I published an article on Huffington Post on January 1st 2014 called Thank You Romania and it went viral. Over 11,000 people liked it on Facebook and everyone I met in Romania seemed to have seen it. Apparently it was just what was needed in Romania – a positive article to balance all the scaremongering by the British tabloids about the „Romanian immigrant invasion’. By now, almost two months later, everyone knows that story is a joke but for Romanians a bitter taste remains; it’s hard for them to accept that they’re disliked – even hated – in the UK.
When Formula AS, a leading Romanian weekly newspaper, asked me to do an interview based on my brief analysis of the British tabloids in my Thank You Romania, I jumped at the chance. For Huffington Post I can only write articles of 800 words (two pages) but here I wrote over 10 pages. Not only was I able to explain my thoughts in more detail regarding the scurrilous British tabloids but I was asked to quote from the only other article I have written about Romania – The World’s First Dystopia (a critique of the Rosia Montana cyanide mine project).
Here is the link to the article (in Romanian) in Formula AS and the author kindly sent me the translation to check. When I glanced through it I had no objections and it seemed to flow nicely. I noticed the author had mentioned the Pulitzer Prize and I assumed he meant that Huffington Post was somehow connected to it; it didn’t occur to me that he had written that I had won a Pultizer. Where would he get such a bizzare idea from? Anyway, I only realised the gaffe when my former wife pointed it out. Nobody else mentioned it and I haven’t been inundated with requests from publishers asking for my next book.
So, this is the end of the beginning…and now you can read what I wrote for Formula AS before they edited it down to an article-sized translation.
Questions from Ion Longin Popescu for Formula AS:
Why should the British tabloids thank Romania?
The British tabloids (The Sun, Daily Mail & Express) have got great headlines from Romania since „the televised revolution of 1989” and they should be grateful as Romania helps fill their pages. The tabloids are always looking for stories that can be sensationalised. When they have a foreign story, such as Romanian children in orphanages, they can write what they want because 99.9% of British people know nothing about the situation in Romania.
They do this because that is the „tabloid business model”. They find stories to scare the general public – stories about child murderers, rapists, thieves and immigrants who come to take their jobs and claim welfare. Fear is the key. This is how the tabloids have operated for over 20 years and if you see how many papers they sell compared to the quality papers like the Times and Guardian it is a strategy that’s obviously working.
What Romanians don’t seem to understand is that their image in the British media is not all bad. The quality media such as The Independent write lots of positive things about the hard working Romanians who come to UK and The Economist wrote an article at the end of 2013 which welcomed Romanians to the UK and apologised for the racist attitudes they may encounter. The Economist article also said that British people would accept the Romanians once they realise how hardworking and respectful they are.
Why did these tabloids invent scaremongering from Romania and Bulgaria?
The story actually started with Polish immigrants. When citizens from Poland and the other central European countries that joined the EU in 2004 were allowed to work freely in the UK there was a flood of immigrant workers. The tabloids still quote the British government’s estimate of immigrant workers – less than a quarter of a million – but the real number was closer to a million. The quality newspapers, economists, academics and the unions say these immigrants contribute to the British economy but the tabloids incite their readers to believe they are a threat to their jobs. It’s all about inciting fear.
The Polish story turned out very well in that many went home to contribute to their economic growth, and Poland is one of the few EU Member States that came out of the 2008 recession rather well. At the time of the 2011 census there were 521,000 Polish-born residents of the UK and it’s well known that these people are well integrated: they work, they pay taxes, they provide labour in places where there were real shortages, such as in rural areas, and overall they are appreciated.
I believe Romanian immigrants are equally well accepted; every time I go to UK I ask people whom I meet what they think of Romanians in UK and usually they know of someone from Romania and almost always that person is hard working and appreciated.
I was in England in January this year and I heard a story about a Romanian immigrant who had come over to work in a carwash in the small town of Biggleswade: he was one of the few Romanians who had emigrated to UK for work in 2014 and he was getting interviewed by so many tabloid journalists – desperate for a story about the Romanian invasion – that the boss of the carwash fired him. Sometimes they mention the Roma beggar problem but I’ve never met anyone who thinks that all Roma come from Romania (a mistake that the Romanian tabloids like to promote). Everyone knows that the Roma are a minority in every country. Not many people know that there are over a million Roma citizens in the USA.
In fact, they publish distortions and half truths. What is it a tabloid? Who invented them?
I think the tabloids were first published around the time of the first world war. The key point about them is that they were aimed at the working classes. However, if you look at old copies of the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and The Daily Express dating before the 1970s you will see that they are far less sensational than they are today. Today the tabloids are written to incite fear and to a standard that is comprehensible by a 12 year old. They are all about sensationalism and sex. The whole industry was changed when Rupert Murdoch took over the Sun and the Times in the 1980s. He drove out the trade unions and made the newspapers focus on one thing only: making as much money for the shareholders as possible. So they focused on turning ordinary stories into national sensations by exaggerating grossly. They also succeeded in making people believe that there were murderers and rapists roaming the streets and Britain was an unsafe place to live. The result of this is that children are not allowed to play outside any more, without constant parental supervision. The freedom I knew as a child in Scotland has disappeared.
Rupert Murdoch did succeed in making a lot of money but he also corrupted journalism and his editors are still in court for illegally hacking into phone calls of celebrities, victims of horrendous crimes as well as the British Royal Family. The fact that Murdoch has escaped the British courts just shows how much power he still holds over the UK establishment. I monitor the situation by reading Private Eye, which is Britain’s satirical magazine; it has a weekly update on what they call „The Trial of the Century.” If any Romanian thinks their country holds a monopoly on corruption they should read Private Eye – which consists of page after page of well-documented details about corruption in the media, Parliament, government as well as the health, transport and financial sectors.
Do you have friends among the tabloid’s journalists? How do they motivate their hate against Romanians?
I don’t have any tabloid journalist friends but I do know people who have worked for them – and they seem like perfectly normal people. If you write for a publication you have to adapt your style to fit that publication and there are many cases of tabloid journalists going to write for the Guardian or Independent. They are just doing their job and I don’t think any of them actually hate Romania, as this is just one of many stories they will be dealing with. They generally don’t get involved emotionally in their stories. In fact, when I have met tabloid journalists in Romania they are always pleasantly surprised by how nice this country is – but we both know they can’t write about this as „good news is no news.”
Do the readers believe them? Why?
Most people I know in the UK don’t believe what they read in the tabloids but sometimes they look at them for entertainment; we like to glance at the sexy girls, laugh at the headlines, maybe catch up on the sports news. I treat them like comics. When I flew to Romania in January 2014 I picked up a free copy of the Daily Mirror at the airport; I scanned it while standing in line and was able to get through it in less than five minutes. If you read the headlines you can get the whole story, but most of it is about celebrities and I’m not interested in any of them.
Sometimes these papers have very good articles, as they have the money to pay for a journalist to investigate a story fully. I remember the Daily Mirror had a brilliant article about how international adoption, a particularly evil business, had resulted in children being kidnapped in China. A quality paper wouldn’t have been able to pay for the journalist to spend so much time there.
But the tabloids also have good material on women, health, food, travel, sport and non-political issues. The Daily Mail has the most popular news website in the world and although I don’t agree with their opinions it’s wrong to dismiss them entirely. Some journalists say the Daily Mail sets the news agenda. The key is to consider their news in perspective, in other words compare what the tabloids are saying with what the quality papers are writing before coming to a conclusion. What’s interesting is that the Romanian media seems to only pick up the negative stories from the tabloids, and this has resulted in Romanians believing that they are hated in the UK. I’m sure that some Brits hate Romanians but those same people hate French, Americans, Germans, Scots and Irish people – they probably also hate themselves. We have lots of citizens whose lives are defined by hate.
Why have you published editorials against these tabloids, showing the truth about Romania? Why do you like/love Romania/Romanians?
I live in Bucharest and love this country. The people here have made me feel welcome and I never felt like an outsider. I was married here and have two wonderful children, a boy aged 11 and a girl aged 14. They are both in a local school which seems to give them a good education. My son was born here and I am impressed with your health and educational services, as well as the fact that the utilities work. My apartment is heated by a public heating system and my block is insulated against the cold – and when I tell people in the UK about these two facts they are amazed: no local authority in UK would insulate an apartment block (or even a public building like the city hall), or provide public heating, even though it is good for the environment and saves money. I have been working with Romanians since 1990 and have never been cheated and rarely disappointed. They are a pleasure to work with. I have even worked with the Roma minority when I ran an EU project for the government between 1999 and 2002 – and they were fine too.
My job is very interesting. I am the European Representative and PR advisor to Castle Craig Hospital, the biggest addiction treatment (rehab) clinic in the UK. It is located in the remote Scottish lowlands, near where my parents live, so when I go to work in Scotland I can stay with my parents. I like visiting Scotland but I wouldn’t like to live there as everyone seems to be complaining about the high price of everything, the low quality of public services and the corruption of the political class. My kids love it there because they can roam freely in the hills and forests, and meet their Scottish cousins (all of whom want to visit Romania).
My job involves promoting Castle Craig Hospital all over Europe – last year I was working in Malta, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (as well as Romania of course. We’ve already treated 10 patients from Romania for addiction). We have a website in Romanian – www.castlecraig.ro – and it’s one of the most popular websites for people looking for help with addictions. Unfortunately most people can’t afford our treatment so we have a long list of Romanian psychologists and self-help groups (Alcoholics Anonymous) and we try and help everyone who calls,
I organised a big reception in Brussels last year, with a brilliant event organiser called Catalina Iordache, and got signed up with the European Commission as a provider of medical services. We’re planning a similar event in Sweden.
The PR side of my job involves talking to the media on behalf of Castle Craig Hospital. When the media want something from you – in this case access to our hospital and introductions to people who have overcome addictions – they can be very charming indeed. Unfortunately for them we usually don’t let them in as we protect the identities of our patients very carefully.
When I give journalists in the UK my phone number they say:
„What kind of a phone number is that?”
„It’s a Romanian number. I am based in Bucharest.”
„How can you work for a Scottish rehab clinic in Bucharest?”
„With the internet it doesn’t matter where you are these days.”
The fact is that Bucharest is a great place to work, the prices are low and the transport system works well (even under half a metre of snow). From Bucharest you can fly to anywhere in the world. My colleagues – Manuela Boghian and Olivia Ianculescu – manage all the websites for Castle Craig, as well as social media, video, podcasts, photography and blogs. They’re really hard working, a pleasure to work with and my Scottish colleagues really appreciate them. We make a lot of interesting films for Castle Craig and you can see some of these with Romanian subtitles on this link:
Last week I came across an old documentary called From the Horse’s Mouth made in 1985 about the people who set up our clinic, and some of their patients. The actor Anthony Hopkins is in the film as well as the former First Lady Betty Ford. It’s an incredible film that nobody has seen for almost 30 years and I only saw a copy because my colleague found an old copy on VHS. I want to contact the filmmakers and get a new version released as it gives lots of insights into addiction.
I work with Laurentiu Calciu, one of the best documentary filmmakers from Romania – even though he currently lives in London. We made several documentary films together, one of which we shot in early 1990 just after the revolution. It’s called After the Revolution and it’s available in Carturesti. For Castle Craig Hospital he’s made over 50 short videos about the different aspects of addiction, and we’ll be meeting up next month to do some more filming in Scotland.
When journalists come here they quickly realise that this is a great country but they can’t write that for their newspapers; their editors would reject such an idea (unless it’s about travel). The editors want scare stories that fit their templates about Romania: stray dogs, Roma beggars, orphanages, unqualified immigrants, crime and corruption. They are not allowed to publish stories about the fact that the stray dog situation in Bucharest has improved, that abandoned children are no longer being sent into orphanages (they are taken into foster care) or that there is no wave of immigrants waiting for the doors to open.
In these circumstances it seems quite natural to inform the British public that things are not what they seem in Romania. It also felt natural to leave journalism, which I did in 1990, as I felt it was corrupting. It was corrupting me. It was pushing me towards stories that were exploitative – such as reporting on the babies in Colentina Hospital who had AIDS (a story I refused to do). I then moved into charity work, spent several years in an orphanage in a village in Botosani called Virful Cimpului as I thought this was the only way I could really help those children. Eventually I beceame a PR Consultant and now I represent Castle Craig Hospital, a Scottish rehab clinic for the treatment of addiction.
We’ve been born in the era when multinationals can make countries collapse…For example Coca Cola. What kind of corporation is Gabriel Resources/RMGC (Rosia Montana Gold Corporation)?
I don’t think multinational corporations have a plan to collapse countries or keep people poor. Their aim is to sell more product and make more money. It is in their interest for as many people to get rich as possible – that is the basis for the American dream — the economic model that we have all adopted. Like tabloid journalists, the people working for multinationals are not motivated by anything more than making a living. In fact, multinationals recruit the best people they can find and invest in training them – and in doing so help to retain some really good people in Romania. In Romania they have probably hired the brightest and the best.
The problem with multinationals is they tend towards monopoly and this has a toxic effect economically. The worst thing that Coca Cola has done in Romania is drive out local competitors and dominate the soft drinks market. They also bought the Dorna mineral-water brand and now have a big share of the bottled water business too. Their superior marketing and distribution systems will beat local competitors every time. It’s wrong that foreign shareholders profit from what Romanians drink.
In the UK they recently exposed the multinationals for not paying tax. Companies like Starbucks, Amazon, Google and Apple were brought in front of a Parliamentary Committee and asked why they don’t pay tax. To quote the Guardian, Starbucks only paid £8.6 million pounds tax in its first 8 years of operation in UK, where it made a profit of £3 billion. Amazon, which had book and CD sales in Britain of £3.35 billion in 2011, only reported a “tax expense” of £1.8m in that year.
What was shocking about this incident wasn’t that these multinationals don’t pay tax – which is optional for huge companies – but that avoiding tax is perfectly legal. By registering their companies in low tax jurisdictions like Luxembourg and the Bahamas they can bounce their profits around internationally and pay almost no tax. People in the UK got furious with Starbucks and the other corporations and even the Prime Minister spoke out against them, but the only thing that happened was that Starbucks voluntarily paid £5 million in taxes because, they said, „we listened to our customers.”
This situation represents the problem of multinationals perfectly: governments are afraid of upsetting these large companies, afraid of spoiling their reputation as a good investment location and unable to stop the „big four” accounting firms (Deloitte, KPMG, PWC, Ernst & Young) from enabling big companies to avoid tax. The EU, the IMF and World Bank all play their part in this – by ensuring each nation have laws favourable to multinationals – and it’s all within a legal framework. The result is that there are now trillions of Euros, dollars and pounds sitting in offshore bank accounts, while people even in Britain go hungry and our nations are effectively bankrupt. The irony is that our governments have to borrow money from these vast deposits of offshore money – money they should have collected in taxes is now being loaned to them.
And if that’s the situation in the UK you can imagine how much worse it is in Romania, where the government is more incompetent and corrupt. But there’s no point blaming any particular politician or political party, the problem is that our whole economic system needs to be changed – starting with an agreement between all governments that multinationals need to pay tax in the location where profits are earned. It’s a simple idea, but probably impossible to implement in the current political system.
The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) is a most interesting case. Unlike the corporations mentioned above it has no experience in its sector of activity and no track record – it has never earned one dollar and has never organised any kind of mining job. It’s an offshore investment fund that has its shares registered in Toronto.
RMGC represents those trillions of dollars sitting in offshore bank accounts and is owned by secretive investors whose funds are located in the exotic islands off America (jurisdictions where there is virtually no tax). But they have hired some very smart people (their boss gets paid almost a $1 million a year) and they have copied the ethical principles of the famous multinationals and implemented a brilliant PR campaign to show how much they care about Romania’s heritage, environment and workers.
RMGCs marketing campaign is brilliant. It is a text book example of how to win over the media, the politicians, the local population and the general public – even the EU. They have done superb PR job and I hope that students of journalism and marketing will study this case in years to come. They pour money into the local economy; they repair schools, public buildings and sports grounds to show how much they care. They mention thousands of local jobs, saving the mining industry, rejuvinating the area economically, restoring the ecosystem and paying billions of euros in taxes. They have bought off the major Romanian newspapers and TV stations and spent millions on persuading politicians and public officials that their mining plan is worthy of their support.
The problem is they have been doing this since the late 1990s and they still haven’t received permission to go ahead. The Romanians have stood up to them and for this I truly admire them.
What is a „dystopia”? Why is Romania is the „the World’s First Dystopia?”
Last year I wrote an article for the Huffington Post called „Romania – the World’s First Dystopia”. The article went viral and I have never received so much feedback, and I believe it inspired people and gave them a context in which to understand the Rosia Montana project.
Here is an extract from the article:
A dystopia is a nightmare vision of the future and there are two great books which have defined the genre: 1984 and Brave New World. Both books are brilliant but they were written in the 1930s when the world quivered under the shadow of totalitarianism. They are useful for understanding the twentieth century but outdated when it comes to our own troubled times.
Now we have an author, David Mitchell, who has projected the economics of today hundreds of years into the future. We also have a country – Romania – where offshore investors are planning a vast cyanide mining project that would fit nicely into Mr Mitchell’s dystopia.
This is how David Mitchell describes the future in his breathtaking novel, Cloud Atlas:
„Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded, its food supplies riddled with rogue genes. The downstrata can’t buy the drugs necessary to counter these privations. Melanoma and malaria belts advance northwards at forty kilometers per year. Those production zones of Africa and Indonesia that supply Consumer Zones’ demands are sixty per cent uninhabitable. Plutocracy’s legitimacy, its wealth, is drying up…Its only response is that strategy beloved by all bankrupt ideologues: denial…”
…What propels Romania into the category of “World’s First Dystopia” is the massive cyanide mining project that could turn Transylvania, one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of Europe, into a dystopic wasteland. It is also a case study in how corporate PR and marketing can convince a population that the destruction of their ecosystem is in their own interest.
The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, an offshore investment fund, has promised Romanians thousands of jobs, billions in tax dollars and – the most audacious claim that could have come straight out of 1984 – environmental protection. The reality is that 3 villages and 4 mountains will be demolished and a massive reservoir for 214 million tons of cyanide waste will be built (cyanide is used to extract gold from ore). Never before has such a big cyanide mining project been attempted in Europe. Rivers and groundwater in the region, including the Danube, may be poisoned and only about 200 jobs will be created. The tax income from the estimated ₤20 billion profit is unknown because the company’s contract with the Romanian government is a state secret, and Romania’s tax laws are riddled with loopholes.
The other thing that will happen if this project ever goes ahead is it will be sold off to a huge mining company, either American or Russian, and all those beautiful promises made to Romania will be ignored. There is no way that the Romanian government could ever control such a powerful and secretive consortium.
Do you see a nightmare future in Transylvania?
The nightmare future I see is one where offshore multinational companies get out of control and devastate the global environment. What worries me are the new, unaccountable, secretive, offshore-based multinationals like RMGC that have no need for the support of public opinion once they get approval. If RMGC did pollute the water supplies of Transylvania and there were massive protests against them they could still carry on regardless. All they need do is hire a security company and pay off the police.
They don’t have millions of customers like Starbucks, Google and Amazon do – customers that could ruin those businesses in a flash. A mining company can be immune to peaceful protest. Please note that I don’t include companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds, VW and the famous multinationals in this analysis; those companies are accountable, are sensitive to public protest and do actually contribute towards environmental protection and other good works. They just need to pay their taxes.
But I am not convinced the nightmare is going to happen. We do have the instruments needed to stop multinationals – governments and international organisations like the EU, World Bank and IMF – if only they had the will. The problem is that successive British governments, if I take my own country as an example, seem unable to stand up to the interests of big business. But I believe this will change. The recent economic recession exposed our economic system, and our banks in particular, as being extremely weak.
Their main objective of maximising profit for the shareholders is not sustainable in the medium term and can only lead to disaster. We know this now and I do believe that a solution will be found, a solution that will bring these powerful economic entities under local control. And local control is the key to a sustainable future. The only way to control companies and banks is for them to be local. Multinationals are uncontrollable.
Romania is actually showing the way and inspiring people all over the world. By stopping the cyanide mine in Rosia Montana, Romanian protestors have proven that these powerful economic interests can be stopped.
This is how I described it in The Huffington Post:
The most extraordinary thing about the Rosia Montana project is that a local residents association has managed to block it for the last fifteen years. Using volunteer lawyers they have managed to stop the project in the local courts time and time again, and this shows that Romania’s charity and legal sectors are not as corrupt and weak as many like to assume…
…But the investors will not give up. This is a test case for the international mining industry: their business model depends on poor and badly governed countries like Romania bending to their will and allowing free access to their mineral wealth. Defiance like this could encourage others to stand up to them, and this doesn’t fit with the big mining companies’ vision for our future.
This is an incredibly inspiring success, and one that few people would have predicted. The Greek and Spanish governments have allowed massive mining companies to destroy large parts of their ecosystems, and their protests were ignored. Romania is proving to the world that it can stand up to them.
Why do you think that the Romanian Government is making everything possible in order to give the green light to Rosia Montana project?
In my Huffington Post article, which I published in July 2013, I wrote „the current Romanian government is now trying to subvert the naysayers by rewriting the Mining Law, allowing mining operations to seize whatever land they fancy.”
Since then the Romanian Parliament has rejected the proposed mining law, a law that would have swept aside all the existing regulations that are in place to prevent this sort of outrage from happening. If that law had passed it would have opened the door for similar projects; it could have led the way to the dystopia scenario.
I think Romanian politicians deserve some credit for standing up to the immensely powerful RMGC lobby. I believe they will continue to do this and I don’t believe the plan to destroy Rosia Montana will ever go ahead. I think they realise that there is no real benefits to Romania – very few jobs, probably no tax and the threat of environmental disaster. But it’s not over yet: there’s a new mining law in Parliament and they say it’s as bad as the one that was rejected.
But now there is hope – that the project can be stopped – and my belief is that the RMGC propaganda machine will eventually run out of money. They must be spending tens of millions of dollars every year on paying all the people (politicians, journalists, public officials) whose support they are relying on – not to mention their massive advertising budget. At some point the investment fund will say „enough is enough” and go and find another poor country to pollute.
Rupert Wolfe Murray lives in Bucharest and is the European Representative of Castle Craig Hospital, an addiction treatment clinic in Scotland.