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'How I exposed a preacher's Covid kit fraud'

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A bishop who told his congregation they would "drop dead" from Covid if they did not buy his £91 protection kits has been found guilty of fraud.

Bishop Climate Wiseman, 47, of Kingdom Church in Camberwell, south London, sold red yarn and bottles of oil, Inner London Crown Court heard.

Evidence against him included secret phone recordings and testimony from a BBC London investigation.

Investigative reporter Guy Lynn explains how he exposed the fraud.

As I made my way to the stand in one of London's oldest crown courts, I looked up to see the packed public gallery of Bishop Climate Wiseman's supporters.

I could feel them glaring down at me intensely. And in front of me, the man himself, accused of fraud, whose fate hung in the balance, seemingly staring through me as I moved to speak.

As a journalist working on an undercover investigation, my first priority is to get the story right for the public. We are thorough and diligent, particularly with anything involving secret recording.

But journalists aren't police officers - and the requirements of a TV investigation are not in the same league as law enforcement.

I remember feeling my heart racing as I went up to give my oath, and nervous that this was something which was entirely out of my comfort zone. I would be addressing barristers and a jury about how we do journalism of this kind at the BBC and, in the case of Bishop Wiseman, how this work was absolutely critical for the fate of one man, who could potentially go to jail as a result of it.

On the stand, I was first asked questions by the prosecuting lawyer Richard Heller about the genesis of this story which, I recounted, came in April 2020.

We all remember that period, I said, shortly after the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told the country they must stay at home, while large numbers of people were seriously ill in hospital as the best medical minds raced to better understand Covid-19.

At the time, I had heard of many stories of scams targeting vulnerable people desperate for some protection from the virus.

But the one that worried me most was about a church in Camberwell, led by a charismatic preacher, Bishop Climate Wiseman, who was seemingly trying to profit by selling very expensive bottles of oil that had first been sold as "plague protection kits".

He and his employees - who were not on trial - claimed that anyone who purchased the kits for about £90 each would be "protected" from the raging virus and would have no need for social distancing, as they were fully protected and could not spread Covid.

I knew that I would be asked lots of questions about secret recording which, contrary to what many think or assume, is a highly complex process at the BBC. Such an investigation requires very high levels of evidence to even begin and a very high level of public interest to justify pursuing the story.

Defence barrister Charles Burton seemed to suggest that this had been some kind of fishing "exercise", which had involved a level of deception by the BBC approaching the church- posing as migrant workers who had heard of the oil and were interested in it.

I explained the BBC never secretly carried out such an investigation without strong reasons for doing so and needed evidence in advance that can only be tested with undercover recording. I told him that any deception carried out had to be proportionate to the seriousness of what was being looked at, and kept to a bare minimum.

To do the secret recording at all, the topic needed to be firmly in the public interest - something I felt very strongly about in this case.

I explained to the court that at the time, in April 2020, we had received confidential tip-offs and reports that the church was touting this oil as a cure for Covid, despite having previously been warned by Southwark Council and being under investigation by the Charity Commission. However, these were just reports and we needed to test them.

In order not to arouse suspicion, it was essential to engage in a small level of deception and so a decision was made to approach the church by posing as migrant construction workers who were interested in buying the substance, and secretly recording what was said.

A Romanian journalist would go in and make a purchase. I would adopt an accent on the phone to conduct further questioning and appear as if I was a migrant worker in order to test and gather the evidence. The scene would then be set for the oil to be bought.

As part of the evidence presented in court, the undercover recording we obtained through phone conversations with employees of Bishop Climate Wiseman's church - who, it was argued, were under his control - was played in open court.

It is important to say that the BBC does not hand over its evidence from its stories lightly. It always considers very carefully the implications of doing so to the authorities, and that the bodies involved meet the legal criteria to be able to receive it.

The Romanian journalist was the one who went to the church to make the purchase. The oil, which came in a small bottle, labelled "divine cleansing oil" and some red yarn, was sold to him for £91.

Although it was suspected the church had fraudulently made hundreds of sales to its flock promising protection from Covid, the sale on which the fraud charge was framed around was the purchase that the BBC made on 21 April 2020. This was the basis of the charges against Bishop Wiseman, who was in charge of the church and overseeing the sale.

I was also pushed hard on the various conversations I have had with the church, which were recorded on a phone and also played in open court. I had posed as someone called Javier and had adopted a kind of Italian-Spanish accent.

I explained this was required because whenever we do an undercover recording at the BBC, we need to use only the amount of deception that is necessary.

All the reports that had come in had repeatedly confirmed that while the church was seemingly selling the oil to its flock, and was openly advertising the product on a website, those who were not members and had been born abroad were the ones to whom the outlandish claims were being made.

I needed to test those claims and this was one way, on the phone. In a moment of amusement, which led to a wave of laughter throughout the court, the defence conceded after nearly half an hour of the secret recording that my accent was "pretty convincing".

I was asked to talk about those secretly recorded conversations, undertaken by "Javier" with the church's employees, and what was the thinking behind my questioning. Secret recording of anyone by the BBC is never for entertainment. The sole reason for it is to gain and test evidence.

For me, the most important aspect of all this was to truly check whether the church was genuinely claiming that Covid could be cured. Were they really suggesting to those who might take the £91 "cure" that they were protected and would not have to socially distance? Had they actually done it already?

If so, this would be of huge public concern, particularly as the oil had seemingly been sold to a lot of people.

Witnesses from the congregation, including nurses, said they were cured or prevented from getting Covid after using the oil by steam inhalation or rubbing it on their skin.

Wiseman also offered other products for sale, including an oil to help in court cases.

My calls were played loudly in court. One was with an employee who referred to herself as a minister, and there were more with others.

All of them explained to Javier how the divine cleansing oil would cure anyone of Covid and how users needed to inhale it through a hot towel after mixing it with some hot water.

"You've got your cleansing oil," said the minister who referred to herself as Sharon (and who was not accused in court of any wrongdoing herself). "Inhale. Inhale. You're going to cough. Give them that product, you'll see the effect. You'll see that they'll recover from the Corona."

One aspect of Bishop Wiseman's defence was that he was acting as a religious leader only. However, there was evidence from the BBC's recording that this was being framed as a commercial operation, which was a key aspect of the fraud case against him.

For example, we were told that if we bought a number of bottles, the price for them would fall dramatically - from £90 to £60 - as long as we purchased a few for those who needed them.

And when another employee was asked whether people had been genuinely cured of Covid, the response was: "So many. So many have been cured. Make sure they inhale properly and they know they're cleansed from it, so at least they can work together."

That said, the employees at the church were seemingly not oblivious to the attention of the authorities at the time, with one of them explaining how to act with regard to social distancing, saying that after buying the oil it would be fine to mix and ignore the rules inside, but more care was needed outdoors.

"When everyone's outside, you have to be cautious because the government put down those social-distancing rules," one said. "You don't want the police to rock up there because somebody report you."

Southwark Trading Standards had launched its investigation using the BBC's evidence, following numerous warnings made to Wiseman.

Indeed, in his own evidence at court, the preacher claimed his mixture, made from cedar wood, hyssop oil and olive oil, had cured at least 10 people who had the virus. He also claimed the investigators probing him were the "antichrist".

Judge Nigel Peters KC told the court that Wiseman had carried out the fraud when "there was fear amongst the public in this country".

"This was being touted at a time when the public in this country were under the most intense pressure as to what would happen tomorrow," he said.

Speaking after the trial, Southwark councillor Evelyn Akoto said that there were a lot of vulnerable people at that time who were really scared and didn't know where to turn.

"And this was a potential cure, so a lot of people believed in it, unfortunately, and succumbed to pay high costs for something we know doesn't work."

Wiseman will be sentenced on 13 January.

You can follow Guy on Twitter.

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