The man who scored an own goal with his foot in his mouth

There was a time when if the great and good made a gaffe it was either glossed over, or went unreported.

How today’s politicians, film stars and assortment of celebrities must yearn for those days. With wall-to-wall news coverage and a growing army of people using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, even the slightest gaffe is pounced on by the media and can go viral reaching a global audience in just a matter of minutes.

Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards is the latest public figure to find himself making an apology after claiming that FIFA and UEFA had “stolen” football from England. The Yorkshireman made the remarks at a conference in Qatar on Wednesday and later capped a forgettable day by falling into a water feature at an evening function.

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He issued a statement apologising for what he had said and later said: “I am a Yorkshireman and I am quite broad and if I say something it can be taken out of a little bit of context. I was asked about the heritage of the game, I would never want to offend FIFA or UEFA. I used a word which was, looking back, probably inappropriate but it is the way I am.”

Some people will sympathise with the football boss, after all who hasn’t said something they’ve regretted from time to time? Many of us will, in a moment of carelessness, have sent an email to the wrong person and wished they hadn’t. This might be embarrassing but the difference is when we put our foot in it we don’t do it in front of the TV cameras, or in a room full of reporters.

Having said that, some people are the architects of their own misfortune. A meeting of the Institute of Directors may not usually make the front page, but Gerald Ratner’s speech in 1991 was pure poetry. “We also do cut glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray, all for £4.95,” Ratner told a soon-to-be bemused audience.

“People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say because it’s total crap”. Notoriety quickly followed, along with a loss of profits totalling £122m. Ratner later said he hadn’t expect to be reported and that his remarks were not meant to be taken seriously, but by then the damage was done.

Big sporting events are a particularly bad time to make a mistake as ITV found to its cost when it missed one of the few highlights of England’s 2010 World Cup campaign. The broadcaster switched its HD coverage to an advert just as Steven Gerrard was about to score a goal.

Sometimes gaffes arise from a genuine mix-up. Guy Goma, a graduate from the Congo, was waiting in the BBC’s Television Centre for a job interview, when he was mistaken for an IT expert with a similar name and found himself thrust unwittingly into a live debate on the BBC’s News Channel. “I was very shocked. I just thought ‘keep going,’” he said afterwards. Which he did, all the way into broadcasting folklore.

Such mistakes are rare, a much more likely trap to befall an unsuspecting politician or TV anchorman is when they’re caught doing, or saying, something they shouldn’t. Weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker found himself in hot water for making a rude gesture live on air. He raised his middle finger after news presenter Simon McCoy jokingly said his forecast would be “100 per cent accurate”. After realising he had been shown on screen, Schafernaker tried to cover up by pretending to scratch his chin.

There are some people, of course, like Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson, who have gained a reputation for making controversial comments, but when prime ministers drop a clanger it becomes headline news.

In 2010, while on the campaign trail in Rochdale ahead of the general election, the then PM Gordon Brown had what might be politely called a “bad day at the office.” During a whistle-stop tour of a local neighbourhood he was approached by a woman, Gillian Duffy, who tackled him on a series of issues including immigration and benefits.

As he was driven away with a radio microphone still attached to him, he complained to an aide before calling her a “bigoted woman.” Mortified by what had happened he was quick to apologise publicly to the grandmother, but as he sat in a radio station, head in hands, listening to his comments being played back to him, you could almost hear him thinking, “why me?”

So is there, we ask ourselves, any way of avoiding such mishaps? Short of keeping your mouth shut at all times it would seem the answer is probably “no.” Perhaps all we can say is you can’t shoot yourself in the foot when it’s in your mouth.