The British press are a broad church of publications and somewhere down near the tabloid end of the rack it's not unusual to see the odd fanciful report.

For many readers, these tales of celebrity scandal or government conspiracy are merely glanced at dismissively as they click through their daily news site scrawl or social media feed.

That digital ether is perhaps where the eyebrow-raising story in early June that ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were relocating to New Zealand would have disappeared, had it been from one of the less illustrious Fleet Street mastheads.

The Skripals were poisoned with a novichok nerve agent that was smeared on the door handle of their UK home and found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury on March 4, 2018.

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Left in a critical condition for a month, the pair were eventually discharged from hospital and transported by British security services to a secret location in the UK from which they have not appeared since.

But the quizzical report that filtered down to New Zealand on June 8 that the Skripals were now on the move out of the UK was from a very respectable source - The Sunday Times.

It said "according to senior [UK] government sources" Sergei and Yulia Skripal have begun a new life in New Zealand.

"It has emerged that the pair have moved overseas after living for more than a year in an MI6 safe house," The Sunday Times piece said.

"A senior government source with knowledge of the risk assessment carried out on the couple at the time of the move, said the Skripals had been given new identities and support to start a new life."

A police officer stands the home in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal on the first anniversary of his poisoning. Photo / Ben Birchall, PA Images via Getty Images
A police officer stands the home in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal on the first anniversary of his poisoning. Photo / Ben Birchall, PA Images via Getty Images

It was a report in the largest-selling British national newspaper, with a circulation of 650,000, in the 'quality press' market category distinguished for its seriousness.

And it gave credence to similar reports that the Skripals were looking to relocate to Australia or New Zealand "to start a new life" that surfaced in the Daily Mail in March.

With little further elaboration within the fresh Sunday Times report, the possibility of the Skripals becoming Kiwis was pressed to Jacinda Ardern that same day on June 8.

"I think what I can say is don't believe every piece of speculation that you read," the Prime Minister said.

The slightly cryptic refusal by Ardern to outright deny the claim is typical of diplomatic intelligence lingo, say intelligence experts.

The Sunday Times occupies a dominant position in the quality Sunday market with a circulation of just over 650,000.
The Sunday Times occupies a dominant position in the quality Sunday market with a circulation of just over 650,000.

Dr Paul Buchanan is a former intelligence and defence policy analyst to US government security agencies who lives in New Zealand and runs geopolitical consultancy company 36th Parallel.

He says Ardern's response doesn't necessarily signify anything, but it's highly unlikely the New Zealand Government as part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance would be out of the loop if it were true.

PM Jacinda Ardern talks to the media about Russian spies. / Mark Mitchell

"On the one hand, the standard procedure for the intelligence agencies here in New Zealand is simply to neither confirm or deny. And that's historical. They just do that," Buchanan said.

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"That absolves them of many, many sins. Instead of just repeating that and moving on to the next question, the fact The Prime Minister said don't believe everything you see in the media indicates that they've been looking at these stories and have at least minimal concerns about the stories getting any traction.

"But this still doesn't mean they're obfuscating on purpose because they'll want to continue the mystique of the intelligence services. All that cloak and dagger stuff. The fact may be that they're [the Skripals] here and this is how they're going to try and dissimulate the fact."

While Ardern may have followed protocol in fostering a seed of doubt, five intelligence experts the Herald on Sunday has spoken to say the story has no weight.

Buchanan said it doesn't make sense for several reasons, most obviously the practical limitations of hiding here.

"It's not as easy to hide in New Zealand as people may think," he says. "There's purportedly somewhere between 25,000 and 45,000 Russians living in NZ."

The fact the Skripals speak British English with heavy Russian accents is not ideal for assimilating.

Don't believe everything you read: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia living in New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Don't believe everything you read: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia living in New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Wellington would be off limits. Too many Russians in Wellington, including their spies. Auckland might be plausible if you want to hide in plain sight," Buchanan says.

"But again there's a lot of Russians in Auckland. And these people are urban people so they're not going to be in the back blocks in the Mackenzie country. You know they're no sheep farmers. They're not made of that life.

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"So even if they did move to the back blocks somewhere, they'd stand out like sore thumbs."

Buchanan also points out that harbouring the Skripals would be inconsistent with New Zealand having not expelled any Russian diplomats following the Salisbury poisoning in March 2018.

Many other countries including France, Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States followed the United Kingdom's lead to expel diplomats in protest at Russia's lack of explanation for the use of a Russian nerve agent following the Salisbury attack.

At the time, Ardern said the diplomats those countries were expelling were undeclared intelligence officers, and New Zealand had none that fit that criteria according to the NZSIS.

"Then the question would be why would NZ agree to such a deal if it's true that they're here under assumed identities. What's in it for us?" Buchanan said.

"Are we repaying a favour for something that's done for us sometime in the past? Why invite trouble because immediately that would put us on the Russian's radar scope. And I know the bilateral free trade agreement is on the back burner.

"Well, if you wanted to kill any possibility of renewing that you would do something like this. And let's remember Winston Peters is the Foreign Minister and Winston likes the Russians. Winston has a soft spot for his own reasons. So I'm looking at that combination of things. What are the benefits for us? The taxpayer is going to pay for all this. So we're going to pay millions of dollars, housing these people under an assumed identity."

Yulia Skripal, pictured after recovering from the nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury. Photo / Getty Images
Yulia Skripal, pictured after recovering from the nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury. Photo / Getty Images

Kit Bennetts was the youngest person ever recruited into the NZ Security Intelligence Service in 1972, and has decades of experience combating Russian espionage in New Zealand.

He says you can never rule out the possibility of a bluff or double bluff, but the ruthlessness of Russia's largest foreign-intelligence agency, GRU, makes intentionally publicising any move to relocate the Skripals unwise.

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"Traditionally, and there certainly have been some Russians who've come and settled with the defectors in NZ. They've come to Australia, Canada, the United States," Bennetts said.

"There's lots of places they could go. [Report] could be a decoy, could be a double bluff. In the wilderness of mirrors you can never tell what's really going to happen.

"My only comment is if they are coming to NZ, I wouldn't want any publicity at all because the GRU, who are the people who came and had a crack at them are pretty ruthless, and the Russians are very ruthless, and it may have looked a little bit ham-fisted [in Salisbury] but they really are ruthless, and if they have decided that they are going to come and exact their revenge, they will do it.

"So the less the publicity the better, just for the safety of these two."

Massey University intelligence and counter terrorism expert, John Battersby, said the re-emergence of the report the Skripals are in New Zealand may be far less a case of calculated espionage as speculated.

"Most likely of all, it's germinated in idle speculation resulting in the quaint old romantic notion of desperate fugitives escaping to the far ends of the earth to live out their days in obscurity," Battersby said.

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"Suddenly there is a mystery, which we all like, and a story based on nothing at all. Those who actually know will not say if it is true or not, and the rest of us who don't know, cannot say for sure it isn't. As an academic I work with tangible evidence – there isn't any here, just a self-perpetuating rumour using itself as evidence to persist. It survives merely because no one can prove it isn't true.

Copies of The Sun and The Times are seen for sale on a newsagent's stand in London in 2012. Photo / Chris Ratcliffe
Copies of The Sun and The Times are seen for sale on a newsagent's stand in London in 2012. Photo / Chris Ratcliffe

How the British press work their govt intelligence agency contacts

The British newspapers in the "quality press" have longstanding relationships with the three British intelligence agencies: MI5, MI6, and Government Communications Headquarters [GCHQ].

A UK defence correspondent told the Herald on Sunday the intelligence agencies have one or two trusted journalists at the major outlets with whom they communicate.

"What this means in practice is that we can call their media teams (three people at MI5, one at MI6 and two at GCHQ) or meet to discuss news or deeper stories.

"They might point reports out in other media or websites like Bellingcat that have "interesting and accurate" pieces (i.e. they are bang on!), but they never feed us stories."

What the security agencies are very specific at, however, is steering these "trusted journalists" away from stories that are clearly wrong.

The defence correspondent says his source told him there was no truth to the Skripal's New Zealand relocation story.

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"Of course, that's not to say that wasn't part of a master plan of deception but personally I doubt it."

The Independent's Defence and Diplomatic Editor Kim Sengupta also told the Herald on Sunday the Skripals were not in New Zealand.

"The story was not, as far as I know, placed by the security or intelligence service as a decoy. But let's not forget there are others here, MPs, civil servants etc who claim to know about security matters," Sengupta said.

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NZ as refuge - why even make up the story?

In June 2019, a report in the UK's Daily Star proposed New Zealand as a new home for infamous child killer Jon Venables who murdered 2-year-old James Bulger after snatching him from a Liverpool shopping centre in 1993.

On that occasion Jacinda Ardern announced Immigration NZ had not received any requests, adding: "My advice would be: 'Don't bother applying'."

In 2007, the BBC bizarrely reported that the British Lord Lucan, who disappeared in 1974 after the murder of his children's nanny in London, had been discovered in the tiny Manawatū-Whanganui town of Marton.

The subject of the allegation, UK expat Roger Woodgate lived in a car with his pet possum Redfurn, and pointed out he was five inches shorter than Lucan and 10 years younger.

And in 2018, former senior KGB agent Boris Karpichkov - who spent 15 months in New Zealand in 2006 and 2007 - said he was a victim of a poisoning attack on Queen St, Auckland.

"The deal is, there is still this perception that New Zealand is far away, and that we're sort of provincial and country bumpkins and you know we're all walking around in gumboots and short shorts," Buchanan says.

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"And in this day and age, that is simply not true. You know, being a member of Five Eyes is pretty serious business when it comes to security relationships.

"Tacked onto that the fact that we have numerous extradition agreements with a number of countries, but particularly the UK, the US etc. So criminals fleeing to NZ are going to be in for a real surprise."

The appeal of New Zealand as a backwater is evident in movies and hideout myths. Photo / Getty Images
The appeal of New Zealand as a backwater is evident in movies and hideout myths. Photo / Getty Images

The myth of retreat

The notion of New Zealand as a place of refuge may have taken hold in the UK imagination decades ago, and it unsurprisingly has ties to rural isolation.

A New Zealand-made film released in 1988 called The Grasscutter mirrors The Sunday Times Skipral scenario in essentials, depicting an Northern Ireland informer who dished on 23 fellow ex-terrorists and is hiding out in Dunedin.

New Zealand director of the film Ian Mune reveals a British desire for the scenic remoteness of Otago existed even back then.

"We were making it for ITV, a British company, and that's what they wanted. They wanted to see Queenstown and the lakes, so we gave them plenty of that," Mune says.

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"The thing that really attracts film stories to NZ is the land itself. The mountains and the bush and the lakes. You know you don't see foreign films made in New Zealand cities. They all tend to be made out in the South Island countryside. Somewhere in Otago or around Queenstown.

Author and Herald writer Steve Braunias says British notions of New Zealand as "some remote idyll" have been around since the country's conception.

"The political idea of New Zealand is really founded in the place as a refuge I guess – we were 'the NZ experiment', somewhere that class divisions could be torn down, and early forms of welfare established, to create a fair country.

"Fairer anyway than industrial Britain at that time. But also we were definitely thought of as a refuge and an escape by individuals - runaways and castaways, wanderers who wanted to go somewhere they could reinvent themselves."