20 May 2019

Whatever you think of an undercover spy, her curves aren’t the news story

Salacious “honeytrap” coverage turns a news story about the imprisonment of a former Trump adviser into creepy James Bond-style fanfic.

Guest Mavens
Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
Whatever you think of an undercover spy, her curves aren’t the news story - NewsMavens
George Papadopoulos, YouTube

It’s the stuff of 1960s spy movies -- a glamorous spy with blonde hair and impressive curves entrapping the hapless political adviser into giving away state secrets.

That’s the story emerging about George Papadopoulos, former Trump adviser, who was targeted by an FBI investigation into the 2016 Presidential campaign.

It contains all the best ingredients -- British professors, attractive women, and a honey trap set for a gullible aide all too keen to believe a drink with him was the “highlight” of a glamorous woman’s trip to London.

But the resulting coverage of Papadopoulos’ memoir indulges in the most basic sexism and ignores the real news story: the arrest and imprisonment of an adviser for lying to the FBI.

What’s the claim?

The Daily Mail has reported on how the “Trump spy scandal deepens”, writing:

"Curvy blonde" undercover FBI investigator targeted aide George Papadopoulus at London bar

They write how in his forthcoming book, Papadopoulos described undercover FBI agent Azra Turk as a:

"sexy bottle blonde in her thirties who was 'not shy about showing her curves – as if anyone could miss them. She's a fantasy's fantasy."

Turk was posing as the research assistant of Cambridge professor Stefan Halper, and went for a drink with Papadopoulos in a London bar. She asked Papadopoulos whether the Trump campaign was working with Russia in 2016. Papadopoulos wrote:

"'If this is what academic researchers look like, I've been going to the wrong school,' I laugh to myself."


We don’t know who the real Azra Turk is, however we can critique the sexism in this news story -- starting with the salacious coverage.

This is a news story about Papadopoulos’s claims that he was targeted by a spy in a counterintelligence probe. It’s also a story about the desperate measures an alarmed FBI took in in its efforts to try and get to grips with the alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 US election.

It’s not a news story about a woman’s body or hair color.

However, the Daily Mail chooses to focus their coverage on Papadopoulos’ description of Turk’s looks, using objectifying language that refers to her hair and body. This privileges Papadopoulos’s version of events, and his decision to frame the undercover agent entirely as a sex object.

The language Papadopoulos uses is needlessly sexist -- “bottle blonde” and a “fantasy’s fantasy”. He dehumanizes Turk, presumably to try and recover some of his own disgraced reputation, and the Mail is willing to go along with this dehumanisation.

Then there’s his “joke” about what academic researchers look like. This is an example of basic sexism -- the assumption that intelligent women cannot be conventionally attractive. It leans on misogynistic stereotypes about the value of women -- that blondes are dumb and research assistants are dowdy bluestockings.

If Papadopoulos’s claims are true, there are ethical questions to be raised about the ongoing use of the “honey trap” to extract secrets from men. It’s a sexist tactic that treats women as sex objects and men as hapless characters who can’t control themselves. In some ways it is not surprising that Papadopoulos uses misogynistic and objectifying language to recount the events in the London bar -- that was the FBI’s intention after all.

However, one has to assume that while Turk was not, in fact, a Cambridge research assistant, she is a highly-trained professional agent with the FBI.

The Daily Mail has a long history in focusing on a woman’s body as its headline news story. The notorious “sidebar of shame” is packed with stories where women “pour their curves” into a dress, or “flaunt” their body parts -- simply by leaving the house wearing clothes. There’s no surprise, then, that they would report the sexual attributes of a spy -- even when that means trusting the words of a convicted criminal.


This article is an example of clickbait –- relying on sexist and objectifying language to attract readers. The article relies on sexual objectification to sensationalise a news story.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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