Police Commissioner Mike Bush was right to publicly confirm Clarke Gayford, the Prime Minister's partner, "is not and has not been the subject of any police inquiry, nor has he been charged in relation to any matter".

Inevitably, scuttlebutt about Gayford began as soon as Jacinda Ardern became seriously prominent. It was initially banal. Since then, it has morphed, equally inevitably, into a story so fantastical that it lacked only Jason Bourne.

For months, the latest twists and turns of the vast conspiracy have been raised with me not just by political junkies from left and right but by usually much mentally healthier people, including senior figures from the arts, media, legal and business communities, all asking when the scandal was about to break.

My response is always that such rumours are never true; that the video never arrives.

Advertisement

This is nothing new. Humans are inveterate gossips. Take three friends, put two together and they gossip about the third. Our primary-school teachers made us play Chinese whispers — or should have — to teach us how quickly a story evolves.

In the nearly three decades I have been embroiled in politics, there have been few senior political figures or their families and friends who have been safe.

I have heard tales of the SAS being ordered to rescue political figures caught in lewd acts in foreign climes. Ministers apparently wander the streets in flagrante delicto. Some are sex workers themselves, with no indication of how they find the time. Ministers' children have been hosting P parties since before it was invented. Top officials travel to Europe via Bangkok to sample the delights of Patpong Rd, even though no MP or bureaucrat is ever seen on an airline as cheap as Thai. All prime ministers are sleeping with members of their cabinets or staff.

Proof of such stories is usually said to have been caught on CCTV, with the video about to be released to media in just the next few days. As above: the video never arrives.

The previous strategy to manage such nonsense was to tell the media they were welcome to run the story once the video turned up and to secure double-sealed injunctions against any planning to base a story on a denial. A police commissioner going public to deny rumours was unthinkable.

But social media has changed the old rules. Gossip used to float away with the pub's smoky air. Now it leaves a permanent mark on Twitter, blogs, Facebook and elsewhere.

This is not to say such rumours originate on social media. Instead, they eventually find their way to tin-hatted conspiracy theorists who commit to revealing the truth online. Whether the story involves politicians linked with National or Labour, the White House or Kremlin, there will often be deranged losers with anonymous Twitter handles determined to out the truth.

This process is how the West came to learn Kim Jong-un had his uncle fed alive to a pack of hungry dogs when the story in fact originated on the Chinese equivalent of The Onion. Like many, Gayford is a victim of an ancient and natural phenomenon but one social media makes more severe. Bush's intervention was the only realistic option to give Gayford some redress. It was unfortunate Ardern initially chose not to play with a similarly straight bat but to imply the ludicrous talk about Gayford was itself the result of a dark plot.

Advertisement

Gayford will not be the last victim of this process but let's hope Bush and future police commissioners do not end up spending too much of their time making statements like Wednesday's.

To protect future Gayfords, and our own interests as taxpayers paying police commissioners' salaries, there is a way we can all help.

When you hear a rumour about a political figure, especially if it comes from several sources over many months and in slightly different forms, ask yourself: could it really be true the rumour is reaching you so often yet is unknown to the Herald? Could it be true the Herald failed to investigate it? And if the investigation proved it true, is it plausible the Herald wouldn't run it straight away to scoop the competition?

Most of all, remember the eternal rules: the rumour is never true; the video never arrives.