Tom Sutcliffe: No shame in gossip – it shows we're human

Social Studies: I am curious about celebrities – not because they are famous but because they're people

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Gossip has had a very bad press just 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. And to be curious about which particular television actor it was who had been scratching the immemorial marital itch is not just vulgar, it is immoral. 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," he wrote, "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.

Not a lot happens in this hypothetical small town, I take it, and while you might not immediately scurry to pass this intelligence on it would count as a high-value coin in the currency of local knowledge. I suppose it would be admirably high-minded to talk instead of parking restrictions on the high street or the merits of an interest-rate rise – but wouldn't there be something a tiny bit puritanical in hoarding this tit-bit to yourself, an insulting implication that such knowledge was safe with you but not with your friends? Isn't there something a little pinched about that discretion?

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 (rather than simply thoughtful about the way they exercise that interest) 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 – although the lives contained within them are entirely imaginary – we read novels with such deep fascination.

Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, you could argue, are the apotheosis of gossip. It's also why hearing a piece of gossip can simultaneously stir quite contradictory feelings in us, of genuine sympathy for the individual gossiped about and a detached fascination with the vagaries of human desire. It's a bit of a mess, but then a lot of human life is.

So I'll come clean, I am curious about the difference between celebrities' public personas and their private behaviour – not because they are famous (though it never hurts, to be honest) 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 (probably a historical constant in both cases), 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.

Why don't we trust what we see?

Gallup opened an intriguing window on to the gap between the world as we see it and the world as it is with a recent poll which asked US adults to guess what percentage of their fellow countrymen were gay or lesbian. Gallup's respondents, on average, thought that one in four Americans were, with 35 per cent of people believing that the number was even higher than that. Which leaves you wondering how on earth they arrived at their guesses.

The majority of those replying must have known that one in four of their own immediate acquaintances weren't gay – so they presumably assumed that they lived in an anomalous oasis of heterosexuality. More to the point is this good news or bad? Paranoia or a symptom of acceptance? More research please. Sometimes the misperceptions are more interesting than the things we get right.

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