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Retiring gossip girl - Rachel Johnson

Blog | By Rachel Johnson | Mar 26, 2024

Rachel Johnson was once known as Radio Rachel for her loose lips. When her brother became the Prime Minister, those lips were sealed

In the first few minutes of GB News, Mr Andrew Neil broadcast something as if it was intimately tailored to his intended audience, all of whose inside-leg measurements he knew already.

His channel would not be peddling ‘gossip from inside the Westminster bubble’, he boasted.

‘Well, that’s a mistake, Brillo, old bean,’ I said out loud.

After all, what is news, if not gossip? They are conjoined twins, the Gemini of the media constellation, as indissoluble as me and my iPhone (‘There are three of us in this marriage,’ as my husband says).

Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out of Downing Street, who’s had their jowls lifted in lockdown, who’s getting married, who’s getting divorced, who’s having an affair with whom…

Don’t tell me you’re not interested in these newsworthy matters of national importance.

When I was in my twenties, if a gobbet of gossip was especially delectable, my girlfriends and I would shriek, ‘Rivets!!’ at one another to denote the intel was particularly riveting.

If I ever want someone to call me back within five seconds, I simply ping them a text, with one word: ‘Goss’. It always works.

My chum Camilla Long, telly critic of the Sunday Times, calls me for an information exchange – ie gossip – about five times a day. So I hit her up for a quote. ‘Can you give me one of your classic Camilla lines – like gossip is your love gravy or something?’ I demanded.

‘Gossip is like London,’ she came up with. ‘If you are tired of goss, you are tired of life.’

The other day I was told a piece of gossip (concerning a senior royal) so thermonuclear that it scorched the inside of my eyelids. It made me realise how much I’ve missed a good old chinwag during the pandemic – and how little I rate Eleanor Roosevelt’s apophthegm ‘Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.’

Gosh, I’m glad I never had to sit through a four-hour webinar hosted by the former First Lady, let alone a state dinner. Gossip is the lifeblood of the body social – as well as the body politic.

I’ve been to more parties than I’ve had hot dinners. I gloomily had to change ‘going to parties’ to ‘throwing things away’ in my list of hobbies in Who’s Who this year, as there haven’t been any.

And I’ve often worked in and around Westminster. Both parties and the so-called ‘bubble’ of the Palace of Westminster are a happy souk, where gossip is bartered in exchange for favourable coverage, meals, access and even sex. But there are rules to observe.

Only an amateur would march up to someone at a drinks party, or open a telephone conversation, and demand, ‘What’s the gossip?’

That kind of démarche guarantees nobody will ever tell you a secret again. (Oh yes, and my definition of a secret? ‘Something you tell only one other person’.)

My party piece is the ability to silence the entire table at a noisy dinner party with the quiet dog-whistle, ‘Have you heard the gossip about…’ and then pause. Everyone’s heads will swivel without their knowing they’re doing it.

‘Get on with it,’ grown men bellow in desperation. ‘Spit it out!’ Nobody can concentrate until I drop my latest bombshell.

The definition of gossip is something you will never read in MailOnline, or in a gossip column or diary, as diarists scrape social media and cut and paste Instagram posts, which is, like gathering samphire, a dreadful trade. It would have the original William Hickey, Chips Channon and Alan Clark turning in their graves.

No – gossip is by definition something you won’t read in the gossip columns. It is insider, and when it does leak into print, it’s often wrong.

The exception these days – as well as trusted trader Private Eye, of course – is Popbitch, a website which has flourished in these strange, long, antisocial months. As the editor, Ian Hislop, told me, ‘The social scene took an immediate thumping, with the most fruitful gossip opportunities being among the first to dry up. Workplaces were dispersed – so no one got smashed and indiscreet at Friday drinks…’

However, it was precisely because nobody had anywhere else to be that a lot of the people who are stuffed to the gills with good stories – but rarely get time to tell them – became very prolific with emailing and WhatsApping. With their usual lines of communication all gummed up, and no outlet for their normal tittle-tattle, they spilt the beans online.

I used to be a terrific gossip, but – wanna hear a secret? – I am no more. From having been called ‘Radio Rachel’ in my younger days, I am now a buttoned-up bore, terrified that my loose lips will sink ships.

I have had a road-to-Damascus conversion to stupefying dullness because I don’t want to be blamed for anything that appears in the Sun or even the Times. Given the circs – and you know what they are – it’s now easier simply to follow the principle of never saying anything to anybody.

No, you won’t get a sausage from me if you dare to ask, ‘So what’s the gossip, then?’ And I will take the saucy secret of the senior royal to my grave.