I was victim of Westminster’s truth-bending hall of mirrors
There’s no smoke without fire, the saying goes – and yet, in the Westminster village, you could argue that it’s actually all just smoke with plenty of mirrors. If success in politics is simply perception and optics, then the currency that underpins it is gossip.
Recently, a friend revealed that I was the subject of a scurrilous rumour. To save blushes, I won’t specify – but you can guess the nature of this malicious gossip was suggesting inappropriate behaviour. The rumour is untrue and upon hearing it I laughed heartily. It was even funnier to hear fake details that were supposed to make this rumour plausible – told by someone I’d never met – to a close friend of mine as if it were gospel truth.
On reflection, I thought it less funny. For years, ostensibly serious and clever people have assumed something about me that is not only untrue but portrays me in the most negative way I could imagine. It’s hurtful to think your talent or hard work or diligence were ignored and the sum of your effort was reduced to a belief in a cheap lie. It hasn’t harmed me in any way, to date, but the lingering feeling that untruths are believed without challenge is unsettling.
On discussing this with others, I discovered that many Westminster types had been subject to some form of malicious gossip or attempt to hurt their standing. Everything from sexual impropriety to out-and-out lies about our work and roles have been disseminated to wreak havoc on people’s reputations.
The motivations are varied: some people “spin” real situations and events; others falsify information in order to get at “enemies” or save themselves from their own incompetence. Blame is apportioned according to whoever can get to the most convincing line with friendly journalists or opinion formers. Others simply want something to prove they’re in the know. They want to trade rumour as currency and pretend they have
The real issue here isn’t a healthy dose of careless chat but what happens when you can’t bank on people’s inner cynic. The unquestioning acceptance is worrying
lots of it – so they embellish and possibly even invent things to say.
Westminster is small. Information spreads quickly on the lunch circuits. And let’s face it – gossip is enjoyable and is, from memory, just part of joining in the fun of a (toxic) work environment. People want to believe the worst, so they do. It simplifies a complex world and avoids the need to get to grips with issues that aren’t nearly as gasp-inducing as an extramarital affair or money troubles.
People have always been more interesting than policy, but to avoid being sanctimonious – of course, sometimes gossip turns out to be completely true. Gossip is the first signal that something may be awry and therefore always worth following up. Over the years, we’ve been given plenty of reasons to doubt those in power, and it’s not as if we can know everything in government all of the time.
The real issue here isn’t a healthy dose of careless chat but what happens when you can’t bank on people’s inner cynic. What about when people repeat things with no basis or authority whatsoever – and others believe them? There has to be some kind of BS filter or recognition that much of the negativity put out there is laced with agenda. It’s the unquestioning acceptance of things which is worrying – the repetition of it, without question or caveat, that suggests a serious lack of sophistication.
Wherever there is success, people feel obliged to bring the recipient of it down. Advancement in politics is a guaranteed route to the centre of the crosshairs, so it’s an occupational hazard. Though, I confess, it’s probably worse when they stop gossiping about you altogether.
Salma Shah was special adviser to Sajid Javid from 2018 to 2019. She was also a special adviser at the Department for Diǀtal, Culture, Media and Sport
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