Broadcasters can make us smug and stupid

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The Independent Online

Apologies. A sexed-down column today. Call me puritanical, but I am of the opinion that a little less sex all round would do us good. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying it isn't important that we know who has been sexing up what - the Government what it knew about weapons, the mole what he knew about the Government, the journalist what he knew about the mole, the BBC what it thinks about the journalist, the Government what it thinks about the BBC, other journalists what they think about everything. All very necessary, I accept, to the workings of a free society. I'd like to change the language, that's all. I'd like to take the sex out.

I didn't care for any of this from the moment that Andrew Gilligan put the sex - or reported the putting of the sex - in. There's something very BBC about the phrase "sexed-up". It rings wrong. It is like hearing a Mother Superior swear. Semiotically, it is of the same order as Richard Branson calling his record company Virgin. Mr Gilligan is less lasciviously wet-lipped than Mr Branson, more owlish, and looks as though he didn't go to anything like as good a school or have anything like as many friends, but their "sexing up" and "Virgins" belong to a similar sub-stratum of English schoolboy naughtiness.

They both have the air of class monitors daring their housemasters to give them the strap. And of expecting to be heroised by their fellows as a consequence. Their names betray the nature of their trespass. Branson Goes to the Bad. Giggles Gilligan of the Fifth.

The BBC told me to sex myself up once. Does the Late Show ring a bell? A nightly arts programme on BBC 2 - if you can remember what an arts programme was, or what BBC 2 television was, come to that - which ran for a while in the late 1980s and early 1990s when we all still had a vestige of intelligence. I had my own column on it briefly. Ex Libris it was called, meaning Get Out of Books.

It was while I was writing and presenting that column that they urged me, and everybody else, to sex up. First you had to offer a raft of suggestions, then you had to unpack its contents, then you had to sex it up. I never did unscramble those metaphors, though I recall thinking that they met in some inexplicable way in the idea of shipwreck. We had fallen overboard with our luggage and would soon, whether we liked it or not, be forced into that form of sexual congress known as transmission. Cannibalism would be next, I thought. As indeed it was.

I say this is very BBC, but in fairness it is very broadcasting altogether. One institution, one channel, one station, bleeds into another. Broadcasting personnel change positions as though they're playing musical chairs - the polite version in which everybody wins. Even in the middle of a ratings war they are one big happy family, like lawyers laughing together at the Reform Club though they've been squabbling over the last of your resources in court all afternoon.

And the family includes print journalists no less than broadcasters. Mr Gilligan (why do I keep wanting to call him Gillingham?) was at the Telegraph before the Today programme cottoned on to his waggishness. Alastair Campbell, who appeared on breakfast telly every five minutes until Mr Blair scooped him up, began his career as a trainee reporter for the Tavistock Times before descending to the Daily Mirror and unelected governance. What goes around comes around.

No wonder they call it sexing up: reader, this bunch have been in bed together from the outset. And if you wonder why the arguments are so bitter, remember that they have been competing for the same jobs, earwigging the same rumours, sluicing from the same sources, fishing in the same ponds, and otherwise eyeing, ogling and envying one another every second of their working lives.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Government or the BBC. Myself I find the complacency of the latter harder to bear. But that might be because I believe broadcasters are possessed of a greater power to do harm than politicians. Politicians make it difficult for us to find a hospital bed, take our money, tell us lies and persuade us to invade foreign countries. Pish tush! Broadcasters have the power to make us smug and stupid, and to keep us that way. Which is far worse. What is more, they exert their influence with as little democratic right to it as Mr Campbell. Who elected John Humphrys or his bosses?

As for spin, as it was known before the days of sexing up, what are grown men doing calling a Labour government to task for putting a prejudicial shine on things? We might not wish to have fought in Iraq, and therefore might not wish to have been bowled a spinning ball, but in a soft-centred, middle England, pearls and primness, right-on BBC-acculturated island that does not take to hard-nosed socialism, the only hope any sort of Labour administration has of staying in office is circumrotation of the truth. Tell it as it is and you're out.

To which the answer is not necessarily, "then be gone, you scoundrels!" You have to consider the alternative. A government's duty, sometimes, is to save us from the opposition. And also from ourselves. A policy, like a story, must be sold. And those who complain of government spin in the morning should remember that they are themselves busy sexing up on television that same night. If we would be as pure of motive as we are chaste of language, the BBC is not the place to practise.

The sad part is that the innate self-satisfaction of the BBC at every level chimes at present with a peculiarly otherworldly mood of national self-righteousness. Switch on the radio and it all gets very moist and snuggly. Like having a sainted aunt blow in your ear. Myself, I just don't happen to find that sexy.

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