The readers' editor on… a story of prejudice that hit a raw nerve in Hungary
Our report on discrimination against Roma families caused a furore, but none of the complaints I received addressed any points of fact in the article
For a newspaper, there are few more difficult subjects to tackle than race. When a story itself revolves around a situation where some degree of prejudice is historically embedded, nature doesn't favour rational discourse: just to be reminded that a particular issue might exist can make people defensive.
An article that prodded an area of racial tension that is less familiar to readers in the UK brought more than a dozen complaints to my office. On 28 January the Guardian reported on the experiences of Roma families living in the Hungarian village of Gyöngyöspata, 50 miles north-east of Budapest, focusing on one family – among 400,000 to 800,000 Roma in Hungary. As the feature reported, they are "the prime targets for rightwing hate and more general discrimination".
Reporter Helen Pidd chose Gyöngyöspata because she had heard of a uniform-clad militia that had been harassing – and in some cases terrorising – the 450 Roma living in the village, which has a population of 2,800. She said: "I had actually been sent to write a big piece on the anti-government protests [in Budapest] and a few economics stories looking at the government's battles with the EU and IMF over its new constitution. But then protesters kept telling me how the current administration encouraged, albeit subtly, discrimination against Roma."
An example she was given was the failure of the government to condemn the militia patrols in Gyöngyöspata in the spring of 2011. The tensions came to a head within a few weeks of the start of the patrols when the militia announced it planned to hold a training camp on the hill overlooking the site where most of the Roma families lived. An American philanthropist, along with the Hungarian Red Cross, organised for six buses to evacuate the most vulnerable 267 Roma residents. Publicly, the Hungarian interior minister said that the Roma were taking a "scheduled holiday".
As part of her page-long news feature, Pidd examined allegations that the local school was segregated – that the Roma children were taught downstairs with inadequate facilities while the other village children were taught upstairs with modern equipment. The Chance for Children charity has brought a lawsuit against the school authorities, claiming that the separation of children is illegal.
Pidd went to the school to see for herself, but did not speak to teachers as her visit coincided with the end of the school day. She was shown around the building and saw the difference in the school equipment.
When the Guardian article appeared it caused a furore far beyond the confines of the village. Hungarian newspapers and a TV station denounced the feature and said the school authorities were considering legal action against the paper. Some of the critics wrongly claimed that Pidd had never been to the school.
The tenor of the complaints about the Guardian's coverage was highly emotional, and most of the emails reflected a deep prejudice against the Roma people at large, presenting a litany of charges against them including accusations of petty thievery, benefit fraud and an unwillingness to work. None of the complaints addressed any of the points of fact in the feature, either about the conditions at the school or the attacks on the Roma family home.
One reader wrote: "What you wrote there is probably true. My problem is the media never shows the other side of the coin. Never."
Pidd had contacted people on every side of the argument, supported her contentions with references to source material, and had sought responses from the village mayor and the school's headteacher. The latter failed to respond. On the Guardian website, the story is accompanied by a video made by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. It shows the militia on patrol, and Roma families are interviewed by the HCLU about their experiences.
Overwhelmingly the criticism in the Hungarian press and on TV ignored this visual and interview material. Clearly the story has hit a raw nerve. Because of a new technology, news about an old local hurt is more swiftly disseminated in a way that challenges the new Hungary.