Belfast Telegraph

Gossip needn't be cruel, it's part of human nature

By Tom Sutcliffe

Gossip has had a very bad press recently - what with the super-injunction rows and Twitter storms and parliamentary blurtings.

I've lost count of the high-minded columnists who've grandly announced in print that they care nothing for the peccadilloes of football players and beauty queens and who forcefully hint that anyone who does is a low dog.

Our interest in gossip, they've argued, is evidence of a debased culture of celebrity and casual cruelty.

My colleague Terence Blacker joined in last week, using a hypothetical example of local gossip to clarify the argument. "If I happened to spot, late one night in my local town, that famous marital adventurer Mike Chaud-Lapin checking into Ye Olde Goat Hotel with a former Miss Norfolk and then I scurried around to tell all and sundry what I had seen, few people would think my behaviour was dignified or seemly."

To which I'd like to reply with two objections and a confession. Firstly "scurried" is a glaringly prejudicial word. Secondly, how do you know he's a "famous marital adventurer" unless you've been listening to the gossip of others? And thirdly (this is the confession) I really would think your behaviour a little odd if you didn't mention it at all.

I don't want to argue that gossip isn't subject to morality. It can be malicious, it can hurt and it can feed the baser appetites. It needs watching carefully.

But it is also an ineradicable human instinct. More than that, I think you can make an argument that it's a humane one.

For one thing, prurience is the flip-side of empathy. Show me someone who is genuinely indifferent to the private lives of other people and I would suggest that they're missing a vital human component.

We're social animals and we understand ourselves better by understanding how others behave and misbehave. It's why we read novels with such deep fascination. Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, you could argue, are the apotheosis of gossip. So I'll come clean: I am curious about the difference between celebrities' public personas and their private behaviour - not because they are famous, but because they're people and I'm interested in what other people do.

And - though I certainly recognise that gossip is causing some problems right now - I still don't feel hugely ashamed about my interest in it.

The difficulty we find ourselves with regard to privacy has less to do with a sudden increase in interest in gossip, or a sudden increase in its perniciousness, but with the technological transformation of our access to it.

What used to be geographically and socially limited has become promiscuous. The garden fence has a global broadcast system wired into it. Alastair Campbell said something interesting in relation to this in a newspaper debate with the MP John Hemming the other day.

"Back in the days when I was a journalist," said Campbell, "there were very rare occasions when there was an injunction, but when there was, within the newspaper the lawyers would talk about it, the journalists would talk about it, we'd go home and talk to our families about it, they would talk to their friends about it."

In other words, they traded interesting information, as people always have done. Campbell's implication seemed to be that that was fine, because gossip was hand-made, back then, and travelled by foot within a charmed circle.

Publication was one thing, private conversation quite another and there was a moat between them. That gap has vanished and we may well need to adjust our laws to address it.

But, if so, let's not do it on the basis of a priggish disdain for the fact that human beings are fascinated by what other human beings get up to.

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