Last Autumn, in his weekly address from a window above St Peter’s Square, the Pope spoke about gossip. “The devil is the great gossip," he said. “He is always saying bad things about others because he is the liar who tries to split the church.” The Pope added: “Please brothers and sisters, let's try to not gossip. Gossip is a plague worse than Covid. Worse.”. Far be it from me to remind the Pope of his own church’s history, but I seem to recall that the major splits in the Catholic Church – which created the orthodox churches – were not caused by gossip, but by doctrinal difference. The Anglican split, of course, came about because a priapic Henry VIII wanted a son rather than daughters. I wouldn’t want to cast doubt on the Pope’s medical credentials either, but I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with his assessment of the relative gravity of gossip and Covid. I don’t think gossip has ever seriously vied with plagues for the highest numbers of people killed - for the Covid virus so far around 3 million people world-wide. But then, for the Catholic Church, perhaps splits are actually a fate worse than death,
since normally the other faction was excommunicated after a split, and thus condemned to meet the fires of hell.
In fact, I’m quite sure that gossip has been a part of our society since the beginning. I imagine that, even in the Stone Age, there was gossip about someone's laziness in the hunting groups or unwillingness to chip away at flint stones and someone else's wandering eye. If so, then it probably has an overall evolutionary benefit. I would guess that there would be a benefit for the community because the fact that there is gossip means that there is pressure on everyone to act in an acceptable way. It actually promotes morality, something of which I would have expected the Pope to approve.

It is true, however, that gossips are not renowned as being the most trustworthy people in the world. Gossip is often based on hearsay, conjecture and lies. We know that the internet, the great purveyor of gossip, is a mixture of lies, truth and half-truth. An analysis of  balance of cost and benefit, at least prior to the internet, would have lain with the continued existence of gossip.. Now that we have the internet, though, we have to keep that under review.

But it certainly does bring benefits. There are numerous court orders at any one time preventing the release of information. Sometimes, they even prevent revelation of the fact that the court order itself has been made. Despite this, the internet can still reveal what the rich and powerful wish to keep hidden. Court orders, after all, only apply in the jurisdiction in which they are made, leaving us free to surf sites in other countries and find out all sorts of things not available here.

In fact, a few years ago researchers at Stanford claimed to have shown that gossip and ostracism can indeed have very positive effects. They are tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of “nice people” and encourage cooperation. “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviours can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”

The researchers found that when people learned - through gossip - about the behaviour of others, they used the information to align instead with those deemed cooperative. Those who had behaved selfishly could then be excluded from group activities. This served the group’s greater good, for the selfish exploit more cooperative people for their own gains. However, there was potential benefit even for those cast out. When people knew that others may gossip about them - and experienced the resulting social exclusion - they tended to reform their behaviour by cooperating more in future group settings within the same study.

In contrast, highly anonymous groups, like many internet message boards, lack accountability – and so allow antisocial behaviour to thrive. As one of the researchers pointed out, gossip, along with ostracism, seems fundamental to human nature. While much of this behaviour may be undesirable and malicious, a lot of it is critical to deterring selfishness and maintaining social order in groups. “I think it does speak to the mechanisms that keep people behaving honestly and generously in many settings and, where behaviour is entirely anonymous, helps explain when they don’t.”

What thought do we really mean by ‘gossip’? Is it just people whispering to others in dark corners or does it include other activities? In fact, people pass on information about how others behave in all sorts of situations. If, as an employee, I see a fellow employee continually making a mess of things or just lolling about doing nothing, is it ‘gossip’ to report this to management? If so, then to follow the Pope’s advice would seriously disadvantage business as a whole. Management would be prevented from receiving useful information needed to protect its business from poor performance, or possibly from helping an employee to improve his performance.

And what about journalism? This is surely a prime example of gossip. We want to know what’s going on in the world and what our political leaders are getting up to. In democratic societies, we demand to be able to be informed of the latest gossip. Although we often find that information has been kept from us, it is in dictatorships that gossip about the ruling class is sanitised to the point of extinction, whilst used as a tool of oppression against the people.

It is indeed only because of ‘gossip’ that we now know of the latest political scandal with David Cameron. Ironically, in 2010 while the leader of the opposition, he predicted that lobbying was the next big scandal to come. Ignoring this prescient foresight, however, after his retirement he decided to use his contacts to try to get favours from ministers he thought owed him something. He was trying to get government loans for his ‘boss’, Greensill Capital, a finance house.

It provided finance chain loans to companies based on the value of invoices which had been issued and which would typically take a couple of months to be paid. This is nothing new – in the private sector factoring, invoice discounting, has been around for a very long time. It provides much needed cash-flow to suppliers when reasonable payment terms cannot be negotiated. 

But Greensill wanted to take a step further. It wanted to get between government and its suppliers or employees. The idea was that instead of the government speeding up its payments process, which it could do very easily and very cheaply, Greensill would do this on its behalf. It would pay the suppliers and charge the government a fee for doing so. Why? No reason, except that Greensill could make a profit from doing nothing at all useful. And of course David Cameron could in due course exercise his share options - so making himself even more money to add to the money inherited from his financier father - someone who used tax exempt investment trusts based in the Cayman Islands to augment his fortune. And it's only because of gossip that we know about that as well. 

So then, may the gossip continue, despite the Pope’s fears.

Paul Buckingham

13 April 2021

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