Sexing it up
If it should turn out that Andrew Gilligan gets the sack from the BBC as a result of the Hutton Enquiry he need not be unduly worried about spending the rest of his life on the dole being harassed by Job Centre clerks into taking jobs like packing airline meals or cleaning offices at about five pounds an hour without any relief from a generous expense account. For he is given credit as the originator of the phrase “sexing up” and that alone should ensure he had no problem in finding a job with an advertising agency. “Sexing up” has gone down into history now, to take its place in the dictionaries of the future. Gruesome, punchy – and a bit thrilling – it exactly expressed the embellishment of the propaganda material being used by the Blair government to justify attacking Iraq. As a phrase it is a lot more effective and expressive than “over-egging” – the other one used at the Hutton enquiry. So well done Andrew; let us hope you will never have to use such an extravagant talent writing similar slogans to help sell cornflakes or washing powder or whatever.
But why did we have to wait so long for some creative genius to come up with the phrase? Sexing up is a long established, long discredited technique in the places where there is a need to excite us at the same time as we are deceived. And there are many, many examples of it being used. Take the case of the Bountiful Age of Nuclear Power. At the time when the world was still getting its breath back after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was encouragement to divert from the inevitable doubts and fear for the future by concentrating instead on the promised benefits of nuclear power. The motive was to replace the images of devastated cities and radiated people with those of modern, sanitary, fertile power stations. There was a need for some sexing up, to encourage the consolation that Britain had not been bled out of the top ranks of world capitalism by the war but was a vibrant, progressive power in the world.
The first subject of this was the atomic power station at Calder Hall in Cumbria, which opened in 1956. It cost thirty five million pounds – at 1950s’ prices – to build and there had to be some justification for such a staggering amount of money. The first effort at sexing up came with the assurance that far from being a backwater Britain was entering the “new atomic age”. Then there was the claim that Calder Hall would produce electricity “too cheap to meter”. That was the time when the domestic appliance market was beginning to stir into life and manufacturers like Hoover would have found comfort in the prospect of workers being beguiled by the notion that if they bought a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine they could run it for next to nothing. But behind the sexing up there was a less entrancing reality for Calder Hall used most of the electricity it produced itself, with only about a quarter of it going out to the national grid. And far from the electricity being almost free, the new atomic station turned out to be the most expensive way of producing it. The real reason for building Calder Hall was to produce plutonium for weapons – for the Hiroshimas of the future. A fact which was rather more difficult to sex up.
But none of this was allowed to intrude on the hysteria about the supposed benefits of nuclear energy. By contemporary standards Calder Hall was primitive; newer developments were the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (a British design) and the Pressurised Water Reactor (an American design). By the time of the election of the 1964 Labour government under Harold Wilson there was no more talk about nuclear energy being cheaper than what was produced in conventional power stations. But Wilson had won an election on a promise that his government would swamp everyone with plenty in a new technological age – “moving forward in partnership and unity to a just society, to a dynamic, expanding, confident and above all, purposive Britain”. The government could hardly refuse to choose the British technology – the AGR. The Minister of Power Fred Lee was euphoric. By building the AGRs, he assured us, we had “really hit the jackpot”; it was “the greatest breakthrough of all time” and he would back his judgment by ordering a 60 percent increase in them. But after the sexing up came reality. The first AGR station, set down on the bleak cobbles of Dungeness, cost twice as much to build as the original promise and it was 20 years before it generated any power for the national grid.
At about the same time as Calder Hall began to grind into action a new Prime Minister was beginning to enjoy the sensation of having led his party into a historic election victory. Anthony Eden was an ideal English aristocrat – handsome, elegant, Old Etonian – not at all the type to be expected to get into anything as dishonourable as sexing up. Unhappily for him, however, Eden nurtured a few resentments about the decline of British capitalism as a world power, particularly in the Middle East. Eden was not your strong, silent type of English gentleman; an operation on him to remove gall stones had gone wrong, leaving him living on drugs and consequently inclined to be irascibly, blindly stubborn.
There was a new government too in Egypt, headed by ex-army officer Abdel Nasser who was sexed up by his supporters as “. . . a strong man . . . a practising Moslem and a proud nationalist”. This was not good news for British interests in the region, especially those centered on the Suez Canal, which carried 25 percent of all their exports and half the oil produced in the Middle East. In July 1956 the Egyptian government nationalised the Canal, declaring that the revenue from this would go towards financing the building of the Aswan Dam. After a certain amount of diplomatic skirmishing, which included a secret agreement to collude in an Israeli attack on Egypt so as to give them the excuse to intervene, the British and French governments sent their forces into Egypt.
This was not an enterprise which commanded unanimous support, which meant that the case for it needed to be pushed with the customary disregard for the truth. First, there was Nasser himself, who had to be sexed up as a kind of Saddam Hussain of his day. Eden set his thoughts out to President Eisenhower:
“I have never thought of Nasser as a Hitler but the parallel with Mussolini is close. Neither of us can forget the lives and treasure he cost us before he was finally dealt with. Our people are grimly determined that Nasser shall not get away with it this time, because they are convinced that if he does their existence will be at his mercy.”
And a few days later he was on television, trying to scare the viewers by sexing up the style of the regime in Egypt:
“The pattern is familiar to many of us, my friends. We all know this is how fascist governments behave, as we all remember, only too well, what the cost can be in giving in to fascism.”
It did not take long for the whole tawdry episode to be brought to an end, for Washington to force the British and French to withdraw, for the agreement between Britain, France and Israel to be exposed, for Eden to collapse under the strain so that he abruptly resigned and took himself off to the West Indies to recover. Sexing it up had not worked.
That was all a long time ago and the conspirators, the big players and the people who sexed it up to frighten or cajole or deceive us are an embarrassing memory. After them, the social system lives on, relentlessly adding to its history of human disasters, of which Iraq is only the latest. And still there are the feeble, transparent attempts through conspiracy, spin or sexing up, to conceal reality.