Why has this Italian politician’s neighbourly photo prompted such a furious backlash?

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Italy has been experiencing a resurgence of xenophobia recently. Migrants and Roma have been violently attacked by gangs, and people claiming to be “ordinary citizens” have organised marches in racially mixed neighbourhoods to stir up unrest.

Against this backdrop, Enrico Rossi, the left-leaning president of Tuscany, has turned what appears to be a rather mundane photograph into a bold political statement.

In the photo, Rossi stands flanked by a family of men, women and children. It’s a Sunday afternoon in Florence. “Let me introduce my neighbours” reads the description posted on Facebook. His neighbours are Romanian Roma.

Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, and his neighbours, 2014

Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, and his neighbours, 2014

Tense times

The picture was taken just a few weeks after Matteo Salvini, the new leader of the anti-immigration, anti-EU Northern League, paid a controversial visit to a Roma camp in Bologna to see how “tax money was spent”.

Salvini has made regular verbal attacks on Roma and migrants, a core part of his party’s attempt to rebrand itself as Italy’s answer to the French Front National. The steady rise in his approval rating would suggest that it’s working.

Meanwhile, the right is campaigning against Roma and new migrants at a local level too. In Rome, a crazy-train coalition of right-wing extremists, centre-right politicians and members of the mayor’s own Democratic Party is using immigration to fuel public anxieties in an attempt to force the mayor Ignazio Marino to resign.

But the animosity doesn’t stop there. Some of the same people who’ve been at the forefront of campaigns against undocumented migrants and Roma have now been accused of making money out of them as part of a sprawling inquiry into corruption in Rome.

The inquiry has exposed a network involving high-profile officials and mafia. They are suspected of bribery, extortion and corruption. So far 37 people have been arrested and 100 others investigated. The charges include making millions of euros by taking money meant to help support Roma and migrants. Officials have even been caught bragging about how exploiting migrants and Roma is more profitable than the drug trade.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Given all this tension, it is perhaps not surprising that Rossi’s neighbourly photo went viral. The picture attracted more than 6,000 Facebook comments, including from Salvini himself. Most were negative; many were violent and openly racist. (That said, there were 5,000 likes as well.)

Various accusations were levelled at the president in the comments. Many fell back on stereotypes about Roma: why, they asked, was the head of the region hanging out with foreigners, benefit scroungers, parasites, criminals? Why wasn’t he standing up for law-abiding taxpayers?

No matter if this Roma family includes children regularly attending a local school, and adults who work and have no criminal record; the people in the photo are not accepted as neighbours – they are dehumanised, and their real biographies trampled.

It is admirable that Rossi has held firm on his position despite the storm around the photo – even senior members of his party have voiced disapproval. He’s replied to a number of the comments made about the photo on Facebook. With just a few months to go before a regional election, it’s certainly bold to cause such a stir.

Given the current climate in Italy, his decision to fight this particular battle could affect his political career and electoral future – but at least for now, he doesn’t seem to care. One thing is certain: this particular photo will be plastered on leaflets and billboards everywhere as the next election approaches.

The Conversation

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BBC replies to my complaint on the Olmazu case

You can read my complaint here: https://nandosigona.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/the-olmazu-case-why-so-much-interest/

“Dear Dr Sigona
Reference CAS-397509
Thanks for your e-mail regarding the ‘BBC News At Ten’ as broadcast on 8 November.
I understand that you feel the story concerning Lavinia Olmazu was misleading and completely different from the story which ran on the website.
Whilst the online article you refer to specifically referred to the Lavinia Olmazu case, the report during the ‘News at Ten’ sought to explain this case amidst other such criminal activity.
The footage did not seek to provide stereotypical representations of Romany people as you suggest, it was clearly stated during the report that the footage was of recent raids by Romanian and British police following joint investigations into child trafficking and benefit fraud, this included footage from both Romania and the UK.
We felt the report gave deeper insight into the wider matter at hand (benefit fraud).
I hope this addresses your concerns and I’d like to assure you that I’ve registered your complaint on our audience log. This is daily report of audience feedback which is circulated to BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive board, channel controllers and other senior managers.
The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions on future BBC programmes and content.
Thanks again for taking the time to contact us”

Should I or anyone in the public be reassured that the BBC is telling me that they ‘didn’t ‘seek to provide a stereotypical representation of Romany people’? To me, instead, it looks like they succeeded in doing it very well!

I also think the response confirms in full my point about them using unrelated footage without even feeling the need to attempt to justify it. What was the link between the footage from an alleged child trafficking case and the Olmazu one? Or any old police investigation in Romania?

It is outrageous the BBC can get away with this just because the subject is a Romani person. Are they telling us ‘the Gypsies are all the same’? If an Italian is found guilty of fraud*, would the BBC uses footage from the arrest of the Mafia boss Toto Riina?

*The point I’m making is a general one. I also think the overall case has significant flaws but it would be too much to ask the BBC not to take at face value the result of the trial. Wouldn’t it?

The Olmazu case: Why so much interest? Was it a fair trial?

Nando Sigona on the case of the Romanian Roma activst Lavinia Olmazu on BBC Radio 5 (8/11/2010) (from 1:12.30 to 1:17.30): http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/vr8bh/

For an example of bad reporting, watch the BBC News at 10 o’clock on 8/11/201o – I’ve just sent a complaint to the BBC:

“I found the story on the Olmazu case in the 10 o’clock news misleading and surprisingly different from the story you run on the website which is much more balanced and close to the evidence emerged in the trial. In particular, it is unclear to me the link between the specific benefit fraud, the images of children taken away from a house somewhere in England (from your archive?) and what seems a pretty staged footage from Romania. It is very easy and very dangerous to play with stereotypical representations of Romani people, especially at a time of raising anti-Gypsyism”.

But there are far bigger shadows on the fairness of the trial as illustrated in this article by Jake Bowers on Travellers Times