Carei is a small town in Romania at the Hungarian border with a proud heritage. A Communist statue overlooks the town square, glorifying the Romanians who fell liberating their fatherland in World War II. On one side is the sculpted head of a peasant, on the other the head of a soldier in a tin helmet, commemorating the last stretch of Romanian land freed from the Nazis.
On a wet Tuesday afternoon in February, four kids are laughing behind the statue. One brings out a massive glitter gun, shoots it into the air and sprays red and silver confetti over his friends and the white stone of the monument. The kids giggle, disperse and scuttle away into the town.
Industries such as cotton, hemp and sugar thrived here during Communism. These factories are now closed. The town still makes furniture and cooking oil, while German tyre manufacturer Continental is the largest employer.
This town is not in a boom. Not in a bust.
But on 21 November 2016, Carei was shocked by an article in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun, alleging that child slaves in the town were making toys for chocolate treats Kinder Eggs.
The Sun’s headline read: “Kids aged SIX making toys for Kinder Eggs as ‘slave’ workers are paid just 22p-an-hour for 13 hour shifts.”
The paper’s journalist and photographer had just returned from Carei, and The Sun went on to reveal how the toys were “put together in filthy working conditions by poor families who endure long hours” for Italian confectionery giant Ferrero.
The reporter, Nick Parker, quotes Cristian Jurj, the father of two children aged 11 and six. “It’s slave labour,” Jurj says.
The implication is that children in Romania are forced to assemble toys for money. To support this, The Sun quotes British Labour Party MP and Shadow Home Affairs Minister, Carolyn Harris: “My own children grew up loving Kinder toys, I’m horrified something so innocent is the product of what in reality is child slavery,” she says.
For The Sun’s editorial line, the scoop is perfect. The newspaper has a history of demonizing Romanians and the EU, so it must have been hard not to resist the suggestion that Romanian parents allowed an Italian multinational to exploit their kids to prepare toys for Kinder Eggs. This brand enjoys deep emotional resonance to every Brit under 50.
But such ‘child slavery’ did not happen.
At the edge of Carei is the exit to the town of Satu Mare, a thoroughfare for freight trucks transporting goods between Hungary and Romania. The houses are a mix of smart and double-glazed homes and shacks with broken windows and tiles.
When journalists from The Sun visited Timea Jurj in November last year, she was recovering from stomach surgery and living off handicapped allowance. Her illness meant she could not stand for long, so found it difficult to find work and provide for her children.
“I suffered from a bit of depression after surgery,” she says. “It hurt a lot when I got up.”
Eventually a friend told her she could earn money putting together toys for Kinder Eggs while her kids were at school. Over the last five years, many pensioners and women in Carei earned extra cash from this activity. It was not legal. These jobs were ‘outsourced’ from a nearby factory, where the toys were prepared professionally.
The Sun’s foreign correspondent Nick Parker, along with a photographer and a Romanian fixer, Mihai Belu, were searching for these women.
Tipped off by a taxi driver, they turned up at the house of Timea’s sister. At first, they told her sister they were making a commercial about how the company prepared the products. The sister then introduced them to Timea.
“When they came in, I treated them like guests,” says Timea. “I was making some roasted pumpkin, and I asked if they wanted some.”
She dressed in a clinging, shiny brown leather-style top for the photo-shoot. Her two children were playing in the house. “The kids came up to me, and the journalists exclaimed: ‘Wow, you have kids!’ and they brought [them] into the set-up,” she says.
The photographer then told them where to look, and smile for the camera as they prepared the toys.
“If they are playing, I ask [the kids] to come and help me assemble a little,” says Timea. “But my son can’t stay in one place. The children bring me a basin or a little bit of water. If you ask the child to bring a bottle of water from the kitchen or some wood for the stove, you are not killing the child, are you?”
In the video, Nick Parker asks Timea if “you and your children work all day” and if this is “slave labour”, to both these questions, she answers “yes”.
But Timea says she does not understand English well, and looked to her husband Cristian for translation. However The Sun's fixer, Mihai Belu, tells us that Timea talked at length alone with the journalists.
In the video, when Parker pushes her to explain herself further, she can only answer in Romanian. “All the questions that I said ‘no’ to weren’t broadcast,” she says.
Timea is now divorced from her husband, who was unemployed at the time of the report. The Brits paid her husband some cash for the interview [when confronted, The Sun did not deny this, but Mihai Belu says he is not aware of money changing hands].
They also promised to help him get a job in the UK, says Timea.
In the article, Cristian tells The Sun his family has "no choice" but to work on the toys. "When you see the way we live here you must understand why it is our dream to come to the UK.”
The Sun has a decade-long campaign of denigrating the EU’s open borders and the free movement of workers from Romania and Bulgaria to the UK, so it seems ironic that it would propose to help a Romanian to find work in Britain.
“The husband does not work and he was promised a job abroad, Timea has health problems, therefore they were promised a lot [by The Sun],” says Carei-based social worker Monica Radu, who has followed the case. “At the back of this promise, they accepted to say certain things.”
When confronted about this claim, The Sun stated that “no job was offered to Cristian Jurj”. It did not deny the more specific allegation that the reporting team offered to help Jurj find work in the UK.
Meanwhile Mihai Belu tells us: “[Cristian] said a hundred times that he would like to work, and they [the journalists] said the man wants to work, and I gave him the email of a friend I knew who did this - hired people and acted as an intermediary.”
He adds that the interview was not dependent on this.
When it became more obvious to Timea that the men were journalists, she asked if the story would create problems for her and her family.
“At the end, I asked: 'What happens if this gets out?',” says Timea. “And they said: ‘What can happen? This is just advertising!’”
The Sun is the UK’s biggest selling newspaper and its brand online has global reach. When the report was published, the impact was huge. It dominated the Romanian news cycle and inundated the European mediasphere.
That day, Monica Radu from the town’s child protection agency went to Timea’s house.
“The family was scared,” Radu says. “They began to cry and thought we would take the children away.”
Outside, a gang of reporters with cameras waited to get Timea’s response to the piece.
“I was trembling,” Timea says. “I was crying, and I asked the Romanian journalists to explain to me what was happening.”
Work inspectors then arrived to check the labour set-up.
“What shocked us at first was the article’s title: that there were child slaves,” says Ioan Flore, the county labour inspector. His division found out that such a claim was “a corker”.
“These children were not exploited,” he tells us.
However this failed to change the view of many Romanians, because of the authority that the British media commands in the local mindset.
“I have friends and relatives in the country,” says Monica Radu. “When they saw this on TV, they called to ask how something like this could have happened. People believed this was a case of slavery. The world perceives an unpleasant situation as real. No one thinks that at the back of this, there is deception.”
Another woman interviewed by The Sun for the report meets us outside her house. This is a half-collapsed bungalow with an outside toilet and a chain-link fence, where a ‘for sale’ sign hangs.
“When the journalists first came, I thought they wanted to buy the house,” says the 49 year-old mother of one.
The woman will not let us inside. She has vowed never to let any stranger inside the house again.
For nearly five years she has been looking after her handicapped sister, who cannot eat, dress or take a bath alone. “To me [the eggs] were an extra income,” she says. “It was painstakingly hard, but it was good.”
The toys included bears, dogs and crocodiles in three or four pieces to be packed into the yellow plastic egg. “If I woke in the middle of the night, I started looking through the bedclothes for the toys. That’s how used to them I was.”
However, the work gave her pains in the legs and knees.
“But I am bored the whole day,” she says, “so what the hell else can I do?”
When two Brits and a Romanian turned up at her home, the woman’s sister was in bed. “I knew something was up when they told me to bring out the toys,” she says.
They started to take pictures.
“After they left, I was very scared. I shut myself up in the house. I didn’t leave for a few days. If someone called and it was an unknown number, I did not respond. We were staying inside, like rats.”
The woman thinks about how Timea Jurj’s children were exposed and feared for her handicapped sister, who stayed on the bed with the toys when the men took pictures. “I had great luck that I didn’t put the toy in the hands of my sister,” she says. “Great luck! If I had put a toy in her hand, I don’t know what would have happened.”
In The Sun’s follow-up story on 29 November, Nick Parker reported: “A FIRM exposed by The Sun for using children as young as six to make toys for Kinder Eggs was axed yesterday.”
The report forced Ferrero to stop working with the Romanian contractor Prolegis. “The involvement of children, either directly or indirectly, is strictly forbidden,” said the multinational.
The Sun article also states: ‘Ferrero was accused of “child slavery” by MPs’.
The ‘child slavery’ allegation came from MP Carolyn Harris, quoted in the original article.
When we confronted Harris, she said (through her office) that she was contacted by The Sun for a quote on their investigation “commenting on the fact that children were expected to work”.
But she could not give any further proof for child slavery and, despite this lack of evidence, would not retract her statement.
We also asked Nick Parker at The Sun if he thought the children were slaves. A spokesman for the paper said: “Nick was reporting what he found. The quotes about slaves were provided by people featured in the article.”
Today, no one involved in the story wants to take responsibility for this ‘child slavery’ allegation.
The fixer Mihai Belu argues that it depends on the perspective.
“The children - from the point of view of Romanians - are not what we would understand as work slaves," he says. "For a west European, any child which works in a situation [is a slave]. It’s a question of cultural perception.”
The Prolegis factory in Carei hired 130 workers in a 700 square-metre factory for 12 years. They only made Kinder toys. Ferrero’s associates even brought workers from other facilities to see how the factory prepared the toys, so they could swap best practice, says the building’s owner Markus Nicolae.
On 1 January, the factory closed - and the workers were laid off or relocated.
“It had a big impact on the locals,” says Nicolae.
Timea also felt the heat from this fallout.
“The article not only affected me, but also others and now, in the whole town, I am the person who is guilty of them losing their jobs,” she says. “When I go somewhere I have the impression that everyone is looking at me and gossiping… The whole town blames me.”
Her 11 year-old son also faced teasing at school. “At school some of the older kids realised what had happened and they called him the ‘Kinder Boy’,” she says.
Despite the potential libel, she does not have the means to launch a legal defence against the newspaper - or ask for a correction.
Timea remains stunned by how this happened.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t understand until this day why the journalists did this.”
The Sun’s report on Kinder Eggs is a professional investigation into the outsourcing of toy manufacture to home-workers in Romania.
But it was spun into a expose of child slavery that could not be proven, and which targeted a vulnerable family who will likely never seek remedy in the UK courts.
The Sun’s journalism is part of a post-revolutionary media narrative that plagues Romania: a source of prostitution, labour and human trafficking, exploitation and slave work [full disclosure: journalists involved in this story have also covered such topics].
Romanian fixers for the west are filled with tales of the underhand tactics employed behind the scenes by British journalists assembling reports in the country. Tactics that hint at a broad attempt to defame a country.
And it started just as Romania was to join the European Union.
It is 2006. Romania is completing the accession process to the EU. Meanwhile, journalists are scouting for interviews on what they believe is the major issue regarding the country’s accession process: sex traffic.
Maz Mahmood was a journalist for The News of the World, the former stablemate of The Sun, which closed in 2012 after allegations of journalists’ hacking into the telephone messages of public figures and vulnerable citizens. Last year Mahmood was convicted to 15 months in prison in the UK for perverting the course of justice. This was in a case concerning a report where he posed as a film producer and asked British TV star Tulisa Contostavlos to find him some cocaine.
Back in 2006, Mahmood contacts a fixer in Romania about a story for the News of the World. The paper, he writes, wants a piece on “the types of people that are seeking to come to Britain once the borders open in January”. He needs 24 hours for the report. Context and evidence do not seem to be part of the package.
They have a shopping list of desired interviewees:
Firstly: a poor family who would earn more in the UK being unemployed than working in Romania.
Secondly: pimps and prostitutes. “We need a pimp/madam and pics of girls,” says Mahmood. “Is there a brothel that we should visit and speak to the boss?”
Thirdly: Mahmood needs “criminals, the worse the better. Are there any convicted paedophiles/child molesters [sic] that we can talk to. If we have one of these saying that they would move to Britain then it would be fantastic.”
The child molestor story alone would be worth £1,000, says Mahmood.
It seems the price for exclusives rises with the level of sensationalism.
It is not just eurosceptic tabloids such as The News of the World who are fixated on these stories. That same year in August, Nika, an editor at large for youth-focused upstart TV station Vice Germany, is planning to shoot a documentary “exploring the Bucharest streetlife” investigating "prostitution, slavery and trafficking" according to an email she sends to a Romanian fixer.
In a follow up, she explains that they are looking for “a brothel with mentally challenged prostitutes” and want footage of “romanian priests receiving sex toys”.
We tried to contact Nika, but she no longer works for Vice Germany. A team did visit Bucharest with the idea: “let’s go to Bucharest and buy a kid” according to one of its members, a freelancer.
In Bucharest’s central Piata Unirii they found a person “willing to sell a child for 10,000 Euro”. But the team member told us that “in the end you had to come with the money”. They did not have a budget for 10,000 Euro. The item was never broadcast.
At this time Romanian fixers were hired by western TV stations to make films about “buying” women and children. One fixer told us that a colleague would put the journalists in touch with a pimp, who would ask for a ‘downpayment’ for a woman or a child.
The ‘pimp’ knew it was an undercover sting. He would then ask for more money. The journalists couldn’t cough up the amount. But they would go home with a story, and the pimp would get some cash. If a woman was “sold”, she often did not thank the journalists for “saving her”, but went back to the pimp. The reasons for this are complex.
But we can say that in most cases, the journalists did not help.
This obsession with clandestine bordellos even extended to the animal kingdom.
In 2015, a German media outlet was looking for dog brothels in their home country populated by stray dogs from Romania. Evidence for this came from comments on the Internet, picked up by the head of Bucharest’s animal protection unit, Razvan Bancescu.
A Romanian fixer told us the German press wanted to show the trafficking route of a stray dog from the streets of Bucharest to a high-class dog brothel in Germany. It did not happen. And, as we went to press, a major expose on canine bordellos with enslaved Romanian strays has yet to be broadcast.
Such stories create an identity for a country. In Romania’s case, this was a factory of trafficked women, child beggars and street dogs. Editors in the west were insatiable, wanting more extreme versions of this prejudice.
“You feel often big pressure to do a story - even if the reality on the ground does not fit the story wanted by the TV company,” says one Romanian fixer.
Outside of major political upheavals like protests, referenda and elections, or tragedies such as the night-club fire Colectiv, western journalists fixate on two stories from Romania: migration and the Roma community - or ‘gypsies’.
One fixer was compiling a story about ‘gypsies’ who beg on the streets of Brussels. He had to find out where they live in Romania. He discovered they stayed in modest and clean houses in a normal village.
The editor did not want this. “It didn’t fit their story, so we had to find a poor neighbourhood,” he says.
Instead he searched for the worst slum possible to film, even though it had no connection to the ‘gypsies’ from Brussels.
“They have to make it sexy and attractive for viewers,” says the journalist.
But the ‘gypsies’ are not always seen as a pestilence that has invaded the EU. Journalists from the Nordic countries, like Norway and Sweden, have a different view. “They often go in the opposite direction when reporting on Roma,” says another fixer. “They state: ‘all is fine, there is no crime here, society in Romania has something against the Roma, they are victims of discrimination and live in very poor conditions’.”
In Romania, foreign journalists are always looking for a clear story, with a victim and a perpetrator. They rarely examine conflicting opinions.
“In the media, there is no place for nuance,” says one Romanian fixer. “Few reporters have the time to be right.”
Because Romania is a poor and developing country, western journalists can build a compelling story on little evidence.
Rich Peppiatt is a former journalist at UK tabloid The Star, and director of a tabloid-bashing film One Rogue Reporter. He reveals the editorial mindset on east Europe.
“For stories which are about issues in foreign countries - Romania, Bulgaria - it’s an attitude that [tabloid newspapers] can write what they want because - what are [Romanians and Bulgarians] going to do?" says Peppiatt. "They are probably not going to read it, and if they do, they are only some Romanians or Bulgarians. Are they going to complain? Are they going to sue? No. the standards of verifying become even lower [than at home]. They are even more dehumanised than anyone else because they are so far away. They don’t know how to complain, so it becomes: 'whatever - just write it'.”
Tabloid journalists are subject to time pressures and have to produce up to six stories a day. Usually this means at least one story targeting immigrants. And if the news desk has a lead on this topic - it has to be proven - and fast, by any means possible.
Peppiatt says there is classic tabloid technique to lend credence to a questionable story.
"Forget all the research to see if it is true or not, but call up an MP or a think tank, and say we are hearing there are these Bulgarians trying to smuggle themselves into the country on airships, for example, and they would provide a quote such as ‘that’s just another example of a failed immigration policy'," says the former reporter. "Now you’ve got a story, it doesn’t matter that nothing has happened. You can pick anything out of the air, but as soon as you have an official, that’s a story. You don’t need facts."
In Britain, leading rightwing newspapers The Sun, The Star, The Daily Mail and the Daily Express lead the assault in producing stories that have denigrated Romania.
In 2013, The Daily Mail published a report into the “immigration wave” from Romania and Bulgaria. It quotes “Homeless Romanian Gypsies” in Bucharest who “intend to come to work in the UK”.
It is February. It is cold. One of the men is scarred in the face by burns and has only one arm, another is shirtless, while a third wears a tatty ‘Manchester United’ hat. They live on filthy blankets next to a hot water pipe in the city’s southern Ferentari neighbourhood.
The Daily Mail says the district is filled with “marauding gangs of children” and the women are too poor to afford overcoats, so “place dressing gowns over their clothes to walk to corner stores”. This man in the football cap, Iordan Nel, says he will “move to the UK to find work”.
After the report was published, local journalist Stefan Mako sought out the men at the pipe. “They were dead drunk,” he says. “They no longer remembered what had happened. They said: ‘Yes, the [journalists] came and made some pictures. They brought sandwiches and brought us something to drink’. The men were destroyed. They could only walk a few hundred metres to a kiosk and buy a drink and that was their life. They were maximum homeless.”
The Daily Mail’s fixer asked them if they wanted to go to work in the UK.
“Why not?” said the men. “If there is money, why not?”
Both The Sun and the Daily Mail also inflate potential migrant statistics on Romania. In October 2012, Alex Gore in the Daily Mail states: “British jobs could be at risk when nearly 30 million Bulgarians and Romanians gain the right to live and work unrestricted in the UK from 2014.”
The next month, journalist for The Sun Nick Francis comes with a similar figure: “An EU law means that from 2014, more than 29 million people from [Bulgaria and Romania] will be entitled to apply for any UK job.”
These numbers imply that every man, woman, child and pensioner, including the handicapped, every public and private servant in Romania and its entire diaspora are preparing to flood the UK with job applications.
In February 2013 veteran Eurosceptic commentator Trevor Kavanagh opines in The Sun: “Tens of thousands [of Romanians and Bulgarians] have already settled in Britain. They run vice gangs and operate Fagin-style begging rings whose children bring in huge sums from soft-hearted Brits.”
With this sequence of phrases, Kavanagh implies that every single Romanian and Bulgarian in the UK are selling prostitutes or asking for cash on a street corner.
For the last decade, The Daily Mail, Daily Express. The Star and The Sun have been the most vocal papers supporting Britain’s exit from the European Union - Brexit.
These articles, accompanied by inaccurate and defamatory photographs of the poor, sick and vulnerable, imply that EU expansion was a failure.
Jon Danzig is a journalist who has specialised in the implications of fake news in the British media about Romania on public policy in the UK.
He says the prejudiced angle comes from the rich press barons who set the agenda for their newspapers.
“I don’t think this is coming from the journalists,” says Danzig. “Some journalists on these newspapers have told me that their stories have been changed or the headline has been put forward that changes the slant to the story.”
But Rich Peppiatt, formerly of The Star, says it is more subtle.
"Everything is unsaid. No one in the editorial department is standing in the middle of the newsroom saying: 'Give me an anti-immigrant story'. But at the same time every day in the paper there is an anti-immigrant story," he says. "Everyone has their hand in, but no one takes responsibility. A thousands hands working together to ill ends. Everyone turns their little cog: 'I’m doing my job, if I wasn’t, someone else would'. So the machine keeps rattling on."
But the key reason for this agenda is not necessarily the anti-foreign sentiment of the proprietors.
It is money.
“This is the commercial decision,” says Danzig. “If the newspapers didn’t have customers for this type of story, they would change their story and do something else... Unfortunately in Britain we have a core section of society which doesn’t like foreigners... As a business proposition, selling untrue stories that promote xenophobia is a winning story for business.”
If there is a trend in attacking Romanians, many papers will follow this.
“I suspect it will change,” says Danzig. “It used to be Polish. It shifted from Poles to Romanians. It has shifted a lot to Muslims. I don’t think it’s personal to a nation. They are looking for good stories and they will do things that are flavour of the day.”
When we speak to Danzig, he gives an example of how this editorial line has infected the British psyche. That morning he was taking breakfast at his local gym near London.
A friend of his is looking through the papers at a story which says the UK could be opening up its borders to American migrants.
He tells Danzig it would be "better if we had Americans, not Europeans - because we won’t have those Romanians".
"What’s wrong with Romanians?" asks Danzig.
"I saw a programme which said 90 per cent of fraud on ATM machines is by Romanian gangs," says his friend.
"Many Romanians doing highly skilled jobs in the UK," says Danzig. "We have over 4,000 Romanian doctors and nurses working for NHS and we couldn’t do without them."
But this view is difficult to shift.
“The whole combination of newspaper misreporting and lies about Romanians and the EU has lead the UK to where it is now," says Danzig. "It’s not just about Brexit anymore, it’s about what type of country Britain wants to be.”
The British public has little trust in the newspapers. They rarely believe every word written inside their pages. But they keep buying them. And when the headlines attack immigrants or contain unverifiable stories on foreigners, they still keep buying them.
So the newspapers keep producing such stories.
“It’s a chicken and egg scenario," says Peppiatt, "are these issues being stoked up by the press or are they from the public? I don’t have an answer to that. I think it’s a mix of the two. But it’s a death-spiral of ignorance.”