(First published in The Dominion Post and on stuff.co.nz, May 17.)
The kerfuffle over rumours about Clarke Gayford, Jacinda Ardern’s partner, came as a double surprise to me.
The first surprise was that the rumours existed. The second, which kind of flows inevitably from the first, was that I hadn’t heard them.
I suppose this is what happens when you’ve been living in Masterton for a few years (well, 15 actually). You get disconnected.
Mind you, I’d suspected for a while that I was no longer “in the loop”. A friend used to email me whenever he heard reference to some dark secret about a public figure or wanted to know the identity of someone important whose name had been suppressed in a court case, assuming that I’d be able to fill him in on all the salacious detail.
The email inquiries stopped coming long ago. My friend obviously deduced, not unreasonably, that I was a fraud – someone who gave the impression of knowing important and sensitive stuff, but in fact had no more inside knowledge than the guy who came to unblock his drains.
I suppose this is what happens when you no longer work in a newspaper newsroom, which functions as a kind of clearing house for rumour and gossip. Working from home, I can go for days – nay, weeks – without so much as a phone call.
I’m so isolated that I get excited if someone knocks on the door to ask if I’ve seen their missing huntaway. So hearing that Gayford was the subject of malicious scuttlebutt – scuttlebutt apparently so persistent that the police had to issue a statement saying he wasn’t under investigation – merely confirmed for me that I was pathetically out of touch with what was happening out there in the real world.
To this day I have no idea what the Gayford rumours were about, still less where they originated or who was circulating them.
What’s more, I don’t want to know. So I’ve made no effort to find out what lies people were spreading, even though I probably only need to ask the next-door neighbours or the woman behind the counter at the corner dairy. I’m sure they know, because the media kept telling us that the rumours had been so widely circulated that the police felt compelled to act.
I suppose that as someone who has worked for (gulp) 50 years in journalism, a game whose practitioners generally know a lot more than they actually report, I should feel disconcerted by the realisation that I no longer know things that other people don’t.
But in fact it feels strangely liberating, because perhaps the least appealing aspect of politics is the febrile, overheated atmosphere it generates among camp followers, and the toxic bile spread by angry, bitter bottom-feeders and mischief-makers.
No one should delude themselves that Gayford was targeted simply because he’s the partner of a Labour prime minister. I recall that within days of John Key announcing he was resigning, left-leaning friends were regaling me with juicy versions of the “real” reason for his sudden departure. Malicious gossip is ideologically non-prescriptive in whom it chooses to vilify.
We could learn something from the Baha’i Faith, which strongly disapproves of gossip. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner,” wrote Baha’u’llah, the religion’s founder.
He was just rephrasing Christ’s injunction to the mob that was stoning a prostitute: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. But I get the impression that followers of the Baha’i Faith adhere to the rule more conscientiously than most people who call themselves Christians.
David Lange used the famous phrase “demented reef fish” to describe panicky share-market investors, but it can be applied equally to the hangers-on who infest the extreme fringes of politics – on both Right and Left – and who swarm around looking for morsels of malice to feed on.
Social media has given these cowardly malefactors a powerful amplifier for their venom. It has also had the effect of magnifying the binary them-and-us nature of politics, because it’s easier to hate when you’re safe in an ideological echo-chamber surrounded by people who share your rage. It’s also easier to dehumanise your perceived enemy and to construct your own cyber-age version of a witch’s wax effigy to stick pins into.
The effect on the body politic is potentially poisonous, because the time may come when only an exceptionally courageous, foolhardy or egotistical few will risk running for public office knowing there’s a chance that they will be subjected to vicious calumnies and anonymous abuse.
Exile to the Auckland Islands would be an appropriate fate for the perpetrators of this unpleasantness. They might tear each other apart, in which case well and good. But on the other hand they might be forced to co-operate in the interests of survival and thus learn something about their common humanity.