We're drowning in gaffes this summer: linesman gaffes at the World Cup; Michael Gove's gaffe about school-building; Tony Hayward's glittering
array of BP gaffes; Jeremy Hunt's Hillsborough gaffe; Prince Charles's immigrant-at-Glastonbury gaffe. We can't get enough of them.

But why? One reason must be that they are a gift for lazy journos. Look! There's your story, gift-wrapped with added humour. Also, they're exposing, yet the exposure hasn't come from without, which can seem cruel, but from within, which means it's fair game for everyone and their aunt to pitch in and have an opinion on what an idiot the "gaffer" is and why they should resign with immediate effect.

But gaffe has become one of those terms that cover all manner of things. Look at the list above. A linesman not giving a goal when it was obviously scored in the biggest sporting tournament in the world is less a gaffe and more the biggest balls-up of his professional career. Prince Charles asking an Australian bloke if he had a work permit was, in his regal eyes, probably not an embarrassing mistake at all, but a perfectly reasonable, if clearly offensive, question.

That's the problem with gaffes: the range is too wide. We need to narrow down the definition. For guidance, there's no better place to start than the Ultimate Gaffe: Gillian Duffy. I know, I know, old news and no one even remembers who Gordon Brown is any more, but it was the master-gaffe, the one that would sweep the board at the Gaffe Oscars. And that is for one simple reason: Brown was saying what he really thought. The only error was that he was overheard.

But then, if we define gaffe that way, we're really dependent on microphones. How else are we to pick up these titbits of bracing honesty? Maybe that's the answer: let's turn Big Brother back on them, secretly bug politicians' private offices and broadcast selected highlights in Trafalgar Square on Sunday afternoons. It will at least give us all something to do now that the World Cup is over.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain