Hot gossip about the personal lives of people in power: should we care?

There is nothing quite so gripping as a message from a friend telling you she has hot gossip about a powerful person.

This time it was a corker. It said, emphatically, that the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his wife, Margie Abbott, had separated but that they would stay together for the sake of the country.

I've paraphrased the message somewhat because it was lengthy – but that was the gist.

So I started looking at photos of Tony and Margie together. Yes, she looks exhausted and stressed. But I'm pretty sure that's how the partners of all politicians look. And then I recalled all the gossip about all the prime ministers since I've been a journalist. This is the shortlist (there was so so much more):

Malcolm Fraser –  he and Tamie would divorce. Bob Hawke – he and Hazel would divorce. Paul Keating – he and Annita would divorce because he was secretly gay.

John Howard – he and Jeanette would never divorce despite his "close" relationship with someone in his office (I swear, are women and men every going to be able to work together without everyone assuming that when we co-work we also co-shag?)


Kevin Rudd – a control freak who did not really live with Therese. Julia Gillard – Tim was really gay.

As you can see, some of the gossip turned out to be on the money. Hawke married Blanche. Keating and Annita did split up but he went on to have other – straight – relationships. The Howards' marriage looks utterly rock solid, as does the Rudds' marriage. Gillard last year described her relationship with Mathieson as a lifetime commitment.

But, in the interests of fairness and balance, I rang the Prime Minister's office to see if there was any truth to the rumours at all. A spokesperson replied: "I wouldn't dignify that gossip with a response."

So why do we do it? Why do people who could not possibly know about the state of the relationships of those people who govern our country decide to become rumourmongers?

Turns out there is a world expert on the production of gossip and he has a keen interest in Australia.

Niko Besnier is now Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Amsterdam. But he's always been interested in what happens here because he spent six years as an academic in New Zealand; and then was a visiting professor at the University of Melbourne. He knew of every single instance of gossip I mentioned – except the latest about Mr and Mrs Abbott.

And his expertise in gossip emerges from the research he did for his book Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics, which he wrote in 2009. It took a different focus on the political process and examined how gossip manipulated the affairs of a tiny village society in the Pacific.

The focus may be tiny but the lessons learned there can be upscaled to mass – social – media, says Besnier, particularly for those in the public eye.

"Gossip becomes a way of debunking them, of undermining their credibility, morality and worthiness as public leaders.

"You can do a lot of damage through the grapevine and destroy people with ways you could never utilise legally," Besnier said on Monday.

But Besnier also said it may well be a response to the general way in which the federal government operates – there is so much under gag order, particularly around immigration and refugees – that the gossip springs up in response.

"He has muffled everything – [the government has] ways of controlling information flow yet they can't. They can't muzzle the internet, the grapevine, the insinuation, that sort of thing."

Can it be damaging? Besnier says that the cultural context of the gossip is what matters. He says that Australia is more like the United States – where gossip about personal attributes or relationships is more likely to have permanent impact. In France, for instance, no-one cares less. Francois  Mitterand, the former President of France, had both a wife and a lover during his tenure; three sons with his wife Anne and two other children from extra-marital partnerships. Exhausting. But still electable.

In France, says Besnier, voters believe that these relationships are completely irrelevant to the political process – in Australia, it's a different story.

He says Abbott will be completely untroubled by these rumours and if they escalate, the government's spin doctors will find a way to respond.

"It really depends on the sort of moral regime and the relationships within the moral regime and, of course, political credibility ... Australia is very close to the American structure, there is a great deal of interest in what people do in their private lives which would be irrelevant in other countries."

And, of course, do the smears work? What kind of accusation works?

"That is actually dependent on who is listening, the time and the context, in certain contemporary contexts you can be jailed or lynched or in other contexts, [the gossip] is no skin off anyone's back."

As Besnier says: "Gossip is one of the ways in which you can try to discredit people in ways they cannot be discredited in a public forum."

Marriage breakups? They happen to thousands of Australians every day. Does it matter? Only from the perspective of those directly involved.

When you've got something useful about any politician, get back to me with issues which might truly affect how our country is being run. Divorce isn't one of them.

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