Friday 20 September 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Pass it on: here's why Pope Francis was wrong about 'sinful' gossip'

We pretend to look down on trivial information and gossip, but it drives news, art, and life itself, writes Donal Lynch

Pope Francis. Photo: AP/Alessandra Tarantino
Pope Francis. Photo: AP/Alessandra Tarantino
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Gossip is one of those words that has unjustly bad associations. For most of us, it's a guilty pleasure, an unseen workplace current that runs counter to carefully cc-ed emails and corporate messaging. At a media level, gossip columnists, despite being some of the hardest-working pros in the business, are considered by the general public to be the tackier counterparts of, say, investigative or business journalists.

The once-venerated society page writer is a thing of the past. Gossip is considered petty, irresponsible, and curiously feminine.

Now we can add to the charge sheet against gossip, that it's also, according to the Pope anyway, a grave sin that contributes to the existence of Fake News. "The tongue kills like a knife," our summer-time guest told an audience at the Vatican last week. "Gossipers are terrorists, because with their tongues they drop a bomb and then leave, and the bomb they drop destroys reputations everywhere."

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But, psst, have you heard the one about the parish priest and the cover-up? One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and the Pope's stance is to be expected: it was, after all, talk and rumour that first ignited many of the scandals that have engulfed the church over the last quarter century. The established legal and social channels more or less failed abuse survivors; it was only a groundswell of people privately, and then not-so-privately, comparing notes that eventually led to court cases, handcuffs and payouts.

The church scandals were not alone in this progression from 'fake' to real news. Gossip, despite its terrible rep, is both the catalyst and the heart of most of the major news stories of our time. Wikileaks, for all its billing as a huge reveal about true geopolitical intentions, was really what Caitlin Moran once called "the greatest gossip spill in history", full of delicious, embarrassing details about politicians, which were, let's face it, far more satisfying than learning that they all spy on each other.

The MeToo movement would never have gotten going unless there had been a rising cacophony of unsubstantiated whispers about the men in question.

In the past few weeks, the existence of tapes of the Khashoggi murder only became apparent after weeks of rumours made it seem that there must be some fire to go with the clouds of smoke.

Even gossip magazines, the most scorned of all media, fulfil our deep and very human desire for storytelling - a desire that unites people across time and place. Far from being evidence of widespread moral corrosion, they provide comfort and identification for media consumers, who otherwise see and hear only the most choreographed and self-serving of celebrity and political news.

It was gossip that made the masses identify with Princess Diana and gossip that drives the Trump presidency. The only difference between their two eras is that in Trump's time the rumours from the tabloid magazines make their way up the media chain, into the likes of Time and Newsweek much more quickly than ever before.

It's presumed that trivial information is also dumb, but Thoreau was right when he admitted that, "To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea".

The Pope, despite what you might have read, is no philosopher. To his very literal way of thinking, the world is divided into things we know to be true and things we do not. Something like gossip, which straddles these two worlds and appeals to our imaginative intelligence, is beyond him. And yet it is irrepressible. It fills in the blanks of things we already suspected, but couldn't be sure of. Like novelists or amateur sleuths we have an ear for a gleaming detail, something 'juicy' which contains at least enough truth for a hearing.

It is a human instinct that runs counter to power and is mere fuel for a more robust kind of ego: Oscar Wilde was right when he said that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about.

And, of course, much more broadly than Wilde, literature is replete with gossip. Writing in The New York Times, the critic Cynthia Ozick laid out the extent of it: "In the absence of secrets revealed - in the absence of rumour and repute and misunderstanding and misdirection - no Chaucer, no Boccaccio, no Boswell, no Jane Austen, no Maupassant, no Proust, no Henry James! The instant Eve took in that awakening morsel of serpentine gossip, Literature in all its variegated forms was born."

In his explosive hyperbole last week - "terrorism" indeed - the Pope showed that, despite his distaste for Fake News, he is not above a bit of click bait himself.

And, perhaps, in this particular case, as with so many of his dire warnings, the best thing to do might be to forget the moralising for a sweet moment - and get in the good goss.

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