Sarah Vine is among the 60% of us who have sent a note to the wrong person. It may be embarrassing but it may not be accidental, offering the chance to express our true feelings
Perhaps Sarah Vine is hoping people are too busy watching the political landscape implode to have taken much notice of her blunder last week: the leaking of an embarrassing email she wrote to her husband, Michael Gove. In it she advises him how best to handle Boris Johnson and goads him to be his “stubborn best”.
Ambitious and scheming, it is a missive that has seen Vine compared to Claire Underwood from the television series House of Cards and, more cruelly, to Lady Macbeth. Particularly embarrassing is the fact that it was leaked by Vine herself. When emailing it to Gove’s staff, she accidentally copied in a member of the public. They, in turn, forwarded it to Sky News.
To err is human, to accidentally cc is a modern hazard. If you haven’t humiliated yourself by email, as far as the 21st century is concerned you haven’t lived.
I accidentally emailed someone just last week. After popping over to pick up some keys from a friend’s relative, I dropped my mate an email observing, “OMG your cousin is hot!” Only to realise, the moment I pressed send, the hot cousin was still copied into our chat.
A journalist friend was at the brutal end of this recently when she pitched a story to an editor only to receive an email reply, into which she had been accidentally copied. It read: “There is nothing I want to read less.” This is the classic accidental cc: erroneously emailing someone, usually whomever you are insulting at the time, probably because they are on your mind.
In his book Great Email Disasters, Chas Newkey-Burden quotes a survey by the search engine Lycos claiming that 60% of us have sent an email to the wrong person, on nearly a quarter of occasions to the person being mocked.
“If someone writes a nasty email about someone, they’re thinking about the person as they send it,” Newkey-Burden says. “So there is a real danger of them accidentally addressing it to the very person they’re slagging off.”
This is presumably what happened when Alastair Campbell sent an email to Newsnight telling them to “f*** off and cover something important you t****!”. Campbell claims he intended to send it to a Labour party official, in response to a query from Newsnight, but sent it directly to the Newsnight journalist Andrew McFadyen instead.
In the same vein, the then executive editor of BBC Sports News, Graeme Reid-Davies, embarrassed himself when Radio 5 Live hired football commentators Andy Gray and Jonathan Pearce for the 2002 World Cup. “I think they’re both crap,” he said in an email to a colleague. He accidentally copied in 500 BBC sports staff, including Gray and Pearce.
Some email mistakes involve copying in people we are thinking about; others reveal a guilty conscience. According to Lycos, sex texts feature in 33%of mis-sent messages. Like the time my friend, a lawyer, wrote a steamy fantasy to his girlfriend worthy of The Hite Report, only to email it accidentally to all the lawyers working with him on a case. Afterwards he tried to invoke legal privilege as he begged them not to share it.