Across Europe, thanks to press reporting, ‘criminal’, ‘immigrant’, ‘Roma’ are becoming interchangeable. In focusing on immigrant crime, the press reflects the priorities of police and politicians who are the main sources for such stories.
Police crime statistics
The raw material for immigrant crime stories are police reports, particularly the release of selective and ethnically-based crime statistics. In many European countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Greece ethnically-based crime statistics, similar to those released by the UK Metropolitan police on Afro-Caribbean youth and mugging in 1982, have been released. Norwegian criminologists were furious when Oslo police issued selective and misleading crime statistics that sought to prove that immigrants were over-represented in violent crime such as rape, assault and robbery. But the voice of rationality was drowned out in the din of prejudice as the press orchestrated calls for new laws to deport foreign criminals and new measures to penalise immigrants who failed to assimilate into Norwegian culture.
Some fifty years after the Holocaust, police still stigmatise Roma communities through the compilation of ‘Gypsy’ crime statistics. The Association of Romanian Romani has called for international support in its campaign to stop police compiling and publishing data on the alleged criminal offences of Roma and foreigner groups (no statistics on any other groups are collated). Police stories about ‘Gypsy’ crime, says the Association, fuel the far Right. For instance, in August 1998, after a particularly sensational police press release, the leader of the Greater Romania Party proposed that the Roma should be isolated in ‘special colonies’ in order ‘to stop Romania being transformed into a Gypsy camp’. The police practice of compiling data on Roma does not stop in eastern Europe. The Central Committee of German Sinti and Roma Organisations has launched a legal challenge against the recording of information exclusively on Gypsies in police data banks and interview records in Bavaria.
Another source of immigrant crime stories is opportunist politicians. In an interview with the Bild am Sonntag on 29 July, Gerhard Schröder, Social Democrats’ leader, played directly to the gallery of popular prejudice when he commented that ‘organised car crime is after all dominated by the Poles, the business of prostitution is dominated by the Russian mafia’ and ‘drug dealers largely come from south-east Europe and black Africa’. In the run-up to the Hungarian parliamentary elections in May 1998, the (then) prime minister Gyula Horn shocked members of his own Socialist government when he accused foreigners of 80 percent of all robberies and murders.
When the French Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin described youth involved in the latest round of rioting in the French banlieues as ‘little savages’, and his interior minister went on to suggest that the parents of these ‘little savages’ should be denied welfare as punishment for their children’s crimes, the subliminal race message was not lost on the French press.
Fodder for the far Right
In broadcasting uncritically the message that immigration means crime, the press not only gives the far Right a platform to mobilise on but also affords it a legitimacy as the only force willing to act on a subject of immense public concern. The situation in Milan, Italy is a case in point. Since the New Year, there has been panic about crime as newspapers focused on a series of murders, claiming that ‘Milan’s getting like Chicago in the 1930s’. Despite an appeal to good sense from the award-winning author Dario Fo, and the release of statistics to show that Milan’s murder rate is actually declining, the city is up in arms about lawlessness and immigrants.
The killing of a street trader was immediately linked to immigration, despite the fact that the police are seeking two Italian suspects. Ten thousand people marched through Milan at the instigation of the far-Right National Alliance and other opposition partners, and several days later the racist Northern League mobilised several thousands in an anti-immigrant demonstration. ‘For citizens, criminality and the control of illegal immigrants are not just problems for the security forces,’ Northern League leader Umberto Bossi told the assembled masses. ‘The reality is that citizens don’t want a multiracial society.’
Orchestrating public opinion
The press, however, not only reflects racism but creates it; orchestrates it even, to the extent that its message becomes so extreme as to invite parallels with the far Right. A spokesperson for Kent police blamed inflammatory and unacceptable news reporting on Roma asylum-seekers for heightening tensions and attracting far-Right groups to Dover. And, in an unprecedented move, police issued a warning to the group editor of a number of weekly newspapers including the Folkestone Herald and the Dover Express that he risked being charged with inciting racial hatred. In Ireland, where net immigration in 1997 of 15,000 people (mostly from the EU) has been described in the press as a ‘wave crashing Ireland’, the editor of the Wexford People has been similarly accused by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties of inciting a poisonous racism. A front-page editorial of the Wexford People accused refugees of buying designer clothes, eating in expensive restaurants and living in posh hotels, all courtesy of the Irish taxpayer. Asylum-seekers, readers were told, were running up the streets waving welfare cheques, frightening old women living alone and attempting to get Irish girls pregnant because a baby would bring a passport.
A poisonous negativity
Undocumented workers, asylum-seekers, the children of immigrants, Roma just to mention such groups is to invite negative press comment. The perversity and all-pervading nature of this negativity was at its height in Sweden when, at the end of October 1998, 63 youngsters, mostly the children of immigrants, burned to death in a discotheque fire in the working-class district of Gothenburg. Even in this awful tragedy, some sections of the Swedish press managed to find something critical to say, suggesting that many young men trapped inside the hall had acted selfishly and refused to help others struggling to escape. It was left to the fire service to right a scandalous wrong. It held a press conference in which firefighters described the heroic efforts of the youngsters in the operation to save lives. One 16-year-old youth repeatedly entered the burning building, carrying out at least eight helpless victims, before returning once too often and perishing in the flames.