“Sexed Up”

“SEXED UP”….I wrote a longish post last night about the whole Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly/”sexed up” dossier affair over in Britain, but I ended up deleting it. It just turned out to be too hard to figure out any kind of reasonable point to make about the whole thing.

However, today the Guardian answered a trivial ? but eminently blogworthy! ? question that piqued my curiosity while I was doing some of my research: where did the term “sexed up” come from?

First, here’s what BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan originally said on the Today show on May 29:

I’ve spoken to a British official who was involved in the preparation of the dossier and he told me that in the week before it was published, the draft dossier produced by the intelligence services added little to what was already publicly known. He said:

“It was transformed in the week before it was published to make it sexier. The classic example was the claim that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use within 45 minutes….”

The words “sexed up” were never used, and yet every single news articles uses them, and even puts them in quotes. Why?

Here is the Guardian’s explanation:

At the last count, the phrase “sexed up” had been used in 545 articles, formed the basis of 22 newspaper headlines and been the subject of countless readers’ letters since Andrew Gilligan’s infamous story broke on May 29.

Within hours it had become a favourite phrase of writers and subeditors and entered the journalistic vernacular. But Gilligan never actually uttered the phrase he has become famous for – in fact, the first mention came from John Humphrys.

Gilligan had quoted his source as saying the Iraq dossier “was transformed in the week before it was published to make it sexier”. Little more than an hour later Humphrys was quizzing the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, on the allegation that the report “was produced, it went to No 10, it was then sent back to be ‘sexed up’ a little”.

Even Humphrys appears not to have been entirely clear about the phrase’s origins – “I’m using not my own words but the words of our source, as you know,” he told Mr Ingram.

I guess that answers that.

There’s really not much meat to the whole controversy, by the way. Gilligan says that in his May 29 broadcast he accurately quoted Kelly, a Ministry of Defense official who was involved in writing the September dossier that had allegedly been “sexed up.” When questioned, Kelly said he didn’t really say exactly that, but since he’s now dead there’s no way of proving it one way or the other.

On the other hand, one thing this kerfuffle shows, yet again, is that coverups and shifty explanations are usually worse than the initial misdeeds themselves. Nobody can ever prove that Gilligan misquoted Kelly, but thanks to a raggedy defense by the BBC they can prove that the BBC lied about several specific claims: among other things, prior to Kelly coming forward, the BBC said that Gilligan’s source was a “senior intelligence official,” denied that he worked for the Ministry of Defense, and implied that he had been one of the primary writers of the dossier. All of those things are false.

Best guess at this point? (1) Gilligan probably quoted Kelly accurately. (2) Kelly tried to downplay it when he was questioned. (3) The government acted abysmally in fingering Kelly and putting him under an unnecessary spotlight after he came forward. (4) The BBC shot itself in the foot very badly in their various defenses of Gilligan.

Of course, none of this matters, since the entire affair is simply a proxy for whether you think the BBC is either (a) inexcusably biased against the Iraq war and this is just one of a thousand examples, or (b) the BBC was the only news outlet with the integrity to report the war honestly, free of the propaganda spewed forth by the U.S. military. Take your pick.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, other news outlets have also reported that the September dossier was beefed up under political pressure. What really made the difference in this case was that Gilligan also claimed that Kelly told him the name of the person who insisted on the beefing up: Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications. It was this allegation that really started the war between Blair and the BBC.