In 2009, the BBC wondered whether the diary column was dying. The alleged nail in the coffin was the closure of People, the Times diary, making the paper the only national without a dedicated tittle-tattle section.
Ten years on, the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph have lost their diaries, but the Times regained its own in 2013. Meanwhile, the Evening Standard’s Londoner, the Daily Mail’s Ephraim Hardcastle and a handful of others valiantly limp on, but there is a feeling that their shine has worn off.
After all, the diary column always was an absurd thing; a repository of stories too scurrilous or silly for the news pages, existing largely for the entertainment of the newspaper editor, a minority of readers existing in the upper echelons of society, and the diarists themselves.
The world we live in now is serious, fractured, and worrying; perhaps “posh gossip” simply isn’t what is expected from the press any more. In fact, old tales from former diarists now seem grotesque in their insouciance.
Take Irish broadcaster Mary Kenny, whose stint at the Londoner’s Diary in the 1960s she recalled in her memoirs: “We were expected to ring up distinguished or famous people and ask them for a quote, often posing footlingly embarrassing questions at eight in the morning for it was held as a self-evident truth that the way to get a straight (or candid) answer out of anyone is to telephone them at 8am, or earlier (this has been called ‘the Gestapo technique’). I was once obliged to telephone the Archbishop of Canterbury at that hour and ask him – for God’s sake! – ‘what side do you sleep on, my Lord?’.”
The kindly Michael Ramsey did play ball in the end, but the new Watergate it was not. Diarists are also hardly popular with the people who secrets they spill onto their newspaper pages, as illustrated in Michael Billington’s biography of Harold Pinter: “At Lord Weidenfeld’s seventieth birthday party Pinter had been approached by a journalist who explained that he was from the Londoner’s Diary and asked if he had a message for it. He whispered quietly, ‘Yes I do have a message for Londoner’s Diary. Tell it to go fuck itself and you go with it.’”
Still, a number of stories were broken by diarists over the years; the most notorious is probably the Profumo affair, which quietly turned from whispers to scandal. It was also a diary which got the best quote of the lot, namely General De Gaulle disdainfully telling an aide at the Elysée: “That will teach the English to try and behave like Frenchmen.”
Closer to home, it was the Times diary which first revealed that Tony Blair would be converting to Catholicism, and the same pages which, some years later, pointed out to the nation that then-Labour leader Ed Miliband had been voted fourth most popular person in Doncaster. While not exactly earth-shattering, the latter did make a worthwhile point; if the leader of the opposition couldn’t even manage to be liked in his own heartlands, what hopes did he have of getting into No 10?
This, in a way, is what diaries are for. Just like life isn’t a series of big, straightforwardly good or bad events, people in the public eye cannot be properly gauged without looking at the small print. Strange rumours and petty details can seem pointless, but they tell an awful lot about thecharacter of all those people in the public eye, from the arts and politics to film and literature.
While news reporting must in turns be authoritative and occasionally deferential, the diary can behave like the naughty child of the newsroom, running around and stumbling upon uncomfortable truths by way of trying to have a good time.
Contrary to newer, online-based gossip-heavy outlets such as Guido Fawkes, diaries are also mild and oddly well-meaning; rather than seeking to sink opponents or yearning for total chaos, they just want to cause a bit of trouble. “One MP, when I started the job, sent me a message and said ‘just don’t be cruel’, and I think that’s actually something worth following,” says Times diary editor Patrick Kidd. “I have rejected stories that someone has given me, that I’ve known they’ve given me just to do over one of their rivals.”
Perhaps this is why diaries are struggling to survive; if every issue demands that people take sides and starts attacking those who picked the other one, fun for the sake of fun suddenly looks a bit pointless.
It is, at least, the view former diarist Hugo Rifkind took in that BBC piece from a decade ago, though his argument was that things could always turn around: “One day the world will be a happy, rich, flippant place again. They’ll be back.”
Is he right? Perhaps not. Perhaps this is precisely why the diary columns should regain their place of pride within newspapers again. Not everything needs to be serious, and if there is one thing that can unite people rather than divide them further, it is to poke fun at famous people taking themselves a bit too seriously. Mischief for mischief’s sake is a noble pursuit; we should learn to embrace it again.
Marie Le Conte’s Haven’t You Heard: Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works (Bonnier Books, £16.99) is published on Thursday To order a copy for £14.95 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6848