Mark Sainsbury: I've been the subject of cocaine and hookers rumours - gossip is part of public life

Smell something fishy? Rumours about Clarke Gayford are greatly exaggerated.
Smell something fishy? Rumours about Clarke Gayford are greatly exaggerated.

OPINION: Anyone in public life will have to get used to rumours. They are an occupational hazard.

When I was hosting a nightly TV programme, I used to hear rumours about myself that at times, I wished were true. Oh to lead such an exciting life.

Let me give you just a taste of what this is like.

One Sunday afternoon I was relaxing at home. I get a call from my boss - head of news and current affairs. He ummed and he ahhed and he beat around the bush. He was obviously struggling with something he needed to say.

The press officers at TVNZ, he said, have been getting media enquiries about a story that was circulating - a story that was about to blow.

Oh yes? I said.

They were saying that the Truth newspaper was about to publish some story - with photos which involved me in dodgy behaviour.

The nature of this story was that I had been filmed snorting cocaine off hookers' bottoms. Yes! It was extraordinary.

My boss was waiting for me to put his mind at ease - but I just left him hanging, because I was pretty pissed off.

Are you seriously expecting me to address this crap?, I asked. Are you seriously calling to see if this is true? Because if you are, I'm actually quite offended.

Finally I said, I hope they publish. I could do with a bach.

Here's the thing with rumours - they are insidious.

I've often told the story of LBJ when standing for the senate in Texas telling his staff to spread the rumour that his opponent liked having sex with barnyard animals.

"We can't say that!" the staff protested. "It's not true!".

"I know it's not true," thundered the former president. "I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it."

That is one of the great dilemmas of course - how to respond.

In my case, all the papers wanted was my denial so they could  publish a story.

On the Monday I received a call from a reporter from the Herald, wanting to know how I felt about the impending story.

"What story is that," I asked.

The reporter stumbled, knowing to repeat or acknowledge this rubbish would land her in a defamation situation.

"The story that Truth is publishing."

"And what is that," I asked. "Is this what journalism is coming to?," I said. "Are you ringing me up to comment on a story you can't even articulate, that you don't even know is real, and you seriously expect me to dignify this with an answer?"

Needless to say, no story every appeared in Truth or anywhere else. It was never going to because it never happened, but the rumour mill was creating it and these things develop a life of their own.

The same crap circulated around Peter Davis - Helen Clark's husband. It was vile, it was untrue.

Yet the number of times people I vaguely knew swore to me that their second cousin's uncle's brother-in-law was in the diplomatic protection squad and helped her cover up whatever...

I was political editor then. "Really?" I'd say. "Tell them to ring me. We'll publish it."

No one ever did. It never happened.

Which brings us to the rumour mill going into overdrive over Clarke Gayford. What do you do? Do you address them and fuel them and create a discourse? Or do you just ignore them?

In this case, he has benefitted from the New Zealand Police breaking a long-standing tradition of not commenting on rumours or questions of whether someone's under investigation, by putting out a statement to say exactly that - he is not and has not been under investigation.

I don't know if this was a police initiative or a prompting from the Beehive. I don't know who's behind these rumours either. I don't know if the police breaking protocol was the right thing to do.

Perhaps it is just human nature to gossip. But how much should people in the public eye have to suck it up?

Mark Sainsbury is RadioLIVE's Morning Talk host