December 9, 2013
The gypsy in many soulsWednesday, October 30, 2013
Maria and the Roma: human interests?
Report from UK for the Herald
LONDON - In a world of untrustworthy governments and disappointing economics, the news-consuming public craves stories that have come to be known as “human interest.” These stories range from lurid speculation about sexual deviance, suspicions of nefarious activities behind closed doors around the nation, to the more mundane stories about things that happen to everyday people.
The coverage of these stories will not change our world; on the contrary, they remind us that in our environment of global interactivity, interesting things can happen to normal people. Normality is of the essence.
However, every so often a story comes along that allows the public and the media to engage on several levels. Ostensibly, the story will be of “human interest,” focusing on a surprising event that happens in an unsurprising context, but beneath the surface the story will affect us on many levels, allowing us to exercise our prejudices and guilt that society has nurtured within us. Our reaction to these stories can be even more revealing than the stories themselves.
Take the case of Maria, the small blonde child rescued last week from a Roma camp in Greece, and whose picture was plastered over the press for days following. The story allowed the British media to feed off the fears and anxieties of the public, first indulging ancient prejudices against the travelling community, before infusing these emotions with guilt when it became clear that the story was not as clear-cut as had previously seemed.
Finally, the story coincided and entangled with the coverage of quite a different case: the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007. The reopening of the Maddy investigation on the continent and a dedicated programme on British TV have crowbarred the case back into the collective consciousness; the public could not think of Maria and Maddy separately even if they tried.
These issues are not new and are repeated constantly in the media, depending on the crisis or hysteria of the day. However, the British media focus on Maria is interesting as it taps into a European story and makes it local. The first appropriated sentiment is negative discrimination. A subtle form of racism, this exists at all levels of British society.
For generations, Romany people have suffered discrimination from countries around Europe, predominantly because of their outsider-ness. Britain is no exception. Gypsies, as the travelling community has been referred to in the UK for several hundred years, have been closely tied to non-specific fears: that of the other in society, a rootless underclass that represents a target for mistrust and accusations. Type in “gypsy curse” and “UK” into Google for just a glimpse of the litany of crimes or allegations apparently perpetrated by the community.
In recent years, however, this discrimination has coalesced into an anti-immigration message, with an increasing influx of a foreign and temporary workforce onto British soil. The media feeds off this message and has forced it into a major political issue over the last 20 years or so, and the travelling community falls neatly within this narrative.
Therefore, when the Maria story broke on October 21, there was undoubtedly consternation, but there was little surprise. There was an unspoken assumption that this sort of thing can be expected: headlines such as “Maria groomed to be child bride,” published by the Daily Mail on October 25, are an indicator of the maturity of the response to the story.
The apparently agreed upon narrative was that Maria had been kidnapped, presumably from a European family, and raised as a member of the travelling community. The immediate impact was an increase in similar cases, such as a child “rescued” from a Roma couple in Ireland. Fears of a widespread scourge of child kidnapping threatened to surface.
However, just as quickly as the media attention had grasped onto the story and its repercussions, the DNA evidence provided a bucket of cold water. The revelations that the “parents” of the child in Ireland were in fact the parents, and that the story of Maria’s “captors” that they’d paid for the child from a Bulgarian couple proved true, injected a massive dose of reality into the story. Child kidnapping fears and anti-Romany rhetoric was quickly replaced with guilt.
Much of the guilt stems from a feeling that the British public misunderstands the Roma (or Romany) people. (As Rod Liddle discussed in last week’s Spectator, there is no consensus on which name should be used to describe the community.)
Discernible efforts have been made over the last few years to make the group more accessible. The Channel 4 documentary series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is just one example of an attempt to introduce the community into mainstream consciousness, although this in itself has been attacked for misrepresentation of its subjects and racism in its advertising. Presenting members of the travelling community as “characters” and their story as entertainment may be a sign of belittling their culture, but it also sets them within the present cultural trend in the UK for semi-reality TV shows and stars, such as The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea.
Beyond the TV shows, there is a fast approaching reality that should be driving how the British approach the travelling community. On January 1, 2014, work restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals ends in nine states, including the United Kingdom.
From next year onward, it is possible that there will be many more representatives of this community in the UK. It is therefore imperative that the public gets used to this group, and why cases such as Maria and the “kidnapping” are dangerous in terms of preparing society. The Roma people are still too much of an easy target.
It is the kidnapping element that is the most dangerous, particularly in terms of recent human-interest stories in the UK. A week before Maria was “rescued,” British TV showed a programme in which police investigators still dedicated to the Madeleine McCann investigation presented a report their progress, discarding old suspects and throwing the light on “new leads.”
Last week, in the midst of the travelling community storm, the Portuguese police announced they were reopening their investigation into the disappearance.
The Maddy story is desperately depressing. Her disappearance in 2007 has remained the most sobering example that although the world is now more interconnected than it used to be, and that it is almost impossible for people to pass under the radar due to the Internet, global policing and social media, one small girl can still be effectively rubbed off the map. The Portuguese police gave up the search, and the British police have spent millions of pounds on its investigation and yet no trace of her has ever been found.
The speed with which Maria’s actual parents — members of a Bulgarian travelling community with no fixed abode — were discovered within days of the story breaking, sharply contrasts with Maddy’s continued failure to be found. The case is as baffling as it is saddening.
What is more saddening, however, is the desperation of some elements of the media to grab on any passing branch as a glimmer of hope, which is what happened last week.
The revelation that Maria had been kidnapped caused the press to look for other people that had lost family members in “similar” kidnap cases. This dredging up of the hope that answers could be forthcoming is heart-breaking, because it is a lose-lose situation for those affected.
Tacitly, the fact that Maddy’s case was so publicly “reopened” before and during a gypsy kidnap case seems too lucky, too coincidental. The underlying fears of child-trafficking and paedophilia have re-emerged in both cases, as the Portuguese police (with British help) are now focusing on an alleged gang of five paedophiles who were apparently active in the Algarve in 2007.
An article in The Mirror on October 27 underlined the possible links between the two , headlined “Police hunt three ‘gypsies’ seen lurking near holiday apartment.” There is little objectivity on offer here.
Maria’s case has thrown the spotlight onto a community that is ever-present yet seldom fairly represented in the media, particularly in the UK, where they seem to be figures of fear or fun. Perhaps of greater significance is what it shows about how the Roma community relate to each other within their society, which the public clearly knows little about.
However, the willingness of the media to cast aspersions on a social group that cannot readily defend itself is almost as reprehensible as the desire to link the unexplained disappearance of Maddy to paedophilia or child-trafficking. The media and the public in the UK are clearly dealing with issues they know little about and which need better explanations. Until then, we can but grasp the human interest, which in fairness is not fair at all.