When you saw this little blond girl plastered all over the tabloids a while ago, did you have the thought in the back of your mind ‘that can’t be a Roma girl, she must have been abducted’ I know I did. The first thing that popped into my mind about Travellers and Roma people is that they are swarthy, dark haired, living in caravans and outside the law, that’s what programmes like the ‘reality’ Big Fat Gypsy Weddings portray combine that with age old folk tales of Travellers, stealing children or children running away with them permeates our Fairy tales. The story ran for a couple of weeks but then seemed to peter out after it was found the core of the story wasn’t as sensational as first made out, the child wasn’t a middle class, rich couple’s child stolen on holiday, she was indeed a Roma child. So whatever happened to Maria? Instead of reading a follow up in the media because I don’t recall seeing one, I went to listen to Mike Doherty’ talk on the subject.
Mike is not a high profile activist, he’s like countless other activists on the ground doing what they do, day in day out. Mike’s not a wet behind the ears cub reporter either, we first met as mature students about seven years ago when we took our first steps into academia. Mike subsequently went on to complete a masters in Journalism at LCU and uses his skills obtained from there to investigate prejudice in the media on behalf of the Traveller Movement.
The talk did have an academic leaning to it (not surprising because we were at Ruskin College). Mike used the sociological theory of Stanley Cohen ‘Folk Devils and Moral panics’ to structure the talk. A layperson interpretation of Cohen’s theory is this: a ‘Folk Devil’ is usually a victim of the media used to generalise the behaviour of his or her group (teenagers, single mothers, benefit claimants, members of ethnic minorities). A ‘Moral panic’ is precisely that – a deviation from ‘mainstream’ morals, which if supposedly unchecked would lead to breakdown of civil society. This moral panic is fed by prejudiced news stories, TV programmes and the proliferation of rumours on social media.
The talk started with the above image of Maria understandably looking upset with dirty hands, Mike explained that the photo graph had been taken directly after the child was fingerprinted by the Greek authorities just hours after been taken from her ‘parents’. It’s also worth mentioning that Greece (as it still is now) was at the height of its economic crisis, the European parliament were stating that the Greek benefits system was too generous (sound familiar?). The reason Maria was taken from her ‘parents’ is because they did not have any identity documents for the child and were trying to obtain state funded child benefit, so where did she come from?
This is when the story started to take a turn, countless articles stating that missing Maddie McCann had been rescued from a ‘gypsy’ camp (Gypsy is an offensive term to the groups within the Traveller Movement) the headline contains all the making’s of a medieval fairytale. Then the Mother of Ben Needam (the toddler who disappeared in 1991 from Kos) was featured in a story from the Mirror entitled ‘Greeks told us Gypsies don’t steal babies, know we know they do’. Women still searching for their vanished children and given false hope are apparently fairplay when constructing a moral panic. Then this :
Another child , the reason she was taken into custody? Because she was blond and blue eyed and with a Roma family. Subsequent stories were added the press including this story and video published by the Daily Mail ‘Little maria made to dance for cash’. More stories about ‘gypsies’ came out the long running ‘no gypsies in my backyard’ stories. There is the Moral panic, the media pointed towards the notion that Gypsies all over Europe were kidnapping white, blonde children, Travellers basic live outside the law and thereby commit immoral acts.
So, they found neither girls were Madeline McCann, the child in Ireland was indeed a Roma child and was exactly who her parents said she was. Maria on the other hand was born to a Bulgarian woman who already had children, she gave the child to the couple, the couple were arrested during a Greek police campaign of raiding encampments (to combat and troubleshoot) and subsequently charged with falsifying child benefit claims (a widespread practice in Greece, not just committed by Roma). Maria was taken in by the fostering Charity, ‘The Smile of a Child’ whose Director, Konstantinos Yannopoulous has commented on both Maria and ‘Irish’ Maria’ case. He is also a member of the Greek administration.
At the moment the Bulgarian authorities are trying to get custody of Maria as Maria’s adoptive parents are still in a Greek Jail. No-one can tell what will happen next to Maria, some like Yannopulous claim she’d be better of in an institution. The Bulgarian government claim she’s better off in Bulgaria as she can have some contact with her birth mother. I don’t suppose the British Press will pay much attention to Maria now that the seemingly banal (in tabloid land) half conclusion has been reached. The press furore over Travellers has turned to a low buzz in the press and they find another folk devil to to raise heckles and sell newspapers.
Mike Doherty is the campaigns and communications officer for the Traveller Movement (formally the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain), took part in the Leveson enquiry and regularly challenges prejudiced media stories about groups within the Traveller movement through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).