Unbelievable was the expression a colleague used yesterday when showing me the Guardian headline about the latest evidence from the News of the World hacking into the phones of people and invading their privacy.

In this case it was not a 'celebrity' - wanting to discover some salacious gossip about their only too exposed lives (which is bad enough) but that of a young teenager who was abducted and murdered. The hacker apparently even deleted some of her voice mail messages giving her shattered parents the false hope that she was alive.

Sadly, I thought this was only too believable - and not only a systemic practice at News International but one that reaches out through other practitioners of this form of journalism.

This has led to predictable and (on one level) justifiable outrage. News International has both acted illegally and in a way that is morally despicable but before we all rush out to burn copies of the News of the World on the streets and dance in the ashes (not a bad idea, as long as we do not pay for them), we might like to pause and wonder for a moment what it says about the society we have built.

Gossip, so biologist/anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues, was foundational to the birth of language. It is a social glue. Much as we might like to think we talk mostly about 'important things' - our work, our loves, the meaning of life - up to 80% of it can be characterized as gossip (and we all enjoy it,  mostly).

Now prior to 'technology' this was confined within your relatively fixed social circle and policed thereby. Having lived in a small village, though you know it can be destructive/poisonous, on the whole, gossip is managed and corrected. Every village might have 'a gossip(s)' but knowing that and that his/her likelihood of twisting and turning the truth is high, you can both enjoy and critically dismiss their 'products'.

Now it runs wild and, in addition to our personal round, it is also focused on those perceived as 'celebrities' - and one of the deepest tragedies revealed by this affair is that we appear to treat the tragic victims of crime in the 'same' way as we treat a footballer or a pop star - as a source of 'interest' with which we 'colour' our own lives.  This is a sad comment on the emptiness of those lives - neither engaged in meaningful challenge nor cradled in a circle of nourishing (as opposed to destructive or intrusive) gossip.

You can hope (fitfully and without great expectation) that as this scandal unfolds we might get beyond merely the blood-letting of sacrificial editors to a more systemic exploration of what has gone wrong. This might include the collapse of journalism feeding an ever more desperate rush to the bottom as print media implodes, the ownership of newspapers in the hands of single 'moguls' maximizing profit and spreading ideology; as well as on our own failings - lives that need the vicarious proximity of status to make more bearable and which models of human being we chose to project that status.


  1. In 1824/ 25, the memoirs of a London courtesan Harriette Wilson were published in installments, and the juiciest bits reproduced all over Europe on imaginatively illustrated broadsheets. The most famous person featured in them was the Duke of Wellington, though there was a conglomeration of other notables (including bishops!) in there as well. And not all of them had the same attitude as he did, that Stockdale should just get on and do it rather than troubling him with blackmail threats.

    So perhaps the world hasn't changed that much, at least for the last 200 years....


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