Look, what a lot of dust I raise. Scandal and scurrilities, wrote Voltaire, are the bad fruits from a very good tree called liberty. Sebastian Shakespeare on why politicians make the best gossips of them all

Scandal: a scurrilous history of gossip

Roger Wilkes <em>Atlantic Books, 363pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN

W H Auden, speaking on the BBC in 1937, offered this defence of gossip: "Who would rather learn the facts of Augustus's imperial policy than discover he had spots on his stomach?" He answered his own question thus: "No one." Another ardent apologist was Malcolm Muggeridge (ex-Evening Standard Londoner's Diarist). "I love gossip," he wrote. "I confess I am far more interested in who sleeps with whom than in who voted for whom."

We all love to gossip, even if we feel slightly guilty about it. Whether gossip deserves its own history is another matter. In his long narrative, Roger Wilkes dutifully takes us from the Elizabethan pamphleteers to 17th-century Grub Street and on to Regency London, where scurrilous scandal sheets were hawked in the streets, via the "new journalism" of W T Stead to modern-day tabloid Britain. All the usual suspects are here: Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Tom Driberg, Walter Winchell and Matt Drudge. The author seems to equate scandal with sex. So there is overmuch on Cecil Parkinson, Princess Diana and Jeremy Thorpe, but no mention, strangely, of Robert Maxwell.

Sex, naturally, is what sold the original scandal sheets. The Morning Post of the 1770s teemed with salacious paragraphs and heralded the advent of "puffs", whereby readers could place damaging items for a small fee. It was a risky business. Henry Bate, editor of the Post, known as "the fighting parson", was jailed for 12 months for a libel on the Duke of Richmond. After emerging from prison, he rejoined the Church.

Scandal is interesting as far as it goes, but it contains many- too many - lacunae from the modern era. There is no mention of Page Six of the New York Post, for example. Nor is there much space devoted to the Daily Telegraph's Peterborough column, where the indefatigable Bill Deedes worked for 30 years as a columnist and continued to file paragraphs while he was still an MP. Elsewhere, a chapter on Londoner's Diary neglects to mention the occasion in 1938 when Winston Churchill stood in for his son Randolph, then editing the column, for a week. No doubt this was the first and last time a future prime minister ever became a gossip writer, though there is always a job open here on the desk at the Evening Standard for Tony Blair, as and when he is ready. Nevertheless, the author provides some entertaining anecdotes. I enjoyed the no doubt apocryphal tale about the 19th-century New York magazine Town Topics. Whenever outraged readers appeared at the office threatening to horsewhip the author of a disobliging story, employees were instructed to burst into tears and explain: "You can't - he died yesterday. Those were the last words he ever wrote."

Scandal is a chronological compendium and therein perhaps lies the problem. The author develops no overriding thesis other than to make the observation that gossip is now everywhere when once it was relegated to the inside pages. And not just everywhere: in the author's characteristically hyperbolic phrase, gossip "has gone nuclear". But the author never strays far beyond Fleet Street. Nor is the role of PRs in gossip examined in sufficient detail. Fifty years ago, the desperate press agent was in thrall to the all-powerful gossip columnist, as portrayed in the film Sweet Smell of Success, in which Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) played second fiddle to J J Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). These days, the roles have been reversed and the likes of Max Clifford are in the ascendant. Readers would prefer to deal with an honest broker rather than a dishonest trade. Clifford likes to think he brought down the last Conservative government, and there may be some truth in his boast. At least, new Labour thought so at the time. In the dying days of the sleaze-ridden Major government, Clifford told me that he would be rung by "men in the dark" who thanked him for his work. When these same men became Labour cabinet ministers, they were less eager to communicate with him.

In my experience, politicians often make the best gossips because they are ever determined to thwart their rivals and burnish their own reputations. For many anonymous backbenchers, a diary story is their first taste of fame. I have lost count of the times one MP (now a minister) has asked me to plant stories about him, and Lord Archer would always agitate for me to write about his charity work. (Our friendship never recovered from a lunch at the Pont de la Tour at which I asked him about the prostitute Monica Coughlin. "Monica said I had no body hair," he shrieked, rising to unbutton his shirt.)

Gossip mocks our trivial lives and pricks our overinflated egos. It is a necessary evil, and can be a force for good. The best defence of gossip I read in recent years did not come from a journalist but from Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who, alas, passes unmentioned here. Gossip, he wrote, reinforces a sense of reality: people say what they really think and feel, revealing something important about other people and themselves.

The word "gossip", remarkably, has spiritual origins, which may have appealed to the good bishop. A gossip was originally the sponsor for a child at its baptism, the word being a corruption of Old English "godsibb" ("godparent"). From this sense, it came to denote a woman's female friend at the birth of a child and the casual chit-chat they indulged in. Hence, Dr Johnson's definition of a gossip as "one who runs about tattling like women at a lying-in". Today's 3am girls on the Daily Mirror continue a long-established tradition of female gossip columnists, from Della Manley, who launched the Female Tatler in 1709, to the Hollywood siren Hedda Hopper, who played herself in Sunset Boulevard.

Gossip, at its worst, is prurient and malicious, and there is nothing more risible than a self-important gossip columnist. They remind me of the fly in Aesop's Fables. "Look, what a lot of dust I raise," says the fly on the axle of the chariot. Voltaire, I think, got it about right: "Scandal and scurrilities are the bad fruits of a very good tree called liberty." As to the success of a gossip column, the best advice was perhaps given by Tom Driberg, Labour MP and the former editor of the William Hickey column in the Daily Express. "The real secret is not to appeal to the majority but to appeal to as large a number of minorities as possible."

In the end, it is hard to know to whom this book will appeal. If you care about Hedda Hopper's worst professional moment, this is the book for you. If, like Harold Nicolson (another ex-Londoner's Diarist), you think "gossip is a constant, hurried triviality which is bad for the mind", then stay away. The author has not stinted on his research, but it seems he has spent rather too long in the cuttings library. His febrile narrative seldom rises above a certain type of breathless tabloid prose.

Gossip and history are not natural bedfellows. Gossip should bring something new to the party. History is about tidying up after the party is over. Recycling anecdotes from the past three centuries does not make instructive, let alone scurrilous, reading. This book, as the late Lord Rothermere allegedly remarked of Nigel Dempster's column, tastes like "an old, cold fried potato".

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the London Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary