NEWS Of The SQEWS
A Travel through skew-whiffs as presented by the British press.
Squall 5, Oct/Nov 1993, pp. 8-11.
A mysteriously sourceless ‘exclusive’, run on the front page of the Mail on Sunday (6/6/93), provided the touch paper to this summers most extensive squatting/traveller coverage. “SEND THE SQUATTERS TO PRISON" ran the headline: "MAJOR ORDERS TOUGH NEW LAWS.”
“The Government is to make squatting a criminal offence with a penalty of up to 6 months in prison or a £5000 fine,” stated the first sentence.
For some reason the article was written by Christopher Leake, the Mail’s consumer affairs’ editor and he proves convincingly that he should stick to researching new brands of toilet roll when he claims: "Many squatters are under 25 and single with well paid jobs who take over property in exclusive suburbs,” and wades further out of his depth with “Police hands have been tied for centuries by squatters’ rights.” The fact that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation have come out publicly against the criminalisation of squatting seems to have escaped his thorough enquiries.
SQUALL rang the Home Office in order to discover the factual basis of the Mail’s exclusive. We were told: “The Home Office has made no statement concerning legislation of squatting. We are, as we have already said, committed to strengthening the law but talk of criminalisation with a £5000 fine or 6 months imprisonment, is press fabrication.” So what’s the real story?
Any journalist will tell you that an often-used avenue for unofficial Government presentations into the media (and therefore the public psyche), is either the Evening Standard in London or the Mail newspapers. By placing stories in these publications, there is a fair chance of the nationals picking up and running with them. Indeed, in the week that followed the Mail’s exclusive, all the papers ran news articles, features and editorials on the subject and not one of them mentioned that the story had no responsible source.
So, did Christopher Government-Leake have an insider’s knowledge of what was to come or is he a tool? The clue lies in the editorial run by the Daily Express (7/6/93) under the tide “Crackdown on Spongers”. “If Mr Major wants to rebuild his rock bottom popularity he could do far worse than take the whip to these scourges of national life,” it revealed.
At a time when John Major’s popularity is lower than that of the common cold, what better way to raise a few PR points than to “get tough” on the “ravaging effects of marauding drifters and ecstasy doped yobs.” (Daily Express 7/6/93). And sure enough, on the same day as its so called exclusive, the Mail on Sunday editorial charges down the hill like King Harold with: “One down (squatters): another to go (travellers). Isn’t it time the rights of law-abiding citizens came before those of marauding skivers? For although similar tough action is planned against the so-called New Age Travellers who cause mayhem as they convoy across Britain, the proposed new laws will be too late to head off the chaos predicted for this summer.” (6/6/93.)
The Guardian (7/9/93) seemed to be in some confusion as to what to portray, with a headline that read: "Criminalising squatting will force more to sleep rough” and then a first sentence/first image: “Shane was busy scratching out the serial number of an expensive camera with a screwdriver.” Journo rule numero uno; open with impact, but someone please tell Angela Johnson, who writes the squatter/traveller news pieces in the paper, that her cliche crime titillations reflect nothing but a lack of investigation.
Truth is though, she’s in a big club, and Melanie McPhadyean also proves a paid up member with her freelance article: “Squat Thrust” (The Guardian Supplement 9/6/93). Although pointing out that “a tiny minority of squatters are filthy and fearsome”, she still goes on to spend 500 words describing ‘squat-brokers’, crack dealers and assorted filthy and fearsomes. Dear Melanie, In journalism, effect is everything and intention counts for nothing....
The Independent also displayed tiresome hysteria when they claimed: “Every place occupied by a squatter means another family condemned to the misery of bed and breakfast accommodation.” (8/6/93.) But if there is one blessing to be extracted from all this media manipulated nonsense, it is that Britain’s largest housing charity SHELTER, having previously avoided overt comments about squatting, for reasons best known to its fundraisers, finally came out the closet. The Independent's uninvestigated presumptions drew an outcry from Carol Grant, Director of Communications at SHELTER, on the letters page a few days later. She said that the statements made by the paper were “an inaccurate claim. Recent studies suggest that as many as one third of squatters are families. Families escape from the misery of bed and breakfast accommodation by squatting.”(10/6/93.) (The full contents of the letter are reprinted on page 23.)
And from the stirred sediment created by this wave of media attention, came the predictions of a “summer of chaos” (Mail on Sunday 6/6/93) law abiding citizens were about to suffer at the hands of the New Travellers. “Police Predict Convoy Strife,” ran the Guardian (2/6/93) and “Menace of Massed Hippies,” warned the Daily Telegraph (7/ 6/93).
The Daily Telegraph is Britain’s best selling broadsheet newspaper but, not content with this position, they are choosing journo metaphors more obviously designed to appeal to The Sun’s market. Hence: “Police forces gearing up for a concerted operation to prevent any summer swarming by that tribe of human locusts known variously as New Age Travellers.” (7/6/93.)
In fact, the Government must have been rather disappointed that these predictions of summer mayhem never materialised and that the week- long media slurs, initiated by the Mail on Sunday, were not carried through the summer towards a glorious criminalisation in the autumn.
At the end of May, the police in Avon refused to allow a convoy off of the M5, fearing they would set up a festival on one of the side roads. The media reported what they were told or chose to see with ‘Travellers block M5” (Guardian etc 31/5/93) but all in all this was the only major summer traveller story and the British public were consequently denied a distraction from political blunders in other departments.
In the absence of any concrete news, a few ‘silly’ pieces did appear to tease our sentiments. “My Lovely Daughter is a Rolling Stone,” was one (The Independent 3/4/93). “It’s the Middle Class Nightmare of the Nineties: Your Teenager Turns into a New Age Traveller, Complete with Dog. It Happened to Diana Wingett,” wept the headline. Apparently, Mrs Wingett’s daughter Jean, although artistically and academically “very good for her age”, was “anon conformist from the start” and “so a squatter emerged... Now she has nothing and wants nothing..... Possessions never did interest her.... Every gift (I’ve given her) has been greeted with enthusiasm then lost or given away. This is really hard. On holiday or out with friends I watch with envy as they enjoy buying presents.”
Now, you might think that The Independent had tracked down Mrs Diana Wingett and listened with compassion to her tear-stained story. But any doubts that she too is another opportunist freelancer were washed away when reading “One Mother’s Extraordinary Story of How She Lost Her Daughter to the Travellers” in the Daily Mail (8/6/93). There she was again with the same story, only this time expanded to fill a whole page. Admittedly The Independent probably don’t pay that much, but combined with the Daily Mail, she probably made an easy grand with her innocent tale. Just exactly who is more lamentable, mother or daughter, was confirmed when Mrs Wingett said aghast “In fact when I told her that the Mail would be happy to buy photographs of her to go with this article she was completely unmoved,” as indeed anyone who read the article ought to have been.
Meanwhile, risking life and limb to investigate “a group of hard core new-agers near Bath”, was the intrepid Simon Sebag Montefiore (Daily Mail 8/6/93).
Despite being warned by security guards to “Be really careful. If there’s any trouble, run. But start off by acting slowly and let them get used to you”. Sebag Montefiore strides forth and, assuming his best James Bond, never lets us forget the danger he risked infiltrating the camp’s confidence in order to send back his front-line report to the Mail readers. “The site is a sad world of children who roam in gangs not unlike the hundreds of dogs around them.” How many Mail readers questioned whether it was Sickbag himself that was inhabiting a sad world if, after spending the weekend warming himself by travellers’ fires, eating their food and having open conversations with them, all he could do was slag off his hosts?
Sebag, writhing in middle class male disgust, goes on to describe a filthy, nine months pregnant woman who approached him “patting her belly grotesquely”. Fortunately, a journalist arrives to counter his carp, with Claudia Fitzherbert and her article: “Mud, Dogs and Children? Bliss” (Daily Telegraph 11/6/93). She found “Sebag Montefiore’s tone of righteous indignation as a little on the sinister side,” saying, “his article made me reflect, not for the first time what a selfish mother I am for refusing to embrace the discomforts of the road for the sake of my little ones, who would thrive as never before were I to release them from the constraints imposed by living in a hot, tidy dogless house. As for squelching barefoot in mud, there was nothing I liked to do better when I was nine months pregnant.” Thank you for the honesty Claudia but ’tis Sebag, not you, who emerges as the selfish mother.
Another impression being cultivated in the media is that, far from living minimally, travellers are now middle class, educated, rich and in possession of the latest high technology surveillance equipment.
“Many squatters have well paid jobs” (Mail on Sunday 6/6/93) and “They dress like hippies but they carry mobile phones and their vans have fax machines.” (Daily Express 7/6/93). The classic comes from Mr Walter Girven, Chief Constable of Wiltshire: “I don’t think there is any doubt they have have become a lot more sophisticated. There is clear evidence they use mobile phones. When one sees convoys of people, they have motorcycle outriders who act as scouts. In many ways it is almost becoming a military operation when these people get together.” (Daily Telegraph 7/6/93). What Walter is trying to say is: ‘Don’t get to be thinking that these travellers are being victimised in anyway, oh no no no no. What we are dealing with here are the bastard children of Mad Max and the KGB, deserving of everything coming to them.’
Not everyone is being swayed by such nonsense however. Farmer Gerald Addicott from Corston in Bath had this to say: “What is worrying me is the marginalising of dispossessed people. If we treat them like hounded criminals; they are going to act like hounded animals. I don’t endorse the way they live. But the common ground I have with them is that they have rejected the materialistic consumer society that I do not feel comfortable with and also they have found community.” (Daily Telegraph 7/6/93.)
There was plenty more during that week; a polluted sea of vitriol, all spawned from one newspaper article that had no factual basis whatever. John Major and associated hidden agendas must have been chuckling away to themselves thinking how very pleasant of all these lovely newspapers to do all the spitting for him. Fortunately, there was little to carry on the bad joke through the summer. One more middle class mother/neighbour story appeared in The Independent (21 /6/93) entitled ‘ ‘The Squalors next Door”, another twee suburban tale of earnest folk from the ever more titbit Independent, soon to be taken over by Associated Newspapers owners of ....yes the Mail.
It’s oh so rarely pleasant to be in a position to end News of the Skews with some positive coverage. The squatters and residents of Rutland Park Mansions in Willesden, London, got together to prevent their block being demolished. Apparently Brent Council had declared the estate surplus to their needs in 1987 and were planning to demolish the building declaring that they did not have enough money to spruce up the block. The squatters and residents said ‘hang on a minute the place houses 150 people’. Its future is still in the balance but the campaign is up and running and receiving media coverage (The Guardian 19/8/93).
Also a recognition of the cultural contribution made by squatters appeared in The Observer (5/9/93) by way of a large article: “Squatters Movement Explodes on to the Cinema Screen.”
A squatting collective known as Exploding Cinema ran films in a disused lido in South London and are, at the time of going to press, preparing a similar event in a disused building in Dublin Quay having recently presented a show at CoolTan Arts in Brixton. Another is planned for an empty place in Liverpool. The Observer notes that there are quite a number of squatting groups running art galleries and film from disused buildings, including Lucid Eye, Loophole, Reel Love and Atelier Krol. The newspaper dishes out the praise for a DIY effort, usurping an official film and art industry disconnected from the street. But be careful or we’ll have the politicians and media crying out: “lifestyle choice”, a phrase used in the Government to imply that squatting has nothing to do with necessity.
Final words are a reply to the Daily Express Editorial (7/6/93) that sighed wearily: “Of course there will be squeals about freedom and civil rights from predictable pressure groups.”
Get it right - SQUALLS, not squeals, and the only “predictable” thing is the difficulty these pressure groups are having in getting heard. But in the words of those ex-squatters, The Clash: “Excuse me if I had to shout but while I was talking I saw you nodding out.”
P.S. For two rare jewels in the media mud, check out A.N. Wilson’s articles that appeared in the London Evening Standard, reprinted on the centre pages of SQUALL..
P.P.S. SQUALL could use a hand in the vigilance department. If you see any articles in national or local newspapers concerned with squatting and travelling, please cut them out and send them in. Don’t forget to write clearly on the cutting, the date and name of publication. A big thank U goes out to everybody that has helped out in this way so far, particularly NeverNever FIN.
News Of The Sqews - Marathon trawl through the media - Squall 6 - Spring 1994
News Of The Sqews - What they've been spouting in the media - Squall 4 - April/May 1993