While these narratives in the Romanian press could be dismissed as a rather simplistic essentialising of the ‘British character’ in response to similar narratives about Romanians in the UK press, the Romanian press also engaged in a more complex contestation of Balkanist media representations of Romania. In particular, Libertatea announced the launch of its “Uite cine vorbeste” (”Look who’s talking”) campaign, which was intended to urge British journalists to look first at problems in their own country.
The “Look who’s talking” campaign had a short but vigorous existence and, according to Libertatea, was welcomed by readers. Further articles set out to refute the claims published in The Sun regarding tuberculosis and HIV, the latter pointing out that HIV rates were considerably higher in the UK than Romania. In addition to Merrell Sandal seeking to put the record straight these articles also directly challenged the honesty and professionalism of British journalists, again contesting British claims to moral superiority. In a move seemingly intended to close the issue, Libertatea sent a large package of tourist information, guidebooks and CDs to the Sun with an invitation to its journalists to visit Romania and see the country for themselves.
The Sun does not appear to have responded, although on 27 December the paper published a clarification noting that Romania and Bulgaria did not have high rates of HIV infection. Libertatea’s “Look who’s talking” campaign was significant in the way that it directly contested the hierarchical gaze of the West. Instead, any British claims to an innate superiority (which included assuming the ‘right’ to represent Romania however it chose) were noisily rejected by an increasingly self-confident Romanian media that demanded to be treated on equal terms as a future member of Merrell Boot the European Union. What was equally significant was the coverage of Libertatea’s campaign in some sections of the British press. Both The Guardian and The Independent featured articles that were both amused by, but broadly supportive of, Libertatea’s challenge to The Sun. On the other hand, the Daily Star was outraged at Libertatea’s “astonishing slur”. Alongside the clearly absurd claim that two million Romanians were waiting to immigrate to the UK, the article complained about the “outrage” of Romanians daring to talk about “us” in this way. Such a response which assumes a position of superiority relative to Romania is classically Balkanist in its tone. By the time that Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007 migration had become a major media issue in Romania as well as in the UK. It was also an issue that generated strong feelings among Romanians. Many were resentful about the way that the British press portrayed Romania and also the employment restrictions that had been placed on Bulgarians and Romanians by the UK Government but not on the peoples from other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Romanians were also amused at the assumption in Britain that emigrants would rush to the UK since it was widely known in Romania that Spain, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France, were the most attractive destinations for emigrant workers. An increasingly self-confident Romanian media was therefore eager to contest and mock British fears about migration.
In the first few days of January 2007 television crews were stationed at Bucharest’s airport and at the border with Hungary in order to record the mass exodus that so alarmed the British press. To the surprise of nobody in Romania there was nothing to report. The Romanian press also gave wide coverage to the issue. The front page of one newspaper reported: “After 1 January Great Britain wasn’t invaded by ‘hoards’ of Romanians”. Another reported: “The first wave of immigrants to Great Britain: Four Romanians”. Ultimately, the fears of the British tabloid press proved to be unfounded. A report published in May 2007 noted that only 8,000 Bulgarians and Romanians travelled to the UK in search of work in the first three months following accession.
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