Privacy Laws and Celebrity Gossip

It may be inevitable that the judiciary is set apart from the hoi polloi, but this cultural aloofness can cause them to make some monumental blunders. With their head in the clouds they fail to see what’s going on in the real world. To tackle one misdemeanour, they introduce laws which can’t be enforced and frequently impose more serious injustices. One such gaffe is currently being made in Britain, where high court judges are sanctioning injunctions designed to protect the disclosure of tittle-tattle about the insalubrious private lives of politicians and A-List celebrities. These orders may effectively ban the press from publishing matter which might embarrass celebrities like Wayne Rooney and Jeremy Clarkson, but it can’t block their dissemination on the internet. This loop hole is ‘making a mockery’ of the court orders, according to Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. This outcome could well have been predicted, for gossip has never yet been stopped by government edict. The last time it was tried was during the war, when the government issued posters with slogans proclaiming that ‘Idle talk costs lives’ and ‘Walls have ears.’ Few if any took notice. The only change is that today we live in a global village, where gossip travels through cyberspace quicker and faster than it ever did before by word-of-mouth transmission.  .

Evolutionary psychologists welcome this development, because they recognize that gossip is an important means of social bonding. It makes people accountable, and checks that they’re playing by the moral code and therefore merit our support. When we share intimacies, we strengthen our friendship ties. This is how the word gossip got its name, from the old English word godsibb, which means a baptismal sponsor or god-sibbling. From there it evolved to encompass all close friends with whom we share our tittle-tattle. The exchange of these intimacies also helps to bind working groups. At one time a gossip was known as a scuttlebutt, This slang word arose in the British navy when seamen gathered together and tittle-tattled while drawing water from a barrel known at the time as a ‘scutter butt’. The same occurs today, when workers escape from their desks and gather around the communal water dispenser. This is a valuable bonding experience according to the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar who, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, argues that gossip serves the same function in humans as grooming does in our primate cousins. We feel better about ourselves if we cut other people down to size. The streetwise also know that if they want to discover a person’s fault, all they have to do is accost their closest friends and tell them what a paragon of virtue they are: then the truth will out.

Celebrities are being two faced when they try to censor this activity. Deep down they almost certainly agree with Oscar Wilde, who enjoyed his fame, and confessed: ‘The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.’  Media figures engage PR consultants to broadcast their strengths, and lawyers to stop us discovering their weaknesses. We must have the freedom to gossip, and this can be a positive process providing we avoid the temptation to spread vicious calumnies. Arnold Jacobs, a Manhattan journalist, recently carried out a year-long experiment to follow the bible’s moral instructions as faithfully as he could. The one he found most difficult to observe was the Old Testament injunction to stop talking with an ‘evil tongue’. He tried, and was shocked to discover how accustomed he was to talking unpleasantly about other people. In his book A Year of Living Biblically, he reports that the biggest lesson he learnt was to find that, ‘When I stopped gossiping, I stopped having negative thoughts about people. Ideally, then, we should carry on gossiping, while

bearing in mind the words of Edward Wallis Hoch, the 17th Governor of Kansas State: ‘There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us, to talk about the rest of us.’  If that doesn’t curb our malicious tittle-tattling, perhaps we should take heed of the Turkish proverb: ‘Always remember that someone who gossips with you, will gossip about you.’

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