter suggested that all the politicians should, like Big Brother contestants, now wear microphones 24 hours a day. I know one man who won't be backing that one.


  • Comment number 1.

    This whole thing is a farce, people do this sort of thing all the time. How many times are you polite to your co-workers, but complain about them back home?

    Anyone making a big deal out of this has yet to look at themselves in the mirror.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's all Nick Clegg's fault. :-)

  • Comment number 3.

    The page has an HTML syntax error

    img alt="Twitter sentiment graph src="http:/...

    should be

    img alt="Twitter sentiment graph" src="http:/...

    There's a missing double quote. after the word graph.

  • Comment number 4.

    End of Labour's campaign. Pity, I was enjoying how close it was.

    But now a great chance for Nick Clegg to pick up Labour votes and overtake Cameron.

  • Comment number 5.

    I suppose I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand I haven't heard what the woman said to Gordon Brown so she may have been a bigot and if she was I have no problem with him saying that. We seem to be far too concerned these days about appearences.

    on other hand the duplicity Brown has shown is really bad. If he didn't like what she said then he should have said that to her. I also think the attempt an an apology that could never have been believable has made it even worse.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is nasty stuff, but I think you hit the nail on the head in the first line. This story is far more about "old media" trying to get attention than the comments themselves. It isn't normally newsworthy to note that sometimes people criticise others in private after behaving civilly in person. Granted, it's worthy of a quick smear or bit of satirical mockery when it's the leader of a political party seeking election.

    However, rolling news coverage? A pack of baying journalists, five or six deep, trampling the garden of an elderly widow and hammering on her door? A smug BBC reporter dancing around the mob, sniggering that it really was a "media scrum" and that Mrs Duffy was getting a "crash course in media relations", then gleefully chanting "he's ignored our questions, he's ignored the BBC, he's ignored the media"?

    Some of this coverage is abhorrent, intrusive, and self-congratulatory stuff from all the mainstream media, including the BBC.

    I can choose not to vote Labour, but it is sad that I cannot choose less sickening news coverage.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hands up if you have ever made an exasperated comment about a person or a situation once you were in private? If we are honest, most of us have. Gordon had been diplomatic throughout the meeting with the lady in question, but then let slip a comment or two in the car. It is what many people do if they have to keep a calm professional face in public. It does not mean that Gordon should have done it - but I suspect many, many people in public life have done the same or worse.

  • Comment number 8.

    Just to clarify, I made the 'Oh for Gods sake...' tweet and I wasn't at all distraught. If people had looked at the other comments I made on the subject I was more annoyed about the predictable media storm that ensued and how the story would be done to death, which it seems to be already. I wasn't at all bothered that GB had expressed an opinion I just thought he should have known to be more careful in that situation. I'm sure both Dave and Nick let off steam in a similar way too, it's human. Also my later tweets point out that Chris Grayling has said a number of offensive things that he hasn't apologised for yet. Why do the media never pick those up?

  • Comment number 9.

    I do not support Gordon Brown but I think the media have made a mountain of a molehill. The other party leaders must be thinking- there but for the grace of God. This so called gaffe was an accident waiting to happen,whether to him or anyone else. For there is an element of contingency in elections as in life generally, and such contingency can have long-lasting consequences. I have followed the story throughout from the moment when GB asked about this lady's family and grand-children, through to his overheard comments, the head-in-the-hands grilling by Jeremy Vine,and now his personal apology. And frankly, I think he has behaved with considerable courage and good grace and done as much as he could be expected to do. And so, ENOUGH. Judge him on his record and his policies, but don't judge him on the basis of a trivial mistake.

  • Comment number 10.

    I don't think you can measure the outcome of an election based on chatter. It's going to follow whatever is the most recent piece of news, and it's always going to favor negative comments.

    Also, she may have BEEN a bigoted woman, and in that event his saying that would be purely justified. And even if she wasn't it shouldn't be that big a deal. He's not being bigoted himself by saying that, there was no swearing, so what's so offensive about it?

  • Comment number 11.

    All I can say I am hugely glad that this muppet has been shown his true colours.

    13 years of no social housing.
    10p tax rate abolision.
    1 million Polish immigrants with polling stations when only 10,000 we supposedly coming.
    Benefits fiasco.
    800 billion pounds of foriegn "wholesale" debt.
    House prices at 10x average earnings.

    Way, way past this idiot being out of power,,,

  • Comment number 12.

    I too wish to see the whole interview between Brown and Mrs Duffy, but it doesn't look too good for Brownie since she was (notice past-tense) a labour supporter asking a serious question. Yes, there are real bigoted people in the world, but you won't convince anyone of your ideals if you think of that on your own supporters.

  • Comment number 13.

    If he was picked up saying what he said, surely some of his aides must have known. It was obvious from the video of the radio interview that he knew nothing about this, was this an alledged set up?

  • Comment number 14.

    Maybe the car should be now protected against radio as well as bombs?
    Shame it was all going so well, but lets put a bit of perspective all it all....
    Chancellor for year and years, PM for years and another campaign being dragged here and there by the staff. I would have said worse

  • Comment number 15.

    It's all too funny - this election has already be reduced to 'two posh boys' versus the 'chippy jock' and now we find out that the 'chippy jock' expresses opinons of people to their faces that area diametrically opposed to those he expresses about them in 'private' (wired up to a radio mike) and then comes up with a ridiculous apology - "I misunderstood some words Gillian used". Ludicrous.

  • Comment number 16.

    What's telling is not only the fact that Brown bad-mouthed a voter behind her back but also his blatant anger that his encounter wasn't "stage managed" better by his people.

    So much for his claim of getting out and meeting real people.

    And this lady was meant to be a Labour voter! If that's how Brown treats his supporters...

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    Tend to agree that the whole thing blew up because Brown, perhaps understandably, misheard her use of the word `flocking [viz. Eastern Europeans]' to be another f-word.
    i.e. Everything since then has been misguided media-generated bumph since no media source wants to start throwing out the various regional pronounciations of that word to illustrate!

  • Comment number 19.

    I am proud of gordon brown that he deep down has principles and beliefs and is able to refer correctly to people who have high levels of ignorance and do not want to liste to facts. It seems now that politicians cannot not speak up against immigrant bashing or are then called 'politically correct'. There is a new political correctness now and its that we must never speak up for immigrants, never speak up for trueth, for facts and never call anyone a bigot. If the woman is a bigot or has expressed bigotry then well done gordon for speaking, i just only wish he was able to be totally open about it.

  • Comment number 20.

    Political correctness will kill our democracy. Clearly no one can raise any concerns, or even mention issues relating to mass immigration, in any way, at any time, without being labelled as racist or bigoted. You may not discuss this issue. Your opinion, political motivation and intelligence have been pre-judged and condemned.

    I'd like to say that I expected better from a Labour Prime Minister, but do you know, I don't think that I did.

  • Comment number 21.

    He's the Prime Minister for goodness sake. Does he really imagine we will believe he 'misunderstood what she said'? If he can't understand Mrs Duffy's plain English, then God save us when he goes into international negotiations with foreigners, however immaculate their English, on behalf of our precious country. It's over, Gordon. Over.

  • Comment number 22.

    What this incident makes clear is that Gordon Brown hates talking to members of the public. Whereas there have been several incidents over the last few days (Bradford, Southampton) that show that David Cameron relishes it. This lady was not confrontational and her views were not at all extreme; if Brown found her irritating then there is something badly wrong with him.

  • Comment number 23.

    " Trust me - I am more substance than image!"

    Well Gordon's bubble has finally been burst. He can be seen for what he is: A two-faced hypocrite unable to string an honest word together.

    Even after time with his spin-doctors - the best he can manage is to blame a "misunderstanding"

    Gordon Brown is as far from reality as Greece is from solvency - Both reached their positions after spinning a web of deceit - both have their chicks coming home to roost!

    Goodbye and Good Riddance to Gordon.

  • Comment number 24.

    Poor old Gordon! Almost more embarrassing than the original gaffe was his completely misjudged smile as he came out of Gillian Duffy's house and described himself as a "penitent sinner". It reminds me of an old Private Eye cartoon of David Owen, at a high point in the SDP's fortunes that had come at the expense of the old Social and Liberal Democrats, saying "This is not time for smugness," with a smile that was pure smugness. Whoever taught Gordon Brown to smile should have taught him HOW to smile and WHEN to smile. While you're eating humble pie is not the right time.

  • Comment number 25.

    Meh... the lady was definitely ignorant but those were harsh words from a man who is supposed to be PM. I personally have no problem with what he said, he is a real person after all and he disagreed with her, fair enough. The media however will latch onto this for many days to come and it will affect him. It's safe to say now he is out of the race and has made the frightening possibility of a Conservative government ever more real.

  • Comment number 26.

    Let's not kid ourselves, Cameron and Clegg will have said similar things in private, Brown just happened to get caught. I can understand Browns frustration at Gillian Duffys comment, "all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?". This not only shows bigotry, but prejudice, intolerance and ignorance. If she had said blacks, gays, jews, pakistanis instead of Eastern Europeans, who do you think would be apologising?
    Stats show that there are more Irish, German, Italian and French people in the UK than East European. Stats show that the 5 million foreign-born in the UK is about the European average. Stats show that there 4 million Brits living and working abroad. Duffy was probably just repeating one of the many bigoted lies put out by the anti-immigration parties.

    Enough! The good news is that the new version of Ubuntu is released tomorrow, any chance of a review from you BBC tech guys? Or are you going to be pointlessly tweeting about the election for another week. Still, when the elections over you've got the new version of Fedora to look forward to.

  • Comment number 27.

    well I'm not a supporter, but we learnt?
    a) he's at least passionate about bigotry
    b) he can be a little bad tempered - at least no real swearing
    c) politicians are clueless about technology hence the stupid #DEBill
    d) Murdoch owns Sky and sponsors the Tories

    I am so enlightened...

  • Comment number 28.

    Well, we all know this is a technology blog.

    But on what, this time? The technology behind microphones?

    Does no one here find that this blog has absolutely nothing to do with technology anymore? Rory, you can't just blog about any old thing for the sake of the reaction of the internet community.

  • Comment number 29.

    What an interesting contrast between the electioneering style of GB and TB.

    I think King Tony would have smiled and made his excuses to shoo the lady off as soon as she started spouting off about Eastern Europeans, clearly making no sense and simply parroting things she's read in the Daily Mail.

    Brown has probably lost this election by failing to notice she was sub-normal intelligence and made the mistake of entertaining her rambling nonsense.

    All of his answers outside the car were pre-scripted ones that we've heard a hundred times from a hundred different members of his party. I personally would have much rather have heard from the Gordon Brown inside the car, at least he had something to say.

    Sadly, it's rare to see any sort of personality or opinion from our PM, he seems to be a mere sock puppet, reading out scripts written by David Milliband or Alistair Campbell.

  • Comment number 30.

    It's not about what he said, its about the way he really feels about people who tackle topics he doesn't like to hear - a reflection on the man's character. Sure we all pass comment on other people's attitudes - but doesn't that reflect our own attitude towards those people? he cares only about one thing. Power at any cost - and the cost will be ours to bear. The more I see of the man, the more I despise him. If he is asked to be PM on a minority vote (bent so that he gets the most seats for the least votes), there will be great unrest - which is good for no-one.

  • Comment number 31.

    His excuse - he 'misunderstood what she said'. And this is the man we're supposed to trust to have the understanding and nous to run the country? The man who sold gold at its lowest price as proof of his prudence?

    And people still say 'what a wonderful man'.

  • Comment number 32.

    I'm not a natural Labour supporter, but demonstrating that he is a shrewd judge of character puts Gordon up a notch in my estimation.

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 34.

    To me, whether or not his comments about the woman were justified or not is not the issue. As a person in power he shouldn't be saying those kind of things at all. Anyway, to me this incident further illustrates Brown's incompetence. As a person who can't even remember to remove his mic, before making negative comments about someone, how can he be trusted to run the country.

  • Comment number 35.

    So this election as we all know will be the first to be fought with new technolodgy, mainly Twitter and Facebook. But does it make a damn bit of difference if something as old as a microphone can still cause a scandle over nothing!? It seems not after Reading other comments on this blog and seeing how Bryony King who's Tweet "oh for gods sake Gordon..." has been used on national news today to ilustrate how "Distraught" she was as a Labour supporter, has been massivly misrepresented by the media to further sensationalise the story. Brown is entitled to an opinion and indeed some privacy behind closed doors and I belive it is not he but whoever was working for Sky's sound dept who has made a mistake today. I do not support the Labour party but I am tired of the media using theatre almost just to milk a story and especialy diagnosing members of the public as "distraught" etc. The media in general and more so the BBC is suposed to be non biased. Also after reading her Twitter page I think an apology is owed to Bryony King.

  • Comment number 36.

    Though of the day from Cameron and Clegg.

    "There but for the grace of God go I..."

  • Comment number 37.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 38.

    Send him over to Arizona and listen to the peoples concerns there and make that comment, won't make it out of the state alive.But plain and simple he is out of touch with the people and there concerns,he's been in office to long and time go and play with the grandchildren.

  • Comment number 39.

    I do not support Labour, and I don't particularly like Gordon Brown, however, it's a very minor thing. If anyone tells you that they've never spoken behind someone's back before, they are wrong. Simple as. Mr Brown was simply in an unfortunate enough position, as a politician, to have his views broadcast to the nation instead of just his aides.

    It's not like it was a particularly nasty comment, either. It's not quite as bad as John Major proclaiming that he would crucify some of his cabinet ministers!

  • Comment number 40.

    One of the things I find the most concerning this morning is the Lexalytics graph which clearly demonstrates how easily fooled the public are when Browns PR dept pull out all the stops after a major gaffe such as this.

    Between 12-05 and by 12-15pm, (the time of the Duffy insult) he had dropped twenty points, but by 12.50pm his recovery went back up to -5.

    Proof that given the right words to say by PR, he appears to get away with just about anything.

    Are we really so gullible in the UK now to forget so easily.

    If we are, its no wonder the country has gone to the dogs.

  • Comment number 41.

    As someone in business I take great care in avoiding making critical comments about customers, suppliers or other agencies, either in person or in my various online forms.

    Why? Because one negative word can destroy months of positive marketing effort. In a moment of frustration it's easy to wing off an email or tweet that could come back to bite.

    You'd have thought that high-profile politicians had this drilled into them by now - stay in control and when you feel the need to vent - don't! Save it until you know you're on absolutely safe ground, a long, long way from the media pack.

    But then, we're all human...

  • Comment number 42.


    and what would your co workers think of you if they heard you say it?

    Your allowed to think what you want about someone, noone should be able to stop that ever, but if you say it and they hear it you have to accept the consequences.
    The look on Browns face repulses me, like everything he is saying he simply doesn't care about!
    Brown is amongst the worst liars in British Politics.

  • Comment number 43.

    If you're interested in some analysis of the instant reactions to the final debate tonight - we're planning to publish the results shortly after the debate finishes:
    * How the leaders performed overall i.e. positive sentiment towards the leaders
    * How the leaders performed on each of the issues raised e.g. immigration, economy etc
    * Comparative analysis on the leaders across the 3 debate

    To get an idea of what we are going to provide, you can take a look now at our blog It contains exactly that sort of information on the debates to date.

  • Comment number 44.

    "Brown is amongst the worst liars in British Politics."

    In there with Tony Blair, who is the all time no 1, and Mr Cameron....

  • Comment number 45.

    Oh how we miss Arthur Scargill

  • Comment number 46.

    Hey, BBC...only smarmy idiots use Twitter. For real. It has less than a tenth of Facebook's audience. Get over it.

  • Comment number 47.

    Tend to agree that the whole thing blew up because Brown, perhaps understandably, misheard her use of the word `flocking [viz. Eastern Europeans]' to be another f-word.i.e. Everything since then has been misguided media-generated bumph since no media source wants to start throwing out the various regional pronounciations of that word to illustrate!


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