The Informal Rules Westminster
Gossip, everybody engages in it: even the people who claim to be above it all. Normally, gossip surrounds one’s social circle and thus tends to be relatively harmless. However, when the particular social circle consists of people in charge of the country, this ‘harmless’ gossip is not so harmless anymore. It is unavoidable that people who work in or around politics engage in salacious conversations about their co-workers or people they vaguely know from the scene. Politicians and journalists have an enormous workload with ridiculous working hours and have to deal with stress every day. Gossiping serves as a little break from the hectic of that day or week. Marie le Conte interviewed over eighty people who worked in or around Westminster for her book ‘Haven’t you heard?’ about the role of gossip in UK politics. She discusses all the mechanisms and relationships that occur there.
For instance, she mentions Westminster's drinking culture, a phenomenon no other political center can relate to. Even though drinking throughout the day is now less common in British politics than it was, say, 50 years ago, it still plays a huge role in the UK’s political culture. Not just because being seen drinking on the job is now slightly more controversial, but politicians who are a couple of pints in tend to become a little more loose-lipped. Secrets are spilled and gossip begins. Thus, considering the sensitive and valuable information shared in these moments, political journalists like to hang around in the bars long enough to catch these (accidental or not) slip-ups. But more on the journalists' side later.
Westminster, le Conte says, is ruled by the informal. Spilling secrets in a political context has complications. Gossip is knowledge and knowledge is power. Therefore, gossip is used as a strategic tool for various ends. Last November, former minister Gavin Williamson was accused of bullying, as he was using gossip about his colleagues' drinking, sex lives, or mental health problems as leverage, maintaining a culture of fear among MPs of the conservative party. Where this is clearly unacceptable, it is not always this cut and dry. Overall, the actions of Williamson is not an isolated case, as it occurs to an extent more often, whether in a malicious way or not.
Furthermore, symbolics (the way things come across) play a huge role in politics. The mere fact that a conversation between people happened could be as useful as what was actually discussed, and this goes beyond the juicy bits. An example le Conte gives is a witnessed conversation between two centrist-leaning MPs from the opposing parties, which could give life to a rumor about the launching of a potential new centrist party.
In general, the line between gossip and news is sometimes unclear. For example, what if all the evidence you have for the story about the two MPs sleeping together involving a promotion, is just the talk in the hallway? Journalists have the power to make or break careers and change the way of politics so they have to be careful about what to write and what tittle tattle to include. The consensus is that a story is worth sharing if it is in the national interest to do so. However, everybody is able to bend that notion in a way that serves their desired scoop.
An extreme, but famous example, with various film adaptations, is the case of British Secretary of War, John Profumo. What was just gossip at parties about an alleged affair, turned into a big cabinet-falling scandal. Some called it the gift that keeps giving, as it paved the way for various sex scandals to arise. In the beginning years of the 1960s, forty-five-year-old John Profumo had an affair with eighteen-year-old Christine Keeler. When this came to light, Profumo denied it for several months after which he finally admitted it and resigned. Prime Minister Macmillan ordered the making of a report investigating the scandal. This report brought attention to many other rumors about other ministers, film stars, and royals. Macmillan, whose cabinet was already on a downfall, had to deal with rumors about eight high-court judges being involved in “some orgy”. Eventually, he too had to resign for his poor ability to deal with the scandal.
And this is just the gist of a very complex scandal, involving many more people. Even though this is an extreme example, it also portrays how being aware of all that is happening behind closed doors and in the after-hours adds to one's power. The relationship between journalists and MPs is crucial for both sides. It is a two-way street of information. They spend so much time together that the role of journalists concerns certain people, worrying if they are not getting too involved with the actual line of events instead of just covering them. However valid this concern, for journalists to be able to cover important stories that go beyond just plain serious topics, they need to be closely connected to MPs. To build such a relationship, talking about politics 24/7 is not going to bring them together, so they often desperately try to find some common interests.
Having built trustworthy relationships that go beyond work talk, can sometimes lead to tense situations. At the end of the day, both sides are there to do their job, but a job in politics does not leave much space for maintaining relationships outside of the field. Journalists build relationships with people, become friends, and sometimes end up crushing the friendship with the information they got from and about them. Everybody constantly has to decide what story is worth sharing, whether this will catch up to them sooner or later, and whether this source of information is worth giving up, etc. For example, if a very good and credible source does something very slightly out of the ordinary, most will decide to not go on to publish it as losing that relationship is not worth it.
That being said, when are the private affairs of a politician newsworthy? Most often when it says something about their character and has wider implications or meanings. Le Conte gives an example of a politician who always claimed he was extremely busy, which led to colleagues making sure not to bother him that much. It appeared that he was frequently inviting women over and having all kinds of parties at his house. Obviously, the parties themselves are not a problem per se, but if it starts muddling with his capability of doing his job, it is important for the public to know the facts.
As we have discussed, gossip is a main player in politics. Entire jobs, so-called spinners, have been created to keep track of rumors and gossip about their party members and a party’s Whips office has the task of ‘ensuring party discipline’ and getting all their MPs on the same page regarding policy. So they too try to obtain information on what they go about behind closed doors and in the quiet hallways. For other politicians knowledge is also power. So where what Williamson did is undesirable and unethical, it is not that surprising. From sex scandals to a possible new party, or just some juicy conversations to be able to handle the stress, gossip is omnipresent. Who you are and who you talk to, is as crucial as having knowledge and the right ideas, because in politics they only get through by having the right network and knowing the scoops on certain people. Is this process desirable? Debatable, but most importantly: it is unavoidable.