#VicarGate – A Cautionary Tale

Last week I was idly watching Newsnight and contemplating a bedtime cup of tea, when I caught the item billed as a ‘Brexit debate’, with a line up of MPs, and a small group of members of the public. Except that one ‘member of the public’ immediately captured my attention. She was a rather strange looking vicar.

To most British people, myself included, a dog collar evokes a distinctive status. It connotes a certain moral authority, even for those of us who are not of the Christian, or any other faith.  Put simply, we trust that the wearer of that collar will be honest, truthful, kindly, and well-meaning.  To hear the “Reverend Lynn” espouse sheer Brexity bigotry came as quite a shock.

The next day, Newsnight forgotten, I was scrolling through Twitter, and there was the distinctive face of “Rev Lynn”.  She was, according to these Tweets, an ‘actress’, or a jobbing extra, with a sideline in quack ministry of the sort which solicits cash from the gullible.  Everywhere there was outrage about the BBC  paying an actress to play a role on what was meant to be a news programme.  Which the BBC denied.

Vicargate

And I believe their denial.  But what can’t be denied is that, paid or not, the “Rev Lynn” had been cast. She was terrific casting. Weird, mesmerising, terrifyingly humdrum; a League of Gentlemen vicar with a bottle of arsenic next to the teapot.  And thus she was an example of “fake news”, on a public broadcaster paid for by us all.

I have always striven to defend the BBC. It is, like the NHS, a peculiarly British product, a little patrician, a little earnest, sometimes condescending, more often superb.  Unlike any other broadcaster it stretches across the land, with studios in places far from metropolitan glamour.  It spans the world, too, through the magnificent BBC World Service.  As such it is a trusted brand, at home, and more widely, with foreign language services which have been lifelines to many at times of oppression or war.  The English language World Service, and the BBC website have also been vital sources of information to people caught up in natural, or human-created disasters,  like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, when people from all over the world searching for news of loved ones flocked to the BBC.

So why is this exemplary service under so much suspicion and pressure now, widely accused of partisanship, the false or misleading application of ‘balance’, snd poor judgement when it comes to showcasing extreme opinions, particularly from the far-right?

For once, Brexit isn’t the answer.  This problem with BBC news long predates 2016.  Nor has the BBC been squeaky clean historically.  From the General Strike of 1926, through the Cold War, when a spook had an office in Broadcasting House, with access to employees’ files, the BBC has always been aware of its proximity to the state.

But the current crisis, exemplified by VicarGate is different.

Whilst much news and discussion broadcasting now seeks ‘sensation’ in various forms, provoking an instant and ratings-driving response from the approving and the aggrieved alike, this is something more.  Pitting boring climate change scientists against a glib lobbyist or an ex-politician turned corporate-interests defending gun-for-hire was just the beginning of the normalisation of something very abnormal.

The first time I heard that Steve Bannon’s outfit, Breitbart, had a British website, was when I started seeing James Delingpole as a regular on programmes like The Daily Politics.  It made me look at the Breitbart website, where I was truly shaken by what I saw.  Ditto The Conservative Woman website, a domain name, last time I looked, owned by a man, which became the go-to place for a feisty youngish woman who would argue the case against women’s rights.  No accident, I suspect, that the man in charge at that time is now Theresa May’s Communications Chief.

The BBC still employs, worldwide, many decent, diligent correspondents determined to uphold the highest standards of journalism.  But its public face at home is increasingly coarse, and compromised.

The question is why?  Why “fake news”, gratuitous sensation-seeking, false balance?

The “Rev Lynn” example would not have been out of place as a tale in Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible.  It’s about how Russian media has perfected the art of distracting, confusing, contradicting, alarming, and anaesthetising the audience so that no one knows what to believe, or who to trust.

But how could that possibly benefit the BBC?

It doesn’t.  But if it undermines public trust, and mutes the influential voices of support, eroding, tarnishing the brand, then the rest of the BBC – Eastenders, Radio 3, Countryfile, Strictly, period drama, kids telly, Asian Network, 6 Music, and all the stations, all the online content – eventually goes down with it.

There are a lot of powerful commercial interests in the world who’d like that very much. And we see their placemen and lobbyists on our screens, or behind the scenes, every single day.

There are worms in the apple.

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