How the media stoked, then fed off, the Roma story

The Special Inquiry into the removal of children from their parents has much to say about the media’s role

Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan. Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan. Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

The Special Inquiry into the taking of children from two Roma families in Athlone and Tallaght last October deserves to be read. Even in the often dry language of an official report, broken up in to introductions and conclusions, sub-sections and footnotes, the Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan delivers several emotional punches.

There are glimpses of the real children and families behind the necessary, but disconnecting, pseudonyms of Child A and Child T. They are there in the crying and pleading of Child T, a seven-year-old Tallaght girl, as she was taken to a foster family, and her refusal to eat anywhere but at school over the two-day period she was gone.

There is the description of the parents of the two-year-old Athlone boy (Child A), “pale and in a state of distress and shock” going a night without fully understanding why their child had even been taken away from them.

And there is how, in each case, they got home with their children to find the media already there.

There was a “media presence” in Athlone on the morning when the parents of the two-year-old returned with their child. The media, says Logan, was most probably tipped off by someone within the statutory authorities involved in the case.

Worse, not only was there media at the home of the seven-year-old girl when her parents attempted to bring her home, it prevented her from getting into her own house after a two-day ordeal. In that case, the story was in the papers within 24 hours of the child being taken. The newspaper report went into extraordinary detail, including the child’s date and place of birth, a physical description of the girl, who was in the house when the gardaí arrived, how long it took for the birth cert to be produced, and even details about her passport photograph (taken when she was 11 months old).

Logan is clear on where this information most likely came from, noting the “striking similarities between the text, form and content of the information found in the article published on the morning of October 22nd and the only written report prepared within An Garda Síochána on October 21st”. Such apparent collusion had a very real impact on events. The girl’s foster parents (praised by Logan) had to make arrangements to collect the child early from school to avoid any possible media presence. It was ultimately unnecessary, but indicative of the media’s malign role.

The media’s role crops up time and time again in Logan’s report as a negative, antagonising factor during these awful days in October. It is described as stoking the panic that led to such cases, and then feeding off the tip-offs regardless of the distress caused to the families involved.

The media coverage of the original Greek case of “Maria”, she says, “was influenced by, and indeed fed, unfounded and deeply prejudiced myths regarding members of the Roma community abducting children.”

In that context, it became possible for an “unambiguously racist” post on a TV3 programme’s Facebook page to lead to the removal of a girl from her home in Tallaght.

The media compounded the problems. They not only made the job of those working on the ground more difficult, according to Logan, but added to the obvious distress of the families. In the Tallaght case, it underpinned “an entirely unwarranted notoriety within their own community” and showed “a total lack of consideration” for the girl and her family.

She is not the first to criticise some of the media’s role in this particular moral panic, nor was the Irish media alone in its attitude. “Most news reports, not only in Europe but all over the world, have insisted on the ethnicity of the families from which the children have been taken, thus propagating age-old myths portraying Roma as child-abductors,” said Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, during that very week in October. He asked journalists to “step back and examine whether mentioning ethnicity was really necessary, whether the best interests of the child, including the right to privacy, have been respected and whether the presumption of innocence has been upheld.”

There is a chance to take a step back now, to take in the criticisms of the media contained within Logan’s report and to learn lessons. That, after all, is what is expected of the authorities.

Unfortunately, you could have followed much of this week’s coverage without getting a true sense of the media’s role in events. That suggests self-awareness is in as short supply now as it was during that week in October.

shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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