Media falls prey to anthrax hoaxes

Newspapers from The Sun to the Evening Mail, Barrow, have had anthrax scares over the past week.  Substances in envelopes posted to their offices have been taken for tests but it is likely that hoax mentality is the culprit rather than terrorism.

Last Friday, journalists at The Sun were reassured by editor David Yelland that he had helped remove a suspect package after one of the news desk assistants had opened it.

"I have been briefed on what an anthrax attack looks like – this is not an anthrax attack," said Yelland in a memo, adding that there had been 58 hoaxes in London that day and hundreds nationally.

Journalists were asked to stay on the paper’s editorial floor by the occupational health centre and the police were called after the package was opened.

After the alarm, Yelland decreed that no mail would be opened in editorial again and that it would be directed to a central point off the floor.

At the Evening Mail last Thursday, a secretary was sorting the post when she noticed a sand-type material. She reported it to production director Doug Mackay who called in the police, said assistant editor Bill Myers.

The office was shut and the police brought in a public health official.

Nineteen staff were quarantined in one room for three hours and the rest of the building was closed off.

At first, the staff thought it might be an honest mistake but later editor Sara Hadwin opened an envelope to reveal more of the material, which is now being tested. Myers said they now believed it to be a hoax.

Police also took away an envelope filled with a powder from the Crewe Chronicle. The paper’s office was evacuated but the substance was later found to be shredded tissue paper.  Broadcasters have also been on alert. BBC staff have been issued with guidelines for handling post and World Service staff have been told to avoid opening letters in areas vital for broadcasting or in open-plan areas where other staff can be affected.

ITN has taken extra precautions over post sent to presenters and high-profile journalists. Its finance department was sealed off last week after a suspicious package arrived in the post.

By Jean Morgan

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