Fake news and fake vicars…

The furore over the ‘fake vicar’ on Newsnight has caused a lot of trouble – but some of the most important aspects of the story seem to have been missed, lost in amongst the anger, defensiveness, accusations and counter accusations. For some it is a storm in a teacup, for others evidence of conspiracies, for still more evidence that others believe in conspiracies. Lord Adonis suggested the BBC paid the ‘fake vicar’ as an actress, Emily Maitlis accused Lord Adonis of spreading fake news, and the official BBC News PR team denied everything – everything, that is, except what people were really bothered about. The idea that the BBC actually paid the fake vicar to appear as an actress playing the part of a panellist was never the real point of the story – and it’s so unlikely as to be a genuine conspiracy theory, and is therefore very easy indeed for the BBC to deny. There are, however, much bigger questions with much more disturbing possible answers that the story brings up. Were the BBC ‘played’ by the fake vicar? Were they careless in their research when recruiting her for their panel? And why, in the face of all this, do they find it so, so hard to admit to any kind of mistake, apologise, and help rebuild our trust – at a time when trust in the BBC hangs by a thread, and is of more importance than it has ever been?

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‘Lynn’ appeared as a panellist on Newsnight, dressed, as can be seen, as a more or less traditional vicar – and yet that really was not who she was. As people on the internet quickly discovered, she was an actress – who incidentally had appeared a number of times on BBC programmes – who was also a ‘pastor’ of an obscure and distinctly dodgy internet-based church (the ‘Seeds of Wealth’ church). She also had pretty extreme views on Brexit, Islam and related subjects. What she clearly wasn’t was a vicar – and the Seeds of Wealth church does not appear to use old-fashioned C-of-E-style dog collars or anything like them. She was, to all intents and purposes, wearing a costume and playing a part.

Does this really matter? Why shouldn’t people of unusual and extreme views be allowed to be on panels on Newsnight? Here are the seeds of the problem. It’s not that she shouldn’t be allowed on Newsnight, and it’s not that extreme views shouldn’t be presented – but that deception should be avoided. This is where the ‘fakeness’ comes in, and where it fits with the pattern of fake news in general – part of what I research in my academic work. There is a chapter about it in my recent book, The Internet, Warts and All, and another academic piece just released about Facebook’s role in the fake news problem. One of the key lessons to learn from the study of Fake news is that it is rarely about things that are totally false, and rarely about trying to change people from one thing to quite another. It’s about ‘nudging’ and persuading, about taking nuggets of truth and distorting them, changing the focus, and gradually shifting people’s views or the intensity with which they hold those views. This is an old technique – Evelyn Waugh explained one aspect of it very well in his seminal novel about journalism, ‘Scoop’, in 1938:

“I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.”

In this case, the little grit of fact was that Lynn was a pastor. Dressing her up as a conventional vicar is just a little shift, but changes the story. Having an obscure, weird, internet-church pastor say that she’s right behind Theresa May’s Brexit plan is one thing, having a respectable-looking middle-aged vicar say so is quite another. The details can be defended – indeed, the BBC has defended them quite vigorously – the overall story, however, is far harder to defend. Lynn was a fake vicar. In effect, she was a fake panellist. Newsnight, knowingly or unknowingly, was part of a fake story.

This fits with a pattern for the BBC – and for Newsnight in particular. Appearances matter, whether in the dog-collars of panellists or in the choices of backdrops. When Newsnight portrayed Jeremy Corbyn in front of the Kremlin, there was a similar fuss, but it similarly missed the point.

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The focus of the attention on this picture was generally ‘was his hat photoshopped to look more Russian’, and again the BBC could and did vigorously defend itself on this point, and indeed provided evidence to back themselves up. This wasn’t a fake hat, just his usual hat in profile. And yes, they’d done a photo of Tory minister Gavin Williamson with the same Kremlin background in a previous programme. The difference was more subtle. Williamson was pictured away from the actual Kremlin, on the other side of the screen. He was wearing a suit, not looking in the slightest bit Russian – and of course the association between left-wing Corbyn and old-fashioned Communism makes the link much stronger.

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Move on to Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – better known by his activist name of Tommy Robinson. In this case, they used one of Yaxley-Lennon’s own PR pictures as the basis of their backdrop for their special feature on him: a picture specially designed to suggest that the issues around him were about ‘gagging’ and restricting free speech, rather than contempt of court and other related issues. The debate was automatically framed by the picture.

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In all these three cases the actions of the BBC are defensible – and defended – in the detail, but the overall effect is quite different, and much harder to defend. Appearances matter, as anyone involved in television must know. The big questions to ask are why these things happen – and this is where the conspiracy theories start to kick in. Personally, I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories often. Cock-up is generally far more likely than conspiracy – particularly where the BBC is involved. In relation to the fake vicar, I suspect it is much more to do with underpaid and overworked researchers not doing their job properly – and being ‘played’ by the fake vicar herself. As anyone involved in this kind of a programme will know, there are plenty of weirdos and extremists who work very hard to get on programmes like Newsnight, Question Time and so on – and plenty of people working to get their supporters on such programmes. They can be very persistent, they can work their contacts and so on. It’s entirely possible that this is what happened here. Lynn wanted to be on TV, and in particular on a programme like this. She wanted to get her views across, she wanted them to be taken seriously, and she found a way to do this.

The BBC somehow let her – and we will probably never find out how or why – because they will in all probability never admit what actually happened.  Acknowledging mistakes, misjudgments, or having been played seems to be something that the BBC finds unbelievably hard to do. Instead, as in all three cases above, they defend on the detail and refuse even to pay lip service to the bigger picture or the bigger issues involved. That is both sad and unhelpful, because it fuels exactly the conspiracy theories that the BBC should be opposing. If no errors are ever acknowledged, people find it easier to believe that the BBC is doing all this intentionally – and it erodes the trust that people still have in the BBC.

This last part is particularly important. In the era of fake news, what we need more than anything else is real and reliable news to counter it. The BBC could and should be a part of that, a place that fake news and conspiracy theories can be countered, an anchor point in a sea of misinformation and disinformation. At times of political turmoil this is critical – and it would be great if the BBC could find a way back from the edge. A starting point would be just to say ‘sorry, we got it wrong’. For the BBC, however, sorry seems to be the hardest word.