Following the death of Ainsley Gotto last Sunday, there was considerable media interest in the release of her private papers, which she gave to the National Library of Australia. No doubt many journalists and academics, and more besides, were hoping to find evidence of an affair between Gotto and her employer, prime minister John Gorton, sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s.

Gotto became one of the best known names in Australian politics when she was appointed Gorton’s principal private secretary (today’s equivalent would be chief of staff) in early 1968. Gorton became prime minister not long after Harold Holt’s drowning on Victoria’s Cheviot Beach in late December 1967. Gotto was 22 at the time of her appointment and her boss had been born in 1911.

There was, and remains to some extent, an assumption that an attractive young female such as Gotto would never have attained such a position without sleeping with her employer. But no evidence was ever produced to prove the case. Ian Hancock did not even raise the issue in his considered 2002 biography John Gorton: He Did It His Way. Hancock interviewed both Gorton and Gotto at length at various times, and both separately denied the rumour.

In fact, Gotto’s papers will not be released until the end of 2019. In the meantime, they are accessible only to Hancock, who is writing a biography of Gotto. In any event, since there was no affair there will be no revelation in 2020 or later.

Hancock’s view is supported by Tony Eggleton, the former Liberal Party operative who knew both individuals well. As Eggleton told The Australian’s Troy Bramston last Tuesday, “they were good friends and worked closely together but there was no impropriety”. Eggleton also said that Gotto was “at the top of her game at that early age” and offered efficiency in dealing with paperwork which Gorton lacked.

Gotto gave only one public speech on her time with the Gorton government — when she and Hancock addressed the Sydney Institute in May 2002. It was published in the autumn 2002 issue of The Sydney Papers. Gotto achieved high office at a time of considerable political instability in Australia. Consequently, Hancock’s biography is awaited with interest.

Gorton is not the only Australian prime minister in the 20th century who was said to have had an affair with a woman while in office. The two best-known allegations relate to Labor’s Ben Chifley (1885-1951) and the Liberal Party’s Robert Menzies (1894-1978).

The mythology is that Chifley had an ongoing affair with his personal secretary Phyllis Donnelly, who was present when he died suddenly at the Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra. However, in his 2001 biography, Chifley, labour historian David Day suggested that Nell Donnelly (Phyllis’s sister) may have been the actual recipient of Chifley’s attentions. Or perhaps there was a menage a trois. Or perhaps not. We just don’t know.

It’s much the same with Menzies. Writing in The Monthly in November 2006, journalist Mungo MacCallum claimed that “when Sir Warwick Fairfax belatedly discovered that his first wife had conducted an affair with Menzies, The Sydney Morning Herald had a rather less passionate affair with Menzies’ opponent Arthur Calwell” in 1961. Fairfax held prominent positions at The Sydney Morning Heraldduring Menzies’ two prime ministerships, namely 1939 to 1941 and 1949 to 1966.

The Crikey newsletter sought my opinion about MacCallum’s claim. I responded that it could not be sustained.

I added that the late Allan Martin had told me that there was no evidence about the friendship beyond a benign letter, dated August 6, 1938, that Menzies sent to Mrs Fairfax.

It turned out that MacCallum’s sources for what he claimed was “beyond gossip” were unnamed former politicians and political staffers, deceased journalists and anonymous commonwealth car drivers. That was it.

The rumour was dimmed by the Fairfax family biographer Gavin Souter, Vic Carroll, David Marr, Judith Brett, Brian Johns, Bridget Griffen-Foley and Trevor Kennedy, who doubted or dismissed MacCallum’s claim.

In the end, MacCallum conceded that there is “no direct evidence” for the rumour but said that he still believed that the balance of probabilities pointed to “more than a platonic friendship”. Demonstrating again, if demonstration is necessary, that many believe what they want to believe.

It’s not just some journalists who delight in gossiping about the sex lives, real or fancied, of politicians living or dead. Take the lawyer Richard Ackland, who writes the Gadfly column in The Saturday Paper, for example.

On February 17 this year, Ackland claimed that “old-timers swear they saw” former Country Party (now the Nationals) leader Arthur Fadden “running naked through Kings Hall in Old Parliament House” in pursuit of “a couple of sylphs”. Fadden retired from politics in 1962 and died in 1973. The old-timers in question must indeed be rather old.

Last Saturday, Ackland threw the switch to encore. He reported that an anonymous reader recalls that his mother, when a youngster, heard her father call excitedly from a car: “Look, there’s Arthur Fadden coming out of that brothel.” This is hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay. But is apparently good enough for Ackland and The Saturday Paper’s editor Erik Jensen.

There are two problems here. First, it’s unwise to believe what anyone tells you just because you want to believe it. And, second, it is ahistorical to assume that those who lived in an earlier generation can be assessed by the practices of later generations.

Sure, Chifley was close to and fond of Phyllis Donnelly. But that doesn’t mean that they had sex together. Likewise with Menzies. For a time at least, he enjoyed a friendship with Mrs Warwick (Betty) Fairfax. But there is no evidence that they slept together. And Sir Warwick’s decision to oppose Menzies at the 1961 election is perfectly explainable with respect to policy issues alone.

Gorton conceded to Hancock that he had some affairs during his time as prime minister. But there is no reason to include Gotto on this little list — and he did not.