In the grip of slavering prurience

Let us be daring and assume, just for the hell of it, that it does not terribly matter which footballer went to bed with a former Miss Wales. Maybe, in a spirit of reckless free-thinking, we can briefly look beyond the lawyers, the pundits, the politicians and the rent-a-gob moralists as they debate the urgent matter of this famous bunk-up, to consider the position of the great British public.

We are all gossips and bogglers now. The moment has arrived when tatty, tabloid values – the primacy of scandal above all else – have enjoyed their ultimate triumph. The kiss ‘n’ tell, the hidden camera and microphone, the paraphernalia of sheet-sniffing journalism have stepped out of the shadows and into cultural respectability.

It is very British, this combination of slavering prurience with bogus moral superiority but at least, in the past, we had the grace to be embarrassed about it. Sensible, grown-up people might sneak a peep at a Sunday rag story about a footballer caught with his trousers down. Now that the same sort of story is deemed a matter of national interest, they gather around that great virtual water-cooler, Twitter, and gleefully exchange the latest rumours and names.

Because the freedom to gossip has become a human right, it is strangely unashamed. If I happened to spot, late one night in my local town, that famous marital adventurer Mike Chaud-Lapin checking into Ye Olde Goat Hotel with a former Miss Norfolk, and I then scurried around to tell all and sundry what I had seen, few people would think my behaviour was dignified or seemly.

Repeat the same process on a national level and with better-known people, and suddenly I would be doing something noble and brave. Great abstract notions – privacy, integrity, the public’s right to know – would be invoked. Apparently sane politicians, lawyers and journalists would give interviews in which they would argue that knowing exactly what Mr Chaud-Lapin did with the former Miss Norfolk was a fundamental freedom of every true Briton. It would become headline news, a national obsession.

Beneath it all, though, would be the same base instinct: a hunger for gossip. It is behind the specious argument that, because Sir Fred Goodwin was a banker (and a high-ranking hate figure), knowing about an alleged affair was a matter of such urgent national importance that a peer – admittedly, a Liberal Democrat no one had heard of – could use parliamentary privilege to unmask him. It is behind the more important debates over the limits to privacy, the legal obligations of internet providers, the balance between the right of a public figure to keep an affair secret and that of a lover to cash in. It is in the background when the usual chorus of the sanctimonious complain about the morals of those in public life, as if there is something new in the privileged behaving badly.

The biggest question, though, is the one that seldom gets asked. Where does it come from, this addiction to gossip? It seems that our culture, having been fed on reality TV, where exposure is entertainment, and then nurtured on an obsession with fame and the famous, has become a Peeping Tom without us even noticing.

The press has played its part, too. Edgily aware that the internet, where there is no such thing as shame, was feeding the public hunger for scandal, newspapers have descended to the same level, vying with one another to convince their readers – and perhaps even themselves – that this tawdry, trivial stuff is somehow important.

The debate is now a perfect combination of all that is least attractive in contemporary Britain: a furtive interest in sex, a bogus and self-important moral argument, and mass bullying of individuals through the press and the internet. In the end, the famous people who tried to keep their indiscretions private will be named and humiliated in the traditional 21st-century manner. The champions of a meaningless freedom will triumph. And the insatiable public lust for rumour, scandal and gossip will search for new targets.

Independent, Tuesday, 24 May 2011