A London-based journalist once told me how the British tabloids operate: "every morning we would hold an editorial meeting and the top priority was to find a lead story that would scare people." This helped me understand how the Sun, the Mail and the Express manage to sell such vast quantities of papers that are so often filled with distortions and half-truths.
The British tabloids should thank Romania for providing it with so much great material over the last quarter century. The latest scaremongering - 27 million Romanian and Bulgarian scroungers are coming over in January 2014 - is just the latest in a long list of scare stories. Still fresh in the public's mind are stories of Romanian gypsies begging and claiming benefit in the UK.
Other great news stories that emerged from Romania include lurid portrayals of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist dictator who was overthrown by a mob in 1989 (the first "televised revolution"). The people's triumph in ousting one of the region's worst tyrants was short lived; the news story that dominated the early 1990s was the appalling state of children in the vast network of run-down orphanages.
What the British papers didn't say is that Romania flung open its doors for international assistance, unlike many countries which strictly ban all foreigners from visiting children's homes. It is now illegal to institutionalize children under the age of two and all abandoned children now go directly to foster families. It is also one of the few poor countries that has successfully banned the sale of children under the dubious business of international adoptions (this charity calls it child trafficking).
Some years ago I worked as a PR to an EU-funded project which raised awareness about the fact that Romania had implemented child rights legislation. My job was to tell international journalists that things had changed, that babies were no longer being institutionalized (or being sold) and that foster care was the order of the day. There were still huge problems due to poverty and corruption but a fundamental change had been made. The American, Dutch, Russian and French media were open to this news but British journalists seemed unable to get their editors to allow them to come and investigate.
Eventually I found out why: an editor told me "whenever we need a horror story about institutionalized children we send someone to Romania, where they can always find a sad case to report on. These stories don't have the same appeal when they come from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic or other places." He was interested in the fact that Romania was the only Central and East European country to have reformed its child welfare system so thoroughly but told me "this isn't a news story."
Tabloid editors like to attach particular stories to specific countries so that readers will make immediate associations (orphan, gypsy, scrounger, beggar, thief, immigrant in the case of Romania). To explain that there are so many gypsies in Romania because they weren't wiped out in WW2 (as happened in some of the neighbouring countries) or that most Romanians have no intention of moving to the UK, is too complicated and boring for tabloid editors.
Another group that should send a thank you message to Romania is the British business sector. The idea that only the Romanians have benefited from immigration is a nonsense. There may well be some beggars, scroungers and thieves operating in London but the vast majority of Romanians in UK are honest, law abiding and incredibly hard working.
Thousands of British companies have benefited by the hiring of reliable, uncomplaining and grateful Romanian workers, and scores of other companies have made decent profits since this nation of 20 million consumers was thrown open to the free market (they joined the EU in 2007). Everyone I know who has worked with a Romanian, or hired one to fix up their home in UK, have been delighted with their attitude, hard work and cost.
And not all Romanians who come to the UK are unqualified workers. I know many Romanians who have settled in the UK and only know one who claimed unemployment (and she's in jail for fraud). The first Romanian I met in Britain was an artist (Paul Neagu) and since then I have met an architect, two filmmakers, a DJ ("Nico de Translyvania"), a City broker, a lawyer, several business owners, a maths teacher, a famous violinist (Alex Balanescu); and a driver and nurse at the Scottish rehab clinic where I work.
The one person who did thank Romania was someone who routinely dismisses whole countries: Jeremy Clarkson. At the end of a Top Gear programme about Romania in which he described the Romanian "Trans-Fagarasan" as the best road in the world, he thanked Romania "for having us" and then said he'd like to come back "forever". Normally such words coming from the mouth of such a cynic would seem trite but in this case it seemed genuine. Clarkson is just one of the many Brits (myself included) who fell in love with this beautiful but grossly misunderstood nation.