Back-to-front news

27/08/2010 by Christopher Buxton

Any journalism course worth its salt will tell you that most people read the headline and perhaps the first paragraph of any news story. It should be an ethical imperative therefore to give an accurate summary of any story in the first lines. The rest is detail.

Let us look at the Standart report on Roma Bulgarian citizens returning to their homeland after their expulsion from France. The headline reads TAXI DRIVER ACCUSES ROMA OF ROBBERY. The subhead reads This is why I don’t want to live in Bulgaria complains Sevdalina.
The first paragraph reads:

Bulgarian Roma who are always on the front pages of French newspapers, were on the verge of making the Criminal columns immediately on their return to Bulgaria. “They’ve robbed me! They’ve nicked my wallet with 300 Euro and 150 leva,” screamed a Varna Taxi Driver just before lunch today.”

What is left for the Bulgarian reader but to murmur “Awful, awful,” and turn to the sports pages where at least Levski Spartak has done its bit to restore national pride in Europe.

The small minority who continue with the story will discover that the Taxi Driver was at best mistaken and at worst a willing tool in the continuing black propaganda surrounding gypsies. Luckily before Sevdalina was put in handcuffs for the benefit of hungry journalists, the wallet was found. The screaming Varna taxi driver had forgotten it at the car wash. He was forced to mutter a grudging public apology to Sevdalina and her family.

So the headline should have read:

Sevdelina was well dressed and articulate. She became the spokesperson for the group who fell foul of immigration regulations and became the target of a desperate campaign to boost the popularity of French President Sarkozy. But Standart was not interested in what she had to say.

Sevdelina, accompanied by her two boys, stated on TV that she had neither begged nor broken the law in France. She had worked legally in France for three years, her children had gone to school. She was only returning because a member of her family was ill. No-one has challenged this. The problem for the Bulgarian press was that Sevdalina proved to be the reverse of the stereotype they had expected. It is to BTV’s credit that they at least did interview her. Monitor did too – but right at the end of a back-to-front report headlined:

Immediately after the “Frenchies” Landed in Varna

Quite obviously the Bulgarian Media were frustrated. Here were the first Roma “to be deported” from France. The reporters crowded the Arrival Hall. What did they hope to see – Gypsies leading horses and donkeys off the French plane? At the very least an underage mother clutching a baby? They were disappointed. A group of well dressed but dark skinned Bulgarian citizens passed through Customs and faced a barrage of questions. How many Euro had they they scammed from the French. How much had they sold their daughters for in The Pigalle Slave Market? Not surprisingly they were unwilling to speak. That changed when a taxi driver accused them of stealing his wallet.

Most reports on Bulgarian TV on Roma at home or abroad routinely start with naked children playing on rubbish dumps in front of vandalized blocks or broken shacks made from cardboard and plastic sheeting. A typical close up will feature a boy with obvious mental problems stabbing a tyre with a screwdriver. The stereotypical images reinforce a Bulgarian sense of hopelessness. The news seldom shows the increasing numbers of Roma who are in gainful employment.

On a recent visit to Malko Turnovo where the gypsy population is close to outnumbering ethnic Bulgarians, I noticed the number of well dressed quiet Roma women sitting eating sandwiches on the central square. The only person disturbing the peace was a drunken Bulgarian. I mentioned this to my Bulgarian friend who has a positive attitude to gypsies. “Oh yes,” he said. “There’s a lot of money in forestry. Gypsies are prepared to work in forest areas where Bulgarians will not go. They’re very valued.”

In a thoughtful article Martin Karbovski puts the French “Roma problem” in its context. He points to the Europe-wide problem of a shiftless sub-class – who are not Roma – living off benefits. He points to new efforts across Europe to engage with ill educated impoverished unemployed populations living in ghettos, supplementing state handouts with jobs in the black economy. Sadly though, in Bulgaria’s back to front world, he cannot resist opening his article with a recital of the worst Roma stereotypes.