Dawn Sturgess has been demonised by conspiracy theorists who seem to forget she was a real person

If web conspirators are at one end of the dehumanising scale, even a fairly straight reading of much of the media’s coverage would see Sturgess and Rowley more as collateral or clues than as people with lives and loves and families

Will Gore
Monday 09 July 2018 13:36 BST
Amesbury couple were exposed to nerve agent novichok

Dawn Sturgess’s death in Salisbury District Hospital almost came as a surprise. After all, four months ago Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived their exposure to the novichok nerve agent and so the widespread assumption – at least in public discourse – was that Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley would recover too.

It may be of course that Sturgess had underlying health problems that made treatment more difficult. And as yet it remains unclear exactly what level of contact she and Rowley had with the novichok: they may, despite the time lapse, have experienced a more concentrated level of exposure than the Skripals. The police and medical authorities will perhaps say more in due course.

Whatever information emerges, however, we would do well to remember that at the centre of this incident are two innocent people – one of whom has died, the other still fighting for life. There may be bigger forces at play, diplomatic relations at stake, but Sturgess and Rowley should be treated with humanity – not simply discussed as pawns in a game that pits Russia and the UK as inexorable foes.

When news of their poisoning first broke, there was considerable focus on the suggestion that the couple were recovering heroin users (it isn’t clear if Sturgess had experienced such drug problems). Rowley, it was noted, had visited a pharmacist in Amesbury to pick up a methadone prescription on the day they fell ill. Sturgess, meanwhile, was reported to have been living in a hostel and to have struggled with alcohol dependency.

None of those details were necessarily out of bounds for the media’s coverage of the incident, as reporters described the leads being followed by the police. Nevertheless, from the outset they gave fuel to conspiracy theorists who wished to disbelieve that there was a connection with the Skripals’ case or that novichok was involved. To online cynics, these were just two down and outs who could be used by shadowy elements to re-energise diplomatic tensions between Russia and the West.

If the web conspirators were at one end of the dehumanising scale, even a fairly straight reading of much of the media’s coverage would see Sturgess and Rowley more as collateral – even as clues – than as people who had (and have) lives and loves and families.

As speculation rumbled on last week about just how the pair had come into contact with the nerve agent, one theory emerged that they might have picked up a contaminated fag end because they were apparently in the habit of smoking the dregs of discarded cigarettes. It was also said that they would go through rubbish bins to find odds and sods that might be saleable.

Those notions might have reassured others living in Salisbury that the risk of further novichok contamination was low in the general run of things. But once again, the information created a bleakly negative picture of Sturgess and Rowley, even hinting that they were somehow to blame for their own misfortune – rather than being the belated, tragic victims of an individual or individuals set on murder.

Indeed, much of the narrative around their poisoning has pitched the couple merely as new leads in the hunt for whoever was behind the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The movements of the secondary victims took on added importance because it might give the police and MI5 further clues about the identity of the Skripals’ would-be assassin.

It goes without saying that there is a strong imperative to track down whoever was responsible for tossing novichok around Wiltshire. Given the conviction of the British government that the chemical was produced in Russia (and that the initial attack might have happened with the Kremlin’s connivance), the matter has international significance. And now that the police have opened a murder investigation following Dawn Sturgess’s death, the consequences of the attack are plainly graver than ever.

They are especially grave for those who knew Sturgess: for her three children, for the rest of her family and for her friends.

She and Charlie Rowley may have unwittingly become embroiled in a web of espionage; their poisoning – and especially Sturgess’s death on Sunday – may cause further fracturing in UK-Russia relations (if that is possible); and they will, inevitably, be the subject of debate in the darkest, conspiratorial corners of the internet until the end of time. But they are real people. Sturgess’s death is real too, her poisoning no doubt painful and terrifying.

The grief her family must feel will surely have nothing to do with diplomatic tension, or the Skripals; and everything to do with what the woman they knew meant to them, and how she will be missed. It would be nice if their bereavement could take place in an atmosphere of dignity, not of rampant theorising.

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