2014 isn’t even 48 hours old, yet already we’ve had an outburst of tabloid scapegoating. This pastime, beloved of what now passes for the left in Britain, involves blaming the tabloids for what are in fact complex political problems, usually caused by people who reside in Whitehall rather than Wapping. It was huge in 2013, when, in the febrile anti-redtop climate created by Leveson, the tabs were held responsible for everything from the destruction of privacy to the evacuation of principle from the political realm. Now, just as fantastically, they’re held singlehandedly responsible for demonising, even criminalising, immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
‘Tabloids fuel fears of mass exodus from Romania and Bulgaria’, said respectable news reports yesterday, as restrictions on the rights of Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain were finally lifted. For the past seven years, since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, Britain has had a strict ban on the movement of those nations’ low-skilled workers to our shores. Only small numbers of skilled and self-employed workers have been allowed to come here. And in the run-up to yesterday’s exhaustion of the seven-year ban on the more horny-handed Easterners, the tabloids have been fretting about Britain being ‘swamped’.
Newspapers like the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Express have told us that Romanians and Bulgarians, whom they suggest are somehow ‘different’ to more honest Eastern Europeans like Poles and Czechs, will storm our shores and take jobs and welfare from native Brits. In the words of the Express, ‘Benefits Britain, here we come! Fears as migrant floods begin.’ Left-wing observers have accused these papers of spreading ‘horror stories’ about certain Eastern migrants, and in the process implanting in the British public’s minds the idea that they are races apart, weird, potentially criminal. When, yesterday, hardly any Romanians or Bulgarians turned up at British airports, the Twitterati had a field day mocking the tabloids for, in the words of Metro, predicting a ‘tidal wave of Eastern European immigrants’ that never materialised.
This self-congratulatory slating of gruff (and wrong) newspapers shows what a sorry substitute tabloid-bashing is for proper political thought. In the redtop-mauling camp, questions such as why, and by whom, low-skilled Romanians and Bulgarians were banned from Britain are never asked; nor is there any interrogation of how such a ban might have fuelled both the idea that these citizens of the EU are different to all others, and the belief that when they do finally come here our security and morals will potentially be ravaged by them. Asking such questions would involve some serious thinking, whereas holding the tabloids responsible for the criminalisation of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants involves little more than writing a 140-character tweet consisting of some combination of the words ‘Mail’, ‘hate’ and ‘fascists!’.
The truth is that it wasn’t the tabloids that turned Romanians and Bulgarians into objects of fear and concern – it was the Labour Party. In 2006, the then Labour government announced that it would be banning low-skilled Romanians and Bulgarians from working in Britain. Where it had allowed the citizens of the nations that acceded to the EU in 2004, which included Poland and Hungary, to work here, it would not allow the citizens of the countries that joined in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria, to come. This ban made an instant mockery of the idea that the EU was a gathering of equal sovereign nations, and of the idea of EU citizenship itself. Imagine being a British citizen but being forbidden from travelling to Manchester; uniquely among EU citizens, Romanians and Bulgarians found themselves in a not-dissimilar position when they were told they could not live and work in Britain. The anti-European impact of Britain’s decision was captured in one report, which pointed out: ‘By the time [the Romanian president] joyfully announced to his citizens that “We arrived in Europe!”, big posters reading “You cannot work in Britain without a permit” had already sprung up on Bucharest’s airport walls.’