Belfast Telegraph

They say gossip is no substitute for real news. Hello?

By Sarah Churchwell

News of Cheryl and Ashley Cole's separation has been met with a predictable mix of salaciousness, sanctimony, and scorn.

The scorn isn't merely directed at yet another alpha male who can't keep his trousers on: as usual, we're also loudly condemning scandal-mongering itself — even as we're engaged in it.

The Coles' story isn't just about sex, it's about gossip — which have a way of coinciding, and then prompting jeremiads against the degeneration of public discourse from ‘proper’ news to Hello! magazine.

In point of fact, gossip magazines are as old as ‘proper’ newspapers. Exactly 300 years ago, between 1709 and 1711, Sir Richard Steele founded two magazines: The Spectator, and Tatler: one promises voyeurism, the other tittle-tattle.

Doubtless we're giving the 18th century a run for its money, in part because the internet has created a similar social revolution to magazines. But gossip is nothing new; it's our most ancient form of storytelling. Homer’s Odyssey is gossip, largely interested in whether Odysseus and Penelope are cheating on each other.

From Sheridan's The School for Scandal to Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, we've always been fascinated by the possibility of sexual scandal bringing down the rich and mighty: gossip is the weapon of the weak against the powerful.

It is also, by no coincidence, traditionally the province of women. The word “gossip” derives from godmothers, the female friends invited to a birth.

Some anthropologists argue gossip makes us human; gossip defines social categories and group allegiances.

‘Team Cheryl’ are identifying with betrayed wives, rallying against unfaithful, powerful men. As Bill Clinton learnt, gossip can topple presidencies, while the canard that Marie Antoinette declared, “Let them eat cake” didn't extend her life-expectancy.

There's a reason why the 18th century called it “detraction”: they knew that “fame is a kind of goods, which, when once taken away, can hardly be restored”.

Presumably Tiger Woods, John Terry, and Ashley Cole are all mastering this 18th-century meaning.

Meanwhile, Cheryl's ritualistic plea for privacy is being met by (equally ritualistic) rejoinders that she sold pictures of her wedding to OK!, thus symbolically relinquishing all claims to the privacy she bartered away.

This may be sanctimonious, but gossip is judgmental; it deals in transgression as much as in vicarious participation.

As Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere's Fan, “Gossip is charming. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

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