Heartbreak, Lies and Misinformation
Media manipulations & misinformation about squatting in Oxford
Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 19.
Every now and then a local newspaper will sink its teeth into some outrage or other and run a campaign to rid the streets of the scourge.
The Oxford Mail’s campaign against squatters began on October 12th, three weeks before November’s Home Office press release. “Heartbreak” was the headline, “change this silly law” followed in the editorial.
The story described the unfortunate case of an Oxford family, the Daniels, who on returning to their home from abroad, found so-called squatters living there.
“The ‘squatters’ were not typical,” said Mrs Daniels in an interview for First Sight (BBC2), but vandals who graffitied walls, ripped out electrical fittings and stole furniture. Apart from the fact that they were committing criminal damage - an arrestable offence, the act of squatting someone’s home is illegal. The ‘squatters’ could have been ordered out of the Daniels’ home the same day. However, the local police told the family they were powerless. Their solicitor, Mr David Black of Bower and Bailey, said the same thing and advised them to make an application through the county court for an order 24 eviction, which took one week and cost the family £800 in solicitor’s fees.
The articles that appeared in the Oxford Mail between October 12th and November 5th ignored existing law and implied that what had happened to the Daniels could happen to anyone. No mention of the Criminal Law Act, protecting home owners and prospective tenants, was made. The Oxford Mail instead chose to stereotype squatters as vandals who deliberately wreck people’s homes.
The allegations and propaganda that the Oxford Mail produced might well have gone unchallenged had it not been for the Squatters Estate Agency, an Oxford organisation that assists homeless people in finding homes (see This Is The Squatters Estate Agency in this issue). Formed in 1990 the Agency matches up would-be squatters to the many empty and derelict properties in Oxford.
Michael Bennett, London Area Chairman of the Police Federation, has again stated the reluctance of the police to be involved in the eviction of large numbers of squatters under the Government's intended legislation. Disturbed that the boys in blue will be seen as "Big Brother" if they have to evict people “who are squatting through no fault of their own”, he recently told the Big Issue “Yet again the police will be piggy in the middle”.
During the campaign run by the Oxford Mail calling for the criminalisation of squatting, SEA was interviewed by the Mail. The Agency pointed out the Mail’s failure to inform its readers of laws protecting a persons home. However, in the article, published 14th October, the Mail still failed to pass this information on to its readers. The Squatters Estate Agency, after repeatedly failing to get letters printed highlighting the Mail’s mistake, eventually had to resort to the Press Complaints Commission on the grounds of factual inaccuracy and denial of a right to reply.
The Mail then attempted to elicit cross party unity regarding a call for new laws on squatting “MPs pushing to foil squatters with new laws” on 14th October. It reported that, as well as John Patten MP, Tony Baldry and Andrew Smith MPs were also calling for squatting to be made a criminal offence. All three MPs were reported as saying that they would be approaching the Home Secretary.
The Squatters Estate Agency, after writing to Andrew Smith MP, received a reply evidently showing that he had been misquoted. What Mr Smith actually said was that he would support legislation to make it a criminal offence to take over someone’s home, if that was not the case already, but went on to say that he did draw a distinction between a person’s ‘home’ on the one hand and abandoned property on the other. He stated in his letter to the Agency that he “would not support the blanket criminalisation of trespass” which he agreed would have much wider and unacceptable implications.
It seems that, in the Daniel’s case, there can be only two alternatives, either the police and the solicitor were ignorant of the law or they weren’t. It is possible that, on realising the opportunity to make some money, the Daniel’s solicitor chose to ignore the easier, free proceedings available to the family and instead chose a court case with lots of solicitor’s fees.
Mrs Daniels is currently taking action against the police for failing to inform her of her rights, unfortunately this hasn’t got any press coverage. She has also appeared on First Sight, BBC2 in which she said that the people who vandalised her home “were not real squatters” and that she was very upset with the Oxford Mail who were using her case “as a stick to beat squatters with”.
This whole story is a familiar one to squatters. The disregard for facts and anti-squatter propaganda can be found everywhere. What is frightening is that for those not directly involved in squatting the realities of law are unknown and newspapers such as the Oxford Mail can get away with such deception. Even though the Squatters’ Estate Agency have worked hard to rectify the situation, the damage has already been done. Many Oxford residents and home owners now believe that they too could become victims like the Daniels. The trouble is, with solicitors like David Black and a police force apparently ignorant of the law, they possibly could.
The Squatters Estate Agency - report from the Squatters Estate Agency running in Oxford - Squall 6, Spring 1994