Tell us the truth: are the papers ruled by a mafia of gossips?


Three weeks ago, Auberon Waugh wrote the New Statesman diary. Characteristically, he used it to make a very clever joke (at least, I think it was a joke; you can never be certain with Waugh) about the British press's preoccupation with gossip and trivia. Most of this gossip, he protested, was about television and sports starlets of whom he had never heard. Why, then, did the press ignore trivia about an important figure like John Prescott? Why did it not, Waugh demanded, discuss Prescott's wig? That Prescott (probably) does not wear a wig and that nobody should care if he does was beside the point: regard for truth and significance did not normally inhibit tabloid reporting.

I long ago learnt to beware of satire: trying to mock Tory proposals to bring markets to schools, I suggested something similar for the police (a public choice between rival forces; extra funds for those who got to burglaries quickest; dilatory constables to go out of business), only to be told the following week that a nephew of Milton Friedman had put forward, in all seriousness, exactly such a scheme. And sure enough events have overtaken Waugh's joke at astonishing speed. This week, we have had a nation absorbed in the question of how many of its politicians are homosexual. I cannot decide which would have amazed my distant predecessor, Kingsley Martin, more: that such a matter should monopolise our attention or that, on Monday morning, it was left to the Express (now staffed largely by former Independent journalists bent on civilising the masses) to come up with a front-page lead of public importance. This announced government plans to give men three months' statutory, albeit unpaid, paternity leave.

I've no doubt that more ministers will soon be "outed". Just as, once one Alsatian dog has savaged a child, Alsatians up and down the country start attacking children at an alarming rate, so homosexual ministers will start emerging from closets through the length and breadth of Whitehall. It is the way journalism works; that's the story of the week and every reporter in the country is on the alert for mincing politicians, just as, another week, they are alert for savage dogs, gangrenous diseases or murderous four year olds. The Sun reported on Monday that four out of 21 cabinet members are gay (with more, as it were, to come), against 10 per cent of adults generally. Ergo, we must be in the grip of a "gay mafia". Our "potentially great Prime Minister" - he becomes actually great, I suppose, if he does as Rupert Murdoch instructs him - was enjoined to "tell us the truth".

So our public debate is gripped by what would once have been thought idle gossip. I have always defended press rights to expose the sexual wanderings of politicians, mainly because they (the politicians) so often try, through election manifestos or magazine profiles, to present themselves as dedicated family men, who snatch precious minutes from Westminster for bedtime stories or the weekly Tesco shop. But Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson have never, so far as I know, presented a false image of themselves to the public. They have not even bothered to deny their homosexuality; they have merely omitted to confirm it.

The public interest, then, doesn't even get to the starting block in these instances. In Bill Clinton's case, by contrast, the American public had every right to be concerned: not just at the exploitation of a young government employee but at the false image of marital harmony, wifely forgiveness and repentant husband so carefully crafted for the electorate through two presidential campaigns. The American public was deceived. Yet, as we now know, it still didn't care. And I doubt that all the revelations about what Brown, Mandelson, Davies et al get up to in bed or on the common will make a jot of difference to Labour's re-election chances.

Does this mean that nobody, in Britain or America, wants to read about ministerial hanky-panky? It does not. The truth is that we just want gossip, that the newspapers will give it to us and that, despite the Sun's valiant attempts, they have more or less given up pretending that it has any real political significance. (Remember how David Mellor's performance in his Chelsea strip was supposed to have made him too tired to give a coherent parliamentary statement?) We do not, after all, stop watching films and television programmes or withdraw our support from football clubs after we learn of the stars' adultery or drunkenness or domestic violence. Why should politicians be different? They, too, have now become just another branch of showbusiness, as the royal family did about a decade ago.

The real journalistic losers in this are the gossip columnists. Once, we turned to them for little hints about the private lives of the famous; they carried the stories that newspapers couldn't quite stand up or which they didn't quite dare print. Now, gossip is all over the front pages: entire governments are thrown into panic and confusion by it, as they never would be by, say, a failure to deliver aid to Honduras or an inaccurate forecast of economic growth. The gossip columns themselves are mere backwaters, offering mind-numbingly uninteresting snippets of information - Frank Dobson had eaten an Indian meal, one of them informed me this week - or simply becoming the vehicle for extended personal jokes, as with Matthew Norman in the Guardian or the brilliantly anarchic Charles Nevin in the Independent on Sunday. Nevin's, indeed, is a sort of postmodernist anti- gossip column, in which the main running gag is that various excitable correspondents ring him up with stories that he doesn't understand and doesn't find very interesting.

And now I should explain all this: end of ideology, the personal is political, etc, etc. But space has run out and, in any case, is anybody interested? Does it need explaining? Aren't we all just happy to read the gossip? Rhetorical questions, I know. But ask them again when you see the newspaper circulation figures for the past few gossip-rich weeks.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians