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.
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.
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:
I'm currently watching a priest (or vicar) dressed in full collar on #Newsnight saying she's "big time" against free movement of people
Cos Jesus was well up for building a wall and keeping out the foreign hoards.
Humanity is fucked mate
— Joshua Funnell (@SocialistSki) November 26, 2018
She now even has her own parody account:
Lies! The words of Statin himself! I am NOT a fraud! For my word is true! https://t.co/7yirbtGwJ3
— Lynn the Brexit Vicar (Satire) (@LynnVicar) November 29, 2018
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’:
Here is Lynn Hayter in clothing as a pastor which doesn't look like what she wore on Newsnight. if she was not a paid actress then why is her appearance that of a C of E minister? That part makes no sense to me. #VicarGate pic.twitter.com/gZzlYi0t7H
— Pastor Johnny 🌹🇵🇸 #GTTO #DPFC (@JohnnyMabon) November 29, 2018
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.
Is it true that @BBCNewsnight engaged actors to put the Leave argument in a recent studio discussion because they wanted the Leave case put more strongly?
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) November 29, 2018
And the story has subsequently broken with the following narrative:
#Vicargate is almost certainly the most astonishing of all the gates.
The BBC hired an internet-ordained minister who had previously acted on several BBC shows to pose as a random member of the public who supported Theresa May's Brexit deal on Newsnight.https://t.co/GD2sSfwbRm
— Evolve Politics (@evolvepolitics) November 29, 2018
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:
So did I and I know that casting a pro-Trump weirdo in a dog collar who then uses her communication skills to put the government case is either an oversight or a poor editorial decision. Public has right to question it.
— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) November 30, 2018
And this view has been reaffirmed by former BBC journalist Gavin Esler:
It’s difficult to believe that out of 65 million “members of the public” this particular person was chosen at random. Was the thinking – yet again – to find anyone however bizarre to qualify as “balance?” Maybe the “balance” idea needs a bit more thought. #vicargate https://t.co/UWw7QiLlDI
— Gavin Esler (@gavinesler) November 29, 2018
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:
Just when you thought the BBC's reputation couldn't sink any lower following the astonishing #VicarGate revelations, it also appears they failed to vet her whatsoever.
— Evolve Politics (@evolvepolitics) November 29, 2018
But I can’t help agreeing with James O’Brien’s analysis:
The #NewsnightVicar story is nothing like what many people on here seem to think it is. An eccentric, self-styled cleric, with thespian ambitions, has as much right to be in that studio as any other member of the public.
(You don't need to point out that I used to work there.)
— James O'Brien (@mrjamesob) November 29, 2018
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:
Claims that Lynn appeared on #newsnight as a paid actor are false. Lynn is a pastor and was a genuine participant of our Brexit debate. She carries out work as an extra using her middle name but this is not relevant to the capacity in which she appeared. #VicarGate
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) November 29, 2018
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.
We need your help ...
The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.
Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.
We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.
Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?