Liz and Bill, Sally's snog and Wendi's alleged paean to Blair's behind: It's been a good week for scandal...

As fact and tittle-tattle interbreed online, they create a strain of gossip that helps create the news agenda – whether we like it or not

Share

As the phone-hacking trials continue their stately progress towards a conclusion, we are often told: gossip isn't what it used to be. The impeccably sourced tabloid scoops of old are thin on the ground these days, and in the absence of the News of the World there's no one with the nerve to give us the inside story of a really scandalous romp. Once we had Golden Balls and Rebecca Loos; now there's only Lee Ryan chasing his own tail on Celebrity Big Brother.

If the general standard of tittle-tattle has deteriorated, though, we seem to be in the middle of an Indian summer. The transgressions of Hugh Grant and a French president would have fit right in the 1990s, and last week we had a trifecta of rumours, substantiated to varying degrees, that felt like front pages from another era: Sally Bercow's snog, Liz Hurley's entirely fictional tryst with Bill Clinton, and the former Mrs Rupert Murdoch's alleged paean to Tony Blair's behind. It would have been a good week even in the glory days.

These stories might be thinner on the ground than they used to be. But if their prominence and the general gasps that greeted each one are anything to go by, our appetites have not shifted correspondingly upmarket. Indeed, as the prosecution case wraps up at the Old Bailey, it's tempting to observe that in the three years since the News of the World closed, the tabloid press hasn't really been cowed at all; instead, for better or worse, its values and interests have spread out.

Whether this is a bad thing is not completely clear. It's certainly a bit more honest, because no one has to worry about other people seeing what they're reading any more. A process that has been under way for nearly two decades, since broadsheet newspapers started to recognise that their readers were not only interested in macroeconomic policy, has suddenly accelerated in recent years, as the maturing online-native media has abandoned the prissy delineations between high and low to which print still tenuously clings. Now we all navigate between the Sidebar of Shame and The Economist, rarely pausing to ask if we should be interested in the former if we understand the latter. Comments below the line may deny that readers have anything to do with this; IS THIS NEWS?, they will demand. But there's something dishonest in the question. After all, you clicked on it.

The strange thing about all three of this week's red-top blockbusters is that none of them really feels that invasive, when, of course, they really are. The Blair story – in Vanity Fair, no less – comes with a fig leaf of respectability, since the former prime minister's relationship with Rupert Murdoch is one of the defining features of the last political era. But even this is bogus: there is no suggestion, after all, that the crush which supposedly led Wendi Deng to write of Mr Blair's "such good body … really really good legs Butt..." began until long after he had left office.

As for Ms Bercow and the Hurley-Clinton entanglement: these concern an unelected private individual and the invention of a storytelling ex-boyfriend, respectively. And yet the wave of intellectual scorn that would once have rippled through much of the response to these tales is all but becalmed. I follow more than 2,000 people on Twitter. A quick search of their posts finds that plenty said "WOAHH WENDI DENG 'BUTT'", or words to that effect; not one expressed disdain.

While privacy as a concept withers for the rest of us, we are likely to make the same assumption about the lives of public figures. But we do so without ever really interrogating the process. The strange thing about the endless phone-hacking story is that the ennui it ultimately engendered has closed down a much more profound debate. We have talked a lot about how awful it is to illegally access someone's phone messages; but after an easy consensus on that, we have largely stopped thinking about all the other ways in which celebrity journalism is morally complicated without actually breaking the law.

I spend as much time consulting BuzzFeed as anybody else, and often find points of individualised human connection in celebrity stories sorely lacking in more profound news items. Who cannot see, in Justin Bieber's travails, a story that summarises our times? Curiously, too, as news and gossip interbreed ever more often in the online ecosystem, they create a strain of gossip that really is news, whether you like it or not.

You might not feel that a man's propensity to sleep around is a fair way of judging his suitability for elected office, and if the analysis could ever be so simple I would agree with you. But, as François Hollande may be learning to his cost, it is now more complex than that. Put the charge a different way: is a man suitable for office if he knows a course of action could derail his presidency, but takes it anyway? I don't know the answer, but I don't think the question is unreasonable.

There's a problem with this analysis, of course: by admitting that an invasive news agenda can create political reality, it only makes it more likely to do so in future. This is a pretty depressing state of affairs. So how do you acknowledge reality, admit the allegorical and entertainment value of the celebrity world, and try to push back a bit at the same time? It may be too late to do so, but not to at least try seems like an awful surrender.

To move even a step away from gossip begins with an observation that feels dismally unhip, so obvious, that it is barely worth making. Yet it is an observation also completely excluded from the conversation, even by the protagonist. In short: who Sally Bercow chooses to kiss is, despite all appearances to the contrary, still absolutely none of our business.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobOur client is looki...

Teacher

£130 - £131 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobOur client is looki...

Foundation Stage Teacher

£130 - £131 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobOur client is looki...

Supply Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker