Most everyone who is Roma, Romani Gypsy or Irish Traveller pretty much knew the way the story of ‘the blonde angel’ was going to unfold in the British media and further afield, as soon as Maria, a blonde child of uncertain parentage, was found living in a Roma camp in Greece. The ‘parents’ (they claim that they adopted her, informally; a charity makes as-yet-unproven claims of child abduction and sex trafficking about her and other children) are now awaiting trial.
The tabloid press linked the story almost immediately with the sad disappearance of toddler Ben Needham, in 1991, also in Greece, and stories ran with quotes, purportedly from his family, speculating that he might have been spotted in the same Roma camp. It didn’t take long before the tabloids linked the ‘blonde angel’ with the equally distressing case of the missing child Madeleine McCann, who disappeared in the Algarve in 2007. A number of newspapers stated – unequivocally – that there were links between Greek Gypsies and missing children. Then came further ‘links’ between ‘Gypsy-stealing’ and children closer to home – Irish police swooped on two Roma families in the Republic and removed two blond children, following tip-offs from ‘worried’ members of the public. Correspondents were hurriedly dispatched to Dublin, a media frenzy ensued – and then the two Roma children were quietly returned to their families, after DNA tests confirmed their identity.
In the process, however, the media has split into different component parts. The front page of the Daily Star would have made me chuckle if it wasn’t so sad for the McCann family. ‘“Maddie” found in Greece’, it splashed one day – a few days later, ‘Maddie’ was ‘found’ in Ireland. A number of journalists actually rang me and asked me whether I had met any blonde Roma and whether the stereotype (of swarthy ‘Gypsies’) was wrong. I thought it was great that fellow journalists were trying to get up to speed fast on a complex story, but I do think it is disappointing that these age-old stereotypes are clinging on and doing so much damage to a Roma nation of several million people – of whom some 300,000, at most, live here at present.
To be fair, many broadsheets did their best to reflect other views – and to use Romani writers and journalists to do so, such as Louise Doughty, who wrote a great piece for The Guardian. Jake Bowers and Damian Le Bas have also appeared on the BBC and Channel 4, but the damage has been done – the stereotype spread to millions of people, mostly through the tabloid press – and was not countered even though shown to be untrue. Some columnists for broadsheet newspapers and magazines haven’t helped either, with Rod Liddle’s piece in The Spectator today standing out as particularly uninformed. I was disappointed, because The Spectator has published some good stuff on anti-Gypsy prejudice in the past (and I did a piece for them on Gypsy and Traveller entrepreneurs a while back).
So, in the interests of reality, rather than stereotyping, a quick news roundup on what I’ve learned over the last seven years, as I researched my book on nomadic communities in the UK (and newly arrived Roma, more recently). Firstly, I have learned that Roma people are varied. Surprise, surprise! But I can report that I’ve met a quietly spoken Roma police officer, a Roma charity and aid worker, a number of devout evangelical pastors, school-children, devoted and impoverished parents, artists and a wonderful young photo-journalist, among others.
Perhaps if my fellow gorgia (i.e. non-Gypsy) journalists would leave London occasionally, put a tank of petrol in their cars, and visit some of the small but vibrant Roma communities around the country, we could tell these stories and replace stereotypes with in-depth reportage. Because I do happen to think that opining about people you don’t know, have never broken bread with, and about whom you don’t have an open mind is not really fair. It causes real problems, for real people, who are trying to do their level best to raise their children and hold down jobs – and don’t deserve to be demonised by metropolitan journalists who can’t be arsed to meet them. If anything proves the reason why Lord Leveson should have pushed harder for third party complaints to be allowed, it was this week. For this was a week of anti-Roma and Gypsy headlines – an object-lesson in ignorance and prejudice. As a journalist, I think our hard won freedom of speech should be used for more than open season on a vulnerable minority.
Katharine Quarmby is the author of No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real World of Gypsies and Travellers