Toxic shock: Salisbury in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning
One of the biggest long-running stories of 2018 began on Sunday 4th March, when former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned on a bench in the centre of Salisbury. Two months after Novichok nerve agent was named as the toxin and the Russian state was accused by the UK government of carrying out the attack, we spoke to Salisbury residents at the centre of the media storm that descended on their quiet city in Wiltshire, and asked them how the community had coped
4th March 2018 (Taken from: #30)
At 5.16pm on Sunday 4th March, Salisbury Journal editor Joe Riddle, 32, received a tip-off about a potential story for his paper. An air ambulance had landed in Salisbury’s central car park and police had set up a cordon around a bench in the Maltings shopping arcade. “We thought it was a routine crime or accident,” says Riddle. “Somebody might have had an overdose or there might have been a stabbing or a nasty assault. That would be a big story for us. So I got on our little WhatsApp reporters’ group and said, ‘Can anyone go down and just find out what’s happening?’”
By the time his reporter Rebecca Hudson arrived with photographer Tom Gregory, two people had been removed from the scene and taken to Salisbury District Hospital. Police told Hudson and Gregory that they were investigating whether the incident was related to drugs. Fentanyl – an opioid used as pain medication and which is 50 times more powerful than morphine – was mentioned.
Then something strange happened. “People came down and started putting on these special biohazard suits that made them look like Minions,” says Riddle. “They started clearing something up, but you couldn’t really see what it was.” Gregory started taking photos. “There were great pictures of [the emergency services] hosing each other down and scraping stuff into special containers,” says Riddle.
My mum rang me and said ‘Have you heard? It’s a Russian spy!’ And I said, ‘What? In Salisbury?”
In one image, which would make the front page of the next edition of the paper, a man in a hazmat suit is gingerly placing what appears to be a bright orange Sainsbury’s bag of material into a metal bucket while giving the photographer the thumbs-up. “It didn’t look very scientific but it was a great shot,” says Riddle.
The next morning Gregory was on his way to work when he spotted some unusual-looking ambulances speeding up to Salisbury District Hospital. He decided to follow them and investigate. “Lo and behold, they’d taped off the A&E department and there were all these special ambulances up there as well as the fire brigade,” says Riddle. “We got onto the hospital, and they said, ‘Yeah, it’s part of a major incident that’s unfolding.’”
Riddle and his team published a story about the deepening mystery on the Journal’s website. “It started getting loads and loads of hits. It was soon up to 20,000, which would make it the biggest story of the month normally – and this was just by lunchtime on the first day the story went up. All of a sudden, it began to be picked up by the national newspapers, the Mail Online and The Sun. All with our pictures of a major incident at the hospital and A&E cordoned off.”
Riddle still had no idea of the scale of the story he and his team had stumbled upon. Then his mother called him after watching a report on the BBC News at Six. “My mum rang me and said, ‘Have you heard? It’s a spy,’” says Riddle, still clearly bemused. “And I was like, ‘What are you even talking about?’ And she said, ‘It’s a Russian spy!’ And I said, ‘What? In Salisbury?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s who it is!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God!’”
It is two months since the attack and Riddle and I are talking in the offices of the Salisbury Journal, a grand old building which used to house 100 staff but now, thanks to the enfeebled economic state of local news, is down to just a handful.
“I don’t think anybody realises how few people we have putting the paper together,” says Riddle. “Rebecca [Hudson] and I worked constantly for weeks on the Skripals story, long into the night.” Not only was Riddle producing in-depth coverage of a fast-moving global story on a shoestring budget, but he was also editing two other weekly newspapers at the same time, the Andover Advertiser and the Basingstoke Gazette. “To be honest I took a little bit of a step back with the Basingstoke Gazette,” he admits.
What Basingstoke missed out on in journalistic scrutiny during the aftermath of the attack on the Skripals, Salisbury made up for in spades. Throughout March the city was crawling with journalists from around the world and its hospitality industry went through a short-lived boom as news crews booked out the local hotels and B&Bs.
At the start, it was all quite exciting but… they’d soon had enough of all the journalists”
Anyone venturing into the city centre was liable to be waylaid by microphone-toting reporters on the hunt for vox pops. “At the start, it was all quite exciting but I think it wore thin for the everyday man on the street very quickly,” says Riddle. “They’d soon had enough of all the journalists.”
The intrusive press attention became surreal at points. Three days after the attack a woman was taken ill in a building next to Zizzi, the Italian restaurant where the Skripals had eaten lunch before collapsing. She was suspected of having been poisoned. “You had a scrum of at least 50 journalists with cameras flashing and TV cameras rolling as this woman was brought out, terrified, in front of the building and put into an ambulance,” says Riddle. “As it turned out she hadn’t been poisoned, she was having a panic attack. But obviously the last thing you want when you’re having a panic attack is to walk out and find everyone in the world is taking a picture of you and filming you.”
The spy and the spire
In December 2004, Sergei Viktorovich Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence, was arrested outside his house in Moscow and charged with high treason. The moment of his arrest was caught on camera and later broadcast on Russian TV: the brief clip shows a ruddy-faced man with white hair and a boxer’s nose being grabbed roughly by three grim-faced agents and pushed into a van.
In August 2006, at the age of 55, Skripal was given a 13-year prison sentence for having worked as a spy for MI6 throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, passing information about the identity of Russian agents to his British handlers. He would only serve four years of his sentence before being released as part of a spy swap in exchange for Russians imprisoned in the US. He moved to a semi-detached house in Christie Miller Road in the north-west of Salisbury, where, on 3rd March 2018, he was joined by his daughter Yulia on a visit from Russia.
The next day, the pair drove into Salisbury city centre and went for a drink at The Mill pub before heading round the corner to lunch at the Zizzi Italian restaurant on Castle Street. They were discovered passing in and out of consciousness on a bench in the neighbouring Maltings shopping arcade, and the police were called at 4.15pm. They had been poisoned with what would later be identified by the Porton Down defence research laboratory just outside Salisbury as Novichok, a powerful nerve agent developed in Russia in the 1970s.
Two months after the Skripals were attacked, the Kowalczyk family from the small town of Bełchatów in central Poland are taking family photos with a selfie stick in the Maltings. In the background of their shots is the police hoarding which still covers the spot where the Skripals were found. Piotr Kowalczyk says that the case has caused great interest in Poland. He lists his family’s itinerary. “After we have seen this place, we will go to the castle [Old Sarum, just outside the city] and then Stonehenge.”
Wiltshire’s tourism chiefs may be disheartened to learn that Stonehenge now ranks below the former site of a bench on the list of top local attractions, but it’s not surprising that the Maltings and its surrounding area have staked out a spot on the sightseeing trail. In the weeks since the Skripals were attacked, this quiet corner of a quiet cathedral city has been the focal point of the most extraordinary drama.
On Friday 9th March, 180 troops including Royal Marines, RAF and chemical-warfare experts were deployed to the centre of Salisbury. Dressed in respirators and hazmat suits, they were set to work removing potentially contaminated objects from areas passed through by the Skripals.
We thought the drop in business would be over in a few weeks, but it has been months now and the town is still really quiet”
On Sunday 11th March, government agency Public Health England announced that as many as 500 people who had visited The Mill or Zizzi between 1.30pm on the day of the attack and the time the establishments were closed by police the next day could have come into contact with Novichok. To prevent health risks associated with prolonged exposure to trace amounts of the toxin, they were told to clean their phones and handbags with baby wipes and throw the baby wipes away, then wash their glasses with detergent. They should launder the clothes they were wearing, unless they were dry-clean only, in which case they should be “double-bagged and securely fastened.” It was later announced that the double-bagged clothes would be collected by the council and “safely disposed of” – presumably incinerated – and that compensation for the items would be issued.
And then on Thursday 15th March, after having stated in the Commons that Russia was “highly likely” to have been behind the attack on the Skripals, galvanised an international coalition of nations to condemn the country and expelled 23 Russian diplomats, Theresa May arrived in Salisbury. As well as making the obligatory visit to the cordoned-off bench, the British prime minister took a tour of local businesses. These had been reporting dramatic drops in footfall, with a decrease of up to 90 percent in the stores outside the cordon in the Maltings.
In Dinghams cookware shop in the main square, amongst the serried ranks of spatulas, citrus juicers and novelty banana cases, May met co-owner Becca Hardingham, 26. “She came and spoke to me and my family to give us her support,” says Hardingham two months later. “We just told her what was going on. But at that point it was very new and we thought hopefully [the drop in business] would be over in a few weeks, but it has been months now and the town is still really quiet.”
On 1st April, Salisbury Cathedral reported a 40 percent drop in visitor numbers, a worrying sign in a city of 45,000 which usually attracts five million visitors a year, and in which almost ten percent of all jobs are related to tourism. A week later, a target was set by Wiltshire council that the city’s businesses should have “fully recovered” by June 2019. “Hopefully it will settle down now that we’re not in the news as much,” says Hardingham. “But it’s been a bit of a shock for Salisbury.” She fears that out-of-towners will continue to stay away. “I have friends who tell people that they’re coming to Salisbury and they say ‘Why would you want to go to Salisbury if you don’t have to?’”
Despite the fact that 4th March was his birthday, it was a normal Sunday for the Reverend Kelvin Inglis at his church, St Thomas’s, just a 30-second walk from the branch of Zizzi where the Skripals were having their late lunch. He was heading to the evensong service when he saw a police cordon had gone up. “I said to a policeman, ‘Oh dear, what’s happened?’ And he said it was a medical emergency, which immediately makes you think it’s to do with drugs. Then a couple of days later they began talking about Russians and spies. And it turned into something really quite nasty. At that stage, the mood in the city dipped noticeably.”
Inglis is a disarmingly tall cleric with a mischievous grin who came to the ministry after a career as a civil servant in the Department of Health. “I had a few years’ experience of supporting ministers in handling the press,” he says. “So, yes, I’m just a local clergyman, but I’m familiar with how to stick to a line with journalists and avoid elephant-trap questions and that sort of thing.” This media training would prove invaluable: as the Skripals’ poisoning ballooned into a huge international story, Inglis became a de facto spokesman for Salisbury, despite only having moved to the city eight months earlier. “I did 28 interviews of various types in just a few weeks: press, radio, television, all the rest of it,” he says.
From the moment the scale of the incident became clear, Inglis decided his key objective was to stop Salisbury from being seen as a town of victims. “That was the line the press wanted,” he says. “The question they kept asking everyone in the first couple of weeks was, ‘Are you frightened?’ Happily, almost universally, people would say, ‘No, what rubbish!’ One old boy was interviewed in the marketplace; they said, ‘Are you scared for your life?’ And he said, ‘Are you mad?’ But I didn’t want Salisbury to become a byword for what happened. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Salisbury, oh yes, that’s the place with the poison!’”
To that end, Inglis plotted a series of media photo opportunities and events which would show that the city was open, welcoming and unafraid. “I’ve always found it fascinating that when something bad happens, the press always come straight to the nearest church,” he says. “Almost the first thing I did was to run up to our little office, and get a label made that said, ‘This is a place of prayer and reflection, do feel free to come in’. It was the simplest thing, a piece of card, Blu-Tacked to a kneeler, with a little crucifix thing that I pinned next to it. We stuck a couple of candles on – electric ones, so we could leave them on all the time. By that evening, it had been filmed and broadcast across the whole region. It was partly a real response, but it was partly being attuned to what would work in terms of the media.”
A couple of weeks later it was Mothering Sunday: Inglis allowed Sky News and the BBC to film the procession of the choir and him saying “a few words about what had happened”. During the service Inglis distributed daffodils to the congregation. “I told them to go out and give them away,” he says. “They were going up and giving them to police officers and I saw some of them had tied their flowers into the police cordons. It was lovely, it gave people a real lift. The press picked up on it, they shot footage lingering over the daffodils. It was all about presenting Salisbury as a positive place. When something bad happened we made the best of it. When the police cordons went up, we put daffodils in them.”
Inglis’s high point as an ecclesiastical master of spin came on 15th April when he held a “service of cleansing and celebration”. “The idea came to me very early on, just off the top of my head when I was lying in bed,” he says. “I thought, ‘We need a big service!’ – partly because I knew it would be something positive to talk about. I decided right from the start that we would have Russian music. And as international tensions were rising I thought, ‘We’re jolly well going to stand up for culture in Salisbury. These are the things that matter and that we like, and we’re not about hating other nations here.’”
After an uplifting ceremony which gave thanks for the work done by the emergency services and local leaders and featured pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff, Inglis gathered his flock and some local VIPs and processed out into the Maltings. “Then, largely for the media’s benefit, I did this spiritual cleansing thing, which was a bit of fun,” says Inglis. “Basically I just chucked some baptismal water around and said a prayer.” The moment the Maltings was spiritually cleansed was captured by a photographer: Inglis shows me the snap on this phone. “Young choristers giggling in the foreground, me, water in midair, everyone in the background laughing. Just a brilliant photograph, it really captured the spirit of the day.” The service was picked up by the BBC, and led the local news. “I thought, that’s my little gift to the city,” says Inglis. “A lovely, positive story.”
The last of the media pulled out of Salisbury shortly afterwards and the interview requests stopped coming in. “My media career ended abruptly after six weeks,” says Inglis with a smile. “Just reflecting on that time, it does change you a bit, having people hanging on your every word. You become this person who’s running around saying, ‘Oh no, I can’t possibly do that, I’ve got a media interview!’ It’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings, where they put the ring on, and it makes them go a bit odd. After a while I thought, ‘Blimey, I think I’ll take the ring off now. Time to get on with my normal ministry.’”
While Inglis was playing the British media like a fiddle, Russian media and an army of skeptics on Twitter were going into overdrive to cast doubt on the UK government’s official line on the Skripals.
In the weeks following the attack Russian media variously reported that the Porton Down defence research facility was “mired in controversy”, that the Novichok used on the Skripals might have come from Sweden and that the British establishment staged the attack to undermine Putin in the run-up to the Russian elections (if so, this gambit was unsuccessful: on 18th March he was re-elected in a landslide). There were claims that Ukraine poisoned the Skripals to implicate Russia, that the Skripals weren’t poisoned at all and that if they were they couldn’t have been poisoned with Novichok as they would have died immediately.
On 24th May Yulia gave her first public statement, addressing a camera with a tracheotomy scar visible on her neck”
On 9th April, Yulia Skripal was discharged from Salisbury District Hospital. Two days later a Russian crew from REN TV snuck into the hospital and wandered the corridors trying to talk to staff. In their footage they pointed to the minimal security they encountered as evidence that Sergei Skripal could not be being treated in the hospital, shortly before being thrown out by hospital security.
At the Salisbury Journal, Joe Riddle and his team were being targeted by pro-Russian trolls. “We were bombarded by Russian conspiracy-theory social media accounts who were just picking apart every aspect of the British media coverage and dragging us into it,” he says. “Every time we put up a story they’d post comments underneath: you wrote this; why didn’t you write this; why didn’t you ask these questions… And because people like conspiracy theories there were local people jumping on their bandwagon – it was quite effective. They were sowing the seeds of doubt everywhere, calling us out in public on Twitter.”
On 18th May Sergei Skripal was discharged from hospital: Vladimir Putin was reportedly pleased. “God grant him good health,” he said, not a little sinisterly. On 24th May Yulia gave her first public statement, addressing a camera with a tracheotomy scar clearly visible on her neck.
She expressed her gratitude to the medical team who had looked after her and said that she and her father “are so lucky to have both survived this attempted assassination”. On 25th May the cordoned-off area of the Maltings was reopened, removing one of the most visible reminders of the attack.
The Skripals case will be the final big story Riddle covers for the Salisbury Journal. The day we met was his last at work before taking up a new role at the Brighton Argus.
Like many in Salisbury – the entrepreneurs anxious about tourist revenue; the A&E staff who found themselves dealing with a nerve-agent attack rather than the usual domestic accidents and drunks; the vicar who found his media mojo – the incident left its mark on him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the biggest story that I’m ever directly involved with,” he says, slightly wistfully. “I almost took another job a few months back; I nearly moved to Swindon! I would have kicked myself if I had and then this happened on my patch. I’m glad this is the story I’ve gone out on.”
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