I am always suspicious of stories where the news pack are rushing headlong in one direction. The image that springs to mind, in such situations, fans of “Airplane” should remember this, is the one where a stampede of reporters learns a plane is about to crash, and storms a row of old wooden telephone boxes – knocking them on their side in the process.
That’s comedy. Whereas the story of a child allegedly abducted by Roma, in Greece, is meant to be read as uber-serious. And tragic. No doubt a sub-editor somewhere will be salivating at the prospect of inserting that word into a headline sometime soon.
Which is why we all need to stop, briefly, and pause. Because there may well be tragedy here – but its not necessarily the one you think it is.
Let’s start with what we appear to know about the case. A blond child has been found in a Roma family. A spot of instant investigation is all that’s needed to reveal that she is a) not genetically related to the folks she has called parents for the last few years and b) the latter don’t appear to have any official adoption papers for her.
As reporting goes, the BBC report is an outwardly neat piece of balance, juxtaposing claims of the parents with concerns by the authorities.
I say outwardly. For the problem with “balance”, not just here but in much that passes for journalism nowadays is that just saying “on the one hand, this, on the other, that”, can still leave folks with a pretty unbalanced view of what is going on. Because “this” and “that” so often are anything but equally balanced things.
I mean, try this for balance: “John Doe’s cat, Tiddles did not come back last night. Mr Doe thinks she may be lost – but some neighbours suspect him of slitting her throat and using her body as part of a satanic ritual”.
Balance? Er, no.
And some papers manage rather less balance than the Beeb.
Meanwhile, the authorities’ fears are encapsulated in this: “the couple are suspected by social workers of kidnapping the girl and sending her out to beg, or involving her in a sex ring”.
Suspected? Am I being just a little picky if I inquire whether those are genuine “suspicions” – which to my mind require a modicum of under-pinning evidence of intent – as opposed to simply a catalogue of speculation. Which is not the same thing at all.
The parents, rooted in a society that does not tend to deal well with bureaucracy and paperwork have taken a child in as their own. The only facts apparently to hand are that the child is not their’s – and that there is no paperwork.
The case emerged, in the first place, for the simple reason that authorities felt a blonde child living in a naturally dark-haired environment was of itself “suspicious” – not because they had any evidence leading them to suspect abuse or involvement in a sex ring, itself a pretty serious allegation.
It’s a classic “gyppoes stole my child” story, without, in this case, any grieving parents to add substance. Not that the press haven’t tried, linking the tale to that of also blonde Ben Needham, who disappeared in Greece, and Madeleine McCann, who, as luck would have it, was in the news all this week as possible new evidence emerged from the UK Police review of her case.
Too good to be true? Not exactly. But it is news managed in the same way that news of dog maulings come and go. For with 4,000-plus recorded episodes of same each year, it’s an absolute cert that dogs attack humans daily. Yet to rely on what is reported in the news is to believe that such attacks wax and wane – perhaps, werewolf-like, with the moon.
An absence of political awareness
Let’s switch focus for a minute. Over the last couple of years, Greece has lurched drastically rightwards. Golden Dawn, a movement, variously described as proto-fascist and neo-Nazi, has made great strides forward. In the polls. Within the ranks of the police.
Some of their gains have been achieved by extreme forms of victim-blaming: if you want to know why your life is shit, they pathetically explain, it’s the gypsies, the homos, the trannies!
They understand well, as the Nazis did in 1930’s Germany, that giving the public a target to hate and to vent their frustration upon serves a useful purpose, both as rallying cry and as bonding exercise.
Over the last year, I have spoken at length to members of the Greek LGBT community, who have spoken of the increasingly violent crackdowns mounted against these groups – often justified, publically, through resort to populist issues. The fight against HIV, in the case of violence against gay and trans individuals.
And Roma? Well, there are so many reasons, aren’t there? But a large well-publicised case spiced with a hefty taint of child abduction and child sexual abuse will do their cause no harm.
Which is why I am suspicious. It may, in the end, turn out that the parents were as evil as some commenters are already sharpening their pens to imply. Or it may be nothing more than an arrangement convenient to birth parents and Roma family has now been blasted into smithereens by a wholly over the top media circus.
We may never know: the press have a habit of teasing, giving us masses of detail around the start of a story…and then never quite concluding it.
Still, I think we all – child, family, Roma community and wider public – deserve better. And a little more investigative journalism would not go amiss.