How police photos of Novichok suspects triggered a new conspiracy theory

A former British diplomat yesterday accused British police of fabricating evidence in their investigation of the Skripal “Novichok” poisoning affair.

Craig Murray, who served as ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, left the diplomatic service following a dispute and has recently been at the forefront among social media users promoting conspiracy theories that cast doubt on Russian involvement in the nerve agent attack.

Back in March, just a few days after Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, Murray pointed out that Salisbury, where the attack occurred, is only eight miles from the British government’s research establishment at Porton Down and hinted in a blog post and on Twitter that Porton Down, rather than Russia, could be the source of the nerve agent.

Murray’s note about the proximity of Porton Down caused much excitement on social media, though nobody has yet offered a plausible explanation as to why the eight-mile distance is significant. The idea, apparently, is that the nerve agent leaked out of Porton and somehow ended up in Salisbury on the handle of Skripal’s front door.

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police, who are in charge of the Novichok investigation, issued the first detailed report of their findings so far. Among other things, this described the movements of the two Russian suspects from their arrival in Britain before the attack until their departure back to Russia afterwards. The report included images of them at various locations, captured on CCTV cameras.

Two of the images showed them separately, arriving at Gatwick airport:

This prompted a blog post from Murray headed “The Impossible Photo”, which said:

“These CCTV images released by Scotland yard today allegedly show Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov both occupying exactly the same space at Gatwick airport at precisely the same second. 16.22.43 on 2 March 2018.”

Murray continued:

There is no physically possible explanation for this. You can see ten yards behind each of them, and neither has anybody behind for at least ten yards. Yet they were both photographed in the same spot at the same second.

The only possible explanations are:
1) One of the two is travelling faster than Usain Bolt can sprint
2) Scotland Yard has issued doctored CCTV images/timeline.

I am going with the Met [police] issuing doctored images.

This was a classic example of how conspiracy theories can be created from a single piece of evidence which supposedly gives the conspirators’ game away. Basically, Murray was asking people to believe that the police had gone to a lot of trouble doctoring the images but made the elementary mistake of adding exactly the same time stamp to both of them. If true, it would cast doubt on the entire investigation — which appears to have been the main purpose of Murray’s blog post.

In this particular case, though, the elementary mistake came from Murray himself, not the police. He seems to have been unaware that there are several narrow channels — side by side — that people arriving at Gatwick pass through.

In fact, the CCTV does not show both men in exactly the same spot at the same second as Murray claimed. They were using separate channels.

A careful look at the images shows the men were captured on different cameras, positioned slightly differently — indicating that they did not both use the same channel. The easiest way to see this is to compare angle of the automatic doors and the position of the railings on the right-hand side in the two images.

Murray has since added an update to his blog post acknowledging “the logical possibility” that the men were photographed passing through separate channels but says “The problem with that is the extreme synchronicity … it is remarkable they were at exactly the same point [in front of the cameras] at the same time.”

But that is less of a problem than Murray seems to imagine. If the men were walking together, it’s reasonable to assume they entered adjacent channels at the same time and passed the cameras at the same time, give or take a fraction of a second.

The CCTV timestamps, however, show only whole seconds. At a fairly normal walking speed a whole second is long enough to cover about 1.4 metres, so even if one man passed the camera a step or two ahead of the other the timestamp wouldn’t necessarily show any difference.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.