It was inevitable, after the publicity surrounding the BBC’s recent Crimewatch appeal, that the Madeleine McCann story would regain currency. Speculation about the identity of her abductor has of course been a feature of the narrative since 2007. In 2010, the Daily Mail reported that a British woman in the Algarve was “100% certain” she had seen Madeleine dragged away by a “fat gypsy woman” and in 2011 British detectives went to Spain to investigate claims Madeleine was taken by gypsy child traffickers.
We must bear this in mind when we consider why, in the past week or so, we have seen stories about the alleged abduction of young girls by people belonging to the Roma community. In Greece a couple has been imprisoned, awaiting trial for the suspected kidnapping of a “blonde haired, blue eyed girl” called Maria. The Daily Star’s front page on Friday was in no doubt – “Maddie found in Greece: new hope as stolen girl turns up safe at gypsy camp”. In Ireland, meanwhile, another blonde girl, aged about seven, was taken from her Dublin home by police on Monday only to be returned yesterday, after DNA tests proved that she was indeed a member of her family. A two-year-old boy taken from a Roma couple in Athlone, County Westmeath, was also returned after DNA tests.
It is far too early to say whether the arrests in Greece have uncovered instances of abduction or whether they are evidence of child trafficking, but what we can say with some certainty is that the old myths and stereotypes about the Roma and child abduction have resurfaced – if they ever went away.
In western European culture gypsies have long been seen as a threat. They are outsiders who live on the margins of society, unwilling to abide by the rules of decency with a flagrant disrespect for law and order. They prey on the vulnerable, the needy and the young. More often than not they are dirty and exotic at the same time. Simply put, they are the traditional opposition to the dominant cultural norms. Their stereotypes exist to reinforce the normalcy of the society to which they don’t belong.
Sections of the British press have invoked the gypsy peril for many years. In the coverage of EU enlargement in 2004 the Express reported that gypsy hordes were heading to the UK. We were told:
This most repressed of people see Britain as some sort of promised land where all their prayers will be answered. To them, Britain’s economy … can easily sustain gypsy families where eight children are not uncommon … In Slovakia there are signs that the country is giving its estimated 500,000 Roma gypsies every encouragement to go.
In 2007, Mike Jempson of the Mediawise trust pointed out that on one day in 1997 the major daily newspapers – all of them – had front page headlines which were alarmist, inaccurate and, at best, thoughtless. On Monday, October 20 1997, the Sun proclaimed: “3,000 gypsies head for England.” The Mail ran with the “Dover deluge” and the Guardian led with “Resentment as ‘invasion’ continues”.
The recent abduction narratives have continued in the usual “us and them” vein. It was the Greek media that dubbed Maria the “blonde angel”, a motif readily adopted by the British tabloids. Here we are meant to contrast the blonde angel with dark devils who took her. Binary oppositions, good versus evil. The myths and superstitions through the ages can explicitly be reiterated despite there being no conclusive evidence – yet – of abduction. The Daily Mail stated on Tuesday: “Interpol say four-year-old ‘Maria’ found living in a Greek Roman camp is not on their missing persons list”, while the accompanying pictures show guns, drugs, balaclavas and chainsaws seized from Roma properties. Not, you will note, from the property of the couple held under suspicion.
This week, the Daily Mirror highlighted the “otherness” of this community living outside our laws. In relation to events in Dublin, the headline reads: “Second blonde girl seized from gypsy family in Ireland ‘looks nothing like siblings and speaks much better English’.” This despite the fact that at the time of the Mirror story the family was insisting that the child is theirs and the DNA test results had not yet been revealed. In other words, there was nothing to suggest that this girl was not a family member other than the fact that she was different in looks.
When news began to emerge later that that DNA tests had actually proved the Roma parentage of the little girl, and she was returned to the home from which she had been taken, it was of little comfort to the family. The Independent quoted the 18-year-old sister who said: “She is very traumatised. They took her just because she has blue eyes and blonde hair. If you go over to Romania, most people have blue eyes as well.”
At least Channel 4 news has sought to bring some balance to the coverage. Katherine Quarmby, author of No Place to Call Home, said the guilt of the Greek Roma family was yet to be established and it was impossible to speculate about a large-scale “problem with [Roma] families across Europe snatching children” based on a small number of cases.
The continued stigmatisation of the Roma, unfortunately, appears to be a feature of European culture. In 2009, the European Agency for Fundamental Human Rights reported on the discrimination and victimisation experienced by the Roma. Of all the groups surveyed the Roma emerged as the group most vulnerable to discrimination and crime. More recently, in September France came under criticism from the European Commission after its top security official said that Roma migrants had a “duty to return to their homeland”. Amnesty International said more than 10,000 Roma had been forcibly removed from French squatter camps and many were forced to return home to Romania and Bulgaria, despite EU rules requiring free movement for all EU citizens.
I’ve written elsewhere that the relationship between public opinion and media coverage is a complex one and what is evident from various studies of coverage of the Roma is that people are presented with coverage that is one dimensional, repetitive and alarmist. Channel 4 news on Tuesday cited the evidence given by the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain to the Leveson enquiry and it is worth quoting in full:
The Met Police claimed that 1,000 Roma children had been trafficked and forced to commit street crime in the UK. As a result of this £1.5m European operation … 130 Roma were arrested in the UK. Of these only 12 were charged with an offence and eight were convicted of benefit fraud and related offences. The ‘trafficked’ children were with their parents, of whom none were convicted of trafficking. Met Police press releases built an illusion that child trafficking was common among Roma.
In light of which, it’s probably no wonder the British tabloids behave the way they do.