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.Reuse content