VicarGate: The BBC has many things to answer for, but I’m not sure paying a Tory-acting vicar is one of them

BBC Newsnight logo next to a picture of a vicar
Joshua Funnell

What has now become known as #VicarGate is BBC Newsnight’s decision to include a Conservative and Brexit-supporting actor on its public panel on 26 November.

This might just be reckless TV producing, but a conscious decision to employ an actor to televise Tory propaganda? I doubt it.

The context: establishment ‘Fake News’

‘Fake news’ is the last desperate cry of establishment media outlets trying to justify their own demise without taking any personal responsibility. Instead of reflecting on how resentment and distrust have built because they systematically amplify the voices of the powerful, they instead blame ‘fake news’ for smearing their reputations. ‘Fake news’ is a magic bullet that allows the establishment media to frame themselves as victims.

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The fake news problem

But the above truth also creates a problem: we are now so sceptical that we are at times (dare I say it) slightly paranoid. We can see prejudice and bias even where it isn’t.

That is not to say there is not bias to behold at the BBC. The BBC routinely includes voices from corporate think tanks. It constantly invites guests from the world of business and excludes workers. It amplifies UK government propaganda against foreign states. And it downplays the severity of climate change. Meanwhile, it constantly invites the same right-wing voices from the press and repeats their narratives.

I could go on.

But we must acknowledge that all of the above can be true and yet recognise incidents of fake news ‘on our own side’. And I believe one aspect of #Vicargate is such an incident.

#Vicargate

On 26 November, I posted the following tweet about a person who appeared on Newsnight. I was surprised by how much it resonated with people, and before I knew it, my tweet about ‘Lynn the Brexit vicar’ had gone viral:

She now even has her own parody account:

I also wrote about the incident, to highlight how incompatible her hardline pro-Tory, pro-Brexit, anti-immigration views seemed with her apparent Christianity.

The Twitter bureau of investigative journalism

But the Twitter community is forensic and conducted its own investigations. It was revealed that ‘Lynn the vicar’ is, in fact, Lynn Hayter, a pastor for the ‘Seeds for Wealth – Ministries’:

Further, going by her alias, Marina Hayter (her middle name) she is also a small-time actor who has appeared in films like Star Wars no less.

A BBC actor?

But Hayter’s also appeared in BBC shows like Eastenders. This has led some to suggest that the vicar is, in fact, a paid actress planted in a ‘public audience’ on Newsnight to spew pro-government, pro-Brexit propaganda.

And the story has subsequently broken with the following narrative:

The problem with this theory

Now let’s take a minute to review what a huge allegation this is: that the BBC paid a known actress with an online public profile and passed her off as a member of the public on national television. It would be bold, to say the least.

Now, as former Newsnight editor Paul Mason has acknowledged, that doesn’t mean that the decision to include such a person isn’t deeply misguided from a production point of view alone:

And this view has been reaffirmed by former BBC journalist Gavin Esler:

And clearly, her views are questionable. As Evolve Politics acknowledged, how BBC producers thought someone who expressed the following views was an acceptable guest is troubling:

But I can’t help agreeing with James O’Brien’s analysis:

Like it or not, bigots and eccentrics are members of the public like anyone else. That’s the flawed nature of the public that TV attempts to represent.

The BBC haven’t helped themselves

This is not to say that the BBC hasn’t harmed itself with its response:

Because describing her as “a pastor” gives her a sense of official credibility. What she seems to be, however, is a religious fanatic of questionable credentials. But let’s face it, for many, any belief in a supernatural being is folly, so creating a hierarchy of God’s legitimate representatives is a strange exercise.

I hope I’m proven wrong

The temptation to run with this story has proven too great for the Twitter community to resist. And with the level of distrust in the BBC it’s not surprising people think in such ways, or jump to bold conclusions.

Who knows, maybe damning documents will emerge that prove the BBC hired a person famed as a barkeeper in Star Wars to dress up as a vicar (pastor, whatever) and disseminate Tory propaganda.

Or, is there a different explanation? Did BBC producers instead pick out a member of the public and fail to vet her employment history sufficiently? Or worse, was it aware of her views and chose her because of them? Either would be embarrassments or scandals for the broadcaster.

But the point remains: based upon the available evidence, we are not in a position to emphatically state such claims, and nor should we.

I’m not a BBC apologist

God knows the BBC have enough to answer for, but unsubstantiated stories hold the inherent danger of reinforcing an establishment narrative that social media peddles disinformation. Moreover, it helps the argument that only the mainstream media can be trusted.

If crying ‘fake news’ is the magic bullet that sustains a sliver of credibility for mainstream media, then let’s not hand them ammunition ourselves.

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  • Show Comments
    1. As the author points, there’s absolutely no proof she was paid to appear indeed. And, in this post celebrity on-demand multichannel media era, working as extra is nothing glamourous and more and more like any zero hour “freelance” job. Furthermore, the BBC is big. The guys working on newsnight, (possibly from an independent production company commissioned by the BBC?) have absolutely no idea what’s going on the EastEnders set.

      But the problem with Lynn the pastor is one of vetting and/or of platforming extreme voices for entertainment’s sake. And this is where the danger lies. Farage and the ex-apprentice gobby idiot (forgot her name) appear often on telly not because producers agree, but because they piss people off, which makes it entertaining (conflict, tension… Stuff of good drama). But this is a dangerous game to play. It made extreme destructive ideas mainstream and acceptable. Brexit and school kids battered in playground is the consequence. And Bolsonaro in Brasil.

    2. It looks to me like the “Seeds for wealth” Facebook page has mysteriously disappeared?
      So, What is it? From the title it sounds like exactly the same scammy shtick as used by various American tele-evangelists. “Give us your money and the Lord will repay you the money tenfold” stuff. (See also Scientology etc).

    3. Well it may of course be incompetence in this case rather than deliberate, but I doubt it. After all, the BBC has form on this sort of thing. In fact a popular social media game every so often here in Scotland is spotting the plants in the QT audience when they mysteriously reappear, or noting when the ‘random member of the public’ interviewed in the street who happens to be picked to comment, turns out to be a local Tory councillor. I’m sorry, the BBC has been caught out too many times. It is the UK’s state broadcaster in every sense and its claims to impartiality are long since discredited.

      The BBC is simply the Westminster establishment at the microphone. It has close ties with No10 and is run by government appointees and card carrying Tories and Zionists – all apparently vetted by MI5, although the BBC itself maintains that practice has ceased.

      It aims to contain public debate within officially sanctioned limits and deny anyone outside the ‘Overton window’ the ‘oxygen of publicity’. When HM ‘Loyal Opposition’ found it had Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the BBC found even that hard to cope with.

      You will see and hear very little on the BBC from the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Camry, the Republican side in N Ireland, but Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage (endlessly), ReesMogg, et al somehow get offered a platform.
      The BBC are masters of fake news and spin.

      After complaints I made in 2014 about completely unacceptable TV news items were just contemptuously dismissed and flatly denied, I cancelled my TV Licence and told them why. I no longer watch live TV at all – and I don’t miss it. But their radio output is no better these days. Luckily the off button is easy to reach.

      Thank goodness we now have a variety of new news sources online that can provide a range of views and perspectives and no longer have to be so dependent on state propaganda.
      .

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