What's Gate got to do with a scandal?

Give a journalist a scandal and he will give you a gate everytime


Suresh Menon | November 18, 2010

The Gate is back, long live the Gate! One of the enduring rules of the media teetered on the verge of being abandoned this fortnight before the right thinking restored it to its primacy. Headline writers and TV anchors seemed to have shut the gate behind them when ‘Kargilgate’ erupted. “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” about sums it up. Or if it isn’t we shall soon hear of godgate, worldgate and other such delightful creations that give us our news in a single word. To see a world in a grain of sand and a society’s ills in a single gate, as William Blake nearly wrote.

Give a journalist a scandal, and he will give you a gate every time. Surprisingly, there was no ‘Gamesgate’ or ‘Kalmadigate’ or ‘CWGgate’ when the Commonwealth scandal hit the public consciousness. It was worrying. Had this most convenient of entry points into a scandal been abandoned after a brief, unhappy dalliance with ‘Fixinggate’ during the Pakistan cricket controversy? Hopefully, Kargilgate will open the floodgate.

When a wardrobe malfunction caused Janet Jackson’s anatomical readjustment or personal appearance at a Super Bowl game, they called it Nipplegate. Even for a journalistic concoction that was pretty awful. But we have had Monicagate, Clintongate (why they needed separate gates when they were known to pass through the same one often enough is a mystery), and more recently, Monkeygate, Climategate, Shilpagate, IPLgate. In the media, one man’s gate is another man’s gate too. Then suddenly, silence. No more gates. 

This shorthand has been available to journalists since 1972 after the plumbers and buggers (those who bug, not those other types) of the appropriately named CREEP (Committee for the Reelection of the President) broke into the rival Democratic party’s election headquarters at the Watergate building. Many cover-ups, scapegoating (you know what I mean), reams of newsprint and millions of dollars later, president Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Years later Monica Lewinsky lived in an apartment in Watergate, but that is neither here nor there.
‘Watergate’ itself has been in the language for centuries. And its oldest recorded meaning is as a channel for water. Then it meant the gate of a town or castle. In the Middle Ages it meant a sluice or a floodgate. Not surprisingly, it was also medicalspeak for urination.

Nixon is nearly a forgotten man in American politics despite some original contributions like opening the door (or gate) to China, but Watergate as a metaphor for political and all-round skullduggery has endured. We cannot always choose how posterity will remember us or what our legacy will be; if Nixon knew he probably contributed more to journalese than politics, he would not have bothered to run for president.

Once the gate was open, other derivates marched through without a backward glance. Oilgate referred to the sanction-busting by oil companies in the then Rhodesia; winegate pigeonholed the activities of shippers of Bordeaux who leaned too heavily on the scales; Samoagate, Koreagate, Irangate all had their days in the sun. Human interaction reduced to a suffix.

Today I worry about sportsgate. Some time ago it became impossible to take your young son or daughter to a live sporting event. Soccer had its hooliganism, the language at cricket matches was not meant for delicate ears and even Wimbledon had its streaker. But there was an alternative – television. Now, thanks to Janet Jackson even that is ruled out. Remember Souravgate at Lord’s?

What is it with sporting events that inspire such body language? At a recent Australian Open tennis, the doubles winners took off their clothes. Where will this end – swimmers putting on all their clothes? A fully clothed streaker at Wimbledon? Streakergate?

With such rich material available, it would have been a pity had the media given up on this most useful expression after a mere four decades of usage. That is why my heart leaped in the manner made famous by Wordsworth’s when he beheld a rainbow in the sky at the sight of ‘Kargilgate’ on our TV screens and newspaper headlines. 

The beauty about Kargilgate is that it is CMgate, armygate, bureaucratgate all at once. That’s more gates than some European palaces have. There is also the possibility that the media have got it wrong, in which case we will have an investigation into mediagate. But what if skeletons tumble out of Microsoft’s cupboard? Will we then have a Gatesgate? Or if a famous bridge collapses? Goldengate? Shut the gate, somebody, before things get out of hand.



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