One of my tasks as an employee of Vanity Fair back in the mid-1990s was to compose weekly memos to my boss, Graydon Carter. These were supposed to be ‘intelligence briefings’ on the topics dominating the headlines, but I quickly discovered that he had no interest in news and current affairs. The only thing that interested him was gossip. I became the author of a weekly gossip column with a readership of one.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I could easily have parlayed this skill into a career in the State Department. Judging from the latest batch of WikiLeaks, American diplomats spend most of their time gathering tittle-tattle that they can then pass on to their superiors back in Washington.
For instance, Tatiana Gfoeller, America’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, dispatched a secret cable in which she provided a detailed report of Prince Andrew’s remarks to a group of Canadian and British businessmen at a breakfast meeting in the capital. Incredibly — and this information would have remained ‘classified’ if it wasn’t for WikiLeaks — his comments ‘verged on the rude’. Thanks to the vigilance of Ms Gfoeller, we now know that the Duke of York has a low opinion of the French, thinks Americans have a poor grasp of geography and has absolutely no time for the Guardian. ‘His mother’s subjects seated around the table roared their approval,’ she reported.
It beggars belief that a senior career diplomat (Ms Gfoeller speaks six languages) would bother to relay such meaningless trivia. Is she under the impression that Britain is still run by its royal family? No, the poor woman has simply discovered that her political masters back in the State Department have an appetite for gossip. Forget about Kyrgyzstan’s gas reserves. They’re much more interested in what Prince Andrew said over breakfast.
This is the main lesson of this week’s WikiLeaks story. There are precious few revelations of any political significance in the cables flying back and forth between Washington and America’s foreign embassies. The only revelation is how much time US diplomats spend gossiping.
Among the rich and powerful in America — and I daresay elsewhere — gossip is the coin of the realm. I remember the shock I got when I first sat down at a table of genuinely influential people after shinning my way up the New York greasy pole. At last, I thought. I’ve made it into the winners’ enclosure. I was expecting to hear some well-informed opinions about the most vital issues of the day, but instead they just traded salacious stories about other rich and powerful people. Needless to say, as soon as one of their party excused himself to go the lavatory, they immediately started gossiping about him. For two hours there was no other topic of conversation. It was like being in the girls’ changing room at a provincial high school.
As a general rule, the bigger the VIP, the more interested in tittle-tattle they are. An American journalist who wrote a biography of Rupert Murdoch told me that whenever he was granted ‘face time’ with the great man he was expected to begin the conversation by imparting a bit of gossip. He could tell when Murdoch was pleased because he’d take out a little notebook and write the information down. On one occasion, he arrived at Murdoch’s office empty-handed and, in a panic, told him that he’d heard Michael Bloomberg was interested in buying the New York Times. Completely made-up, obviously, but Murdoch immediately whipped out his notebook and started scribbling furiously. The journalist was terrified that he’d inadvertently set in motion a series of events that would end with Murdoch acquiring the Gray Lady.
Interestingly, Murdoch almost never passed on any titbits to my friend. Powerful people are happy to gossip among themselves, but they rarely disclose anything of interest to someone below them in the food chain. Gossip is a form of tribute, a token of respect that the powerless have to produce as the price of being granted an audience by the powerful. That’s what’s really going on in the embassy cables. The ambassador passes a little morsel on to his or her immediate boss, the boss in turn passes it on to his or her boss, and so on, until eventually it reaches Hillary Clinton herself. It’s a ritual of obeisance and as long as the great goddess is pleased they all get to keep their jobs.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.