The response to the ‘Newsnight’ vicar proves centrists are just as prone to conspiracy theories as the far-right

This time it was the self-styled rationalists reaching for hidden agendas, and explaining away Brexit as a BBC-led campaign of misinformation

Richard Godwin
Sunday 02 December 2018 13:59 GMT
Brexit deal fan on Newsnight: 'We’ve got to just sit it out and put faith in the government that we elected'

I am a Newsnight vicar truther. Reverend Lynn, aka Marina Hayter is a FALSE FLAG. Хорошая попытка, робот! She is part of an attempt by the BIASED Broadcasting Corporation to discredit BREXIT! It’s all there in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion! #Epicentre #QAnon #GreatAwakening

What’s that? You have no idea what I’m on about? SMH. No wonder we’re doomed. Well, here’s what happened. Tell me if you think it sounds fishy.

On Wednesday, there was one of those super-awkward episodes of Newsnight centring on the British public. Emily Maitlis was asking everyone: who would win in a fight, 10,000 crows or three rhinos? Not really. She was asking about Brexit.

Everyone thought Theresa May’s deal was the legislative equivalent of a clown car, only a clown car that implodes without any of the compensatory laughs. Everyone, that is, except for “Lynn”. A snaggle-toothed eccentric in a dog collar, “Lynn” argued that we should just put our faith in our elected politicians.

“Being a Conservative, born and bred, I will back prime minister May,” she reasoned. “It’s going to be hard for everybody, it’s going to be a rocky boat, but we’ve got to just sit it out and put faith in the government that we elected.” It’s a take, I suppose.

Only there was something about her manner… something familiar. Hang on. Didn’t she once make a cameo in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens? Imagine how excited everyone became when it emerged that “Reverend Lynn” was, in fact, character actor Marina Hayter!

She had agency representation and everything! “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?” demanded arch-Remainer Lord Adonis on Twitter. “The BBC’s reputation as an impartial public service broadcaster is in tatters,” tweeted another.

For two minutes it seemed as if Reverend Lynn might turn out to be the Gavrilo Princip of the 21st century. Or possibly the Keyser Soze? But so tumescent with rage were hardcore Remainers – the ones with #FBPE hashtags and EU flags on their profiles – I couldn’t shake the counter-proposition that Hayter was actually planted by them, with the express intention she would be discovered, and the outrage would be so enormous Brexit would be… what? Cancelled? How many of them were Russian bots?

But then someone discovered that she had once authored a book under the name Lynn Marina Hayter. Newsnight’s producers carefully explained she was a part of an evangelical church and used her middle name for occasional extra work. It’s dull to live in this world, friends, as Gogol once wrote. Coincidentally – almost too coincidentally? – last week saw the publication of a five-year Cambridge University study into conspiracy theories.

It turns out 7 per cent of British people believe global warming is a hoax; 10 per cent believe the harmful effects of vaccines are being deliberately hidden; and 18 per cent believe there’s a scheme to make Muslims a majority.

We’ve all seen the effect of conspiracy mindset in the US. The QAnon theory purports 9/11 was an inside job; that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation; that there was a paedophile ring hiding in a Washington DC pizza parlour; and that a reckoning is coming. His Majesty the Baby is not at pains to debunk any of this.

Paedophilia cover-ups and the BBC are common themes in our own native conspiracies, especially post-Jimmy Savile. It has been a common complaint of the left, too, that the BBC has an anti-Corbyn, pro-establishment bias. But what was interesting about the Reverend Lynn episode was that here it was the centrist crowd who were reaching for conspiracies involving media stitch-ups. These are the people who style themselves the rationalists. The ones with graphs, and GDP, and multi-point trade deal explainers; the ones who are usually at pains to debunk simple narratives.

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The BBC has often indulged the Brexiteers – often maddeningly so. It also has a problem with its audiences; the term “gammon” gained traction, as viewers wondered why so much airtime was being given to shouty men with red faces.

Newsnight could have been more honest about Reverend Lynn’s ecclesiastical credentials: it appears she’s only a vicar of a church she made up. Where did they find her?

And yet, there’s a weird comfort in the idea that the reason we are, probably, leaving the EU is because the BBC has been misinforming people; rather than because, say, lots of people want to leave the EU. The Cambridge researchers found people were more likely to believe in conspiracies if they felt under threat and excluded from power. Clearly that category no longer encompasses solely right and left-wing fringes, but also people used to thinking of themselves as the sensible mainstream.

I think Reverend Lynn reveals a more disturbing truth. Lots of people are just quite eccentric; but we all have to live with one another. The best way to counter conspiracies is for friends and family to challenge them face-to-face; and yet so many people are isolated and lonely. It’s almost like there’s some unseen force making it so.

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