Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory. The problem is, believe just one of them and you start to see sinister forces at work elsewhere. Sooner or later everything sounds like the plot of a pulp fiction novel.
One of the older conspiracy theories is that evidence proving the existence of unidentified flying objects has been covered up for decades. A crashed flying saucer with four dead aliens was even said to have been found in the New Mexico desert but airbrushed from the records.
Well, let me feed this suspicion about UFOs by admitting that I played a small part in the conspiracy. One night, as a young Yorkshire Post reporter covering what was known as the graveyard shift into the early hours, the phone rang and a breathless male voice gasped that he’d hurried to a phone box to report a flying saucer hovering over Ilkley Moor. I thanked him for his call and put down the phone, which continued to ring at half-hourly intervals for the rest of my shift with updates on the flying saucer’s movements. Was there a hold-the-front-page moment at the Yorkshire Post that night? No.
Some conspiracy theories are just about plausible, such as the Soviet Union being behind the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963. Then there are those that sound barmy, like the one about Paul McCartney dying in 1966 and being replaced by a lookalike, meaning that someone else wrote Penny Lane, The Beatles’ paean to the Liverpool suburb of Mossley Hill. Or how about Elvis Presley faking his own death in 1977 to end up – choose any of the following options – shelf stacking in a Walmart supermarket, flipping burgers at a roadhouse in Wyoming, or as an Elvis tribute act in Hull.
I don’t know if Jeremy Corbyn believes the Paul is Dead story or regularly sees Elvis walking down Whitehall, but he is clearly a fully paid-up, card-carrying conspiracy theorist. His response to the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia in Salisbury was to reject the government’s line that the Kremlin was responsible, and his idea that it could be the work of “Russian mafia-like groups” drew widespread derision, not least from his own Labour benches. Perhaps, it was suggested, he had been watching the recent BBC thriller series McMafia about the Russian underworld. I am with Jeremy on this one, though, at least in the sense that the absence of irrefutable evidence – usually called a smoking gun – does leave the door open to alternative scenarios.
At the gym, I asked my friend Steve – a conspiracy theory obsessive – what he thought. Steve usually sees the hand of the CIA behind the unexplained, and has a riveting take on why he thinks it was responsible for 9/11. On the Salisbury attack, though, he said at once: “MI5… take it from me.” Hmmm. Others suspect the dark forces of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Ask why and, with a shrug, you’re told that the motive is usually the last piece of the jigsaw.
Perhaps we will never know who targeted the deeply unfortunate Skripals. Perhaps Salisbury will join the long list of conspiracy theories, which go back as far as the Roman Emperor Nero being suspected of faking his own death in 68AD.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe