- 1 Section 1: The Press Coverage
- 2 Section 2: My indignant letters
- 3 Meanwhile...
- 4 Then on to the TV
Section 1: The Press Coverage
Squatters taught to pick locks by council leaflet
By Rosa Prince, Daily Star
Squatters are being given advice on how to break into empty properties and set up home without paying rent, in a council-recommended handbook. The £2 booklet, issued by the Advisory Service for Squatters, gives tips on removing locks, and suggests that those caught breaking in to a property should claim they are “clearing drains”.
In a section on legal advice, squatters are told to put a notice on the door warning it is a criminal offence to evict the new residents, and to threaten any homeowner who objects with the words: “You may receive a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment.”
A number of councils across the country are steering local people who do not have a home to the Advisory Service through links on their websites. They include Hackney, Islington, Brent and Camden in London, as well as Durham and Doncaster. The Home Office also consults the group on its equality policies.
The guide positively encourages people to become squatters, with advice such as: “Only a small minority of squatters ever get nicked – squatting is not a crime. “If anyone says it is, they are wrong. With a few exceptions, if you can get into an empty building without doing any damage, and can secure it, you can make it your home. Private houses may provide years of housing to lucky squatters.”
Eric Pickles, the Conservative local government spokesman, said he was appalled that councils were helping potential squatters get advice on breaking into empty properties. He added: “Homeowners will be horrified that town halls are giving squatters the green light to break into law-abiding citizens’ homes.”
£2 SQATTERS GUIDE HAS TIPS ON BURGLARY
3rd June 2008 , Telegraph By Marianna Partasides
BARMY town hall bosses are telling squatters how to break into houses using top tips from a £2 handbook. Councils around Britain refer homeless people to the Advisory Service for Squatters to get help on finding somewhere to live. The lobby group issues step-by-step guidelines on how to get into a property and squat without being thrown out. The tell-all handbook explains how to force entry through the back door, how to take locks apart and why you need a crowbar.
Squatters are given advice on legal rights and told once they are in to put up a warning which states it is a criminal offence to remove them using force. Home-owners who try to remove squatters should be told: “You may receive a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment and/ or a fine of up to £5,000.” The Home Office also consults the group on equality issues.
Shadow local government secretary, Eric Pickles, said: “Home-owners will be horrified that town halls are giving squatters the green light to break into law-abiding citizens’ homes. Promoting such lawlessness is breathtaking.”
Housing department websites at a number of councils, including Dur-ham and Doncaster, as well as Hackney, Islington and Brent in London, refer people with nowhere to live to the service. The group’s handbook also boasts: “Private homes may provide years of housing to lucky squatters.”
Councils show squatters where they can find out how to break in
By James Chapman, Daily Mail
Town halls are referring would-be squatters to a far-Left group selling a £2 DIY guide on how to break into and occupy empty homes. The squatters' handbook advises them to force entry through back entrances or open windows, carry a crowbar and claim they are 'clearing the drains' if stopped.
The guide, from the Advisory Service for Squatters, describes how to take apart locks and fit new ones. It also recommends putting a legal warning on the door stating it is a criminal offence to try to remove squatters by force. Homeowners who threaten to do so should be intimidated by being told: 'You may receive a sentence of up to six months' imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000'.
The housing departments of councils such as Durham and Doncaster as well as Hackney, Islington, Brent, Camden and Hounslow in London, refer those who do not have a house to the Advisory Service for Squatters via their websites. The Home Office also consults the organisation on its equality policies.
The squatters' handbook advises:
• Break in during the day and wear council-style overalls to avoid suspicion. • Deactivate alarm sensors with Sellotape and muffle the sound of alarm bells with a few coats. • Once the home is secured, get the kettle on. • Apply for council tax benefit as soon as you move in. • Cite the Human Rights Act 1998 if the gas and electricity firm won't reconnect you. Cite the Water Industry Act 1999 if the water firm tries to disconnect you.
The guide boasts: 'Only a small minority of squatters ever get nicked - squatting is not a crime. If anyone says it is, they are wrong. With a few exceptions, if you can get into an empty building without doing any damage, and can secure it, you can make it your home.'
It adds: 'Private houses may provide years of housing to lucky squatters.'
Parliamentary questions by the Conservatives have revealed that Labour ministers have issued no recent guidance to the police or town halls on tackling squatters. Extraordinarily, the Government has no records on the number of squatters, but there is anecdotal evidence that the problem is increasing.
Figures from the Empty Homes Agency show that the number of vacant properties in England has risen by 20,000 in the past two years. The rise is being fuelled by a glut of flats, particularly in northern cities. Government planning policies have encouraged developers to build flats, rather than the family homes buyers want.
Eric Pickles, the Conservative local government spokesman, said he was appalled that councils were putting wouldbe squatters in touch with the a advisory service.
'Homeowners will be horrified that town halls are giving squatters the green light to break into law-abiding citizens' homes, and that a squatters' rights pressure group is recognised and consulted by the Home Office on "equality" policies,' he said.
'Promoting such lawlessness is breathtaking, but is sadly an indictment of social breakdown that has become rife under Labour and the prevalence of human rights laws.'
Section 2: My indignant letters
To Marianna Partasides of the Telegraph
Do you always research your pieces as thoroughly as you did with your bandwagon jumping non news article about the Squatters Handbook or were you just having an off day? I take it you didn't actual bother reading it yourself and just plagiarised some for the inaccuracies printed elsewhere. Well done. Makes me so proud to be a journalist.
reply from Marianna
hi there, thanks for the email,
Can you identify which inaccuracies you're referring to. And can you also identify yourself, I prefer to defend myself to named critics. If you're a fellow journo you shouldn't be shy.
my follow up reply
1. Headline inaccuracy "£2 SQATTERS GUIDE HAS TIPS ON BURGLARY"
I searched back and forth for 'tips on burglary' before finding the word even mentioned in the book somewhere in a general section on 'dealing with police' and their powers on search and entry. It certainly contained no tips on how to commit such an offence, which is the implication of your headline. Section 9 of the Theft Act 1968 says the offence of burglary is breaking and entry with the intent to commit steal something or attack people inside. A squatter has no such intention, if they did they would be burglars nor squatters and they'd probably be reading the Burglars Handbook (if such a thing exists) rather than the Squatters Handbook.
2. "BARMY town hall bosses are telling squatters how to break into houses using top tips from a £2 handbook."
I guess this is the usual editorial style of the Daily Star so I'll excuse the fact that you don't know that any specific 'town hall boss' is barmy (by which I guess you mean daft). However it is totally unfounded to say that town hall bosses are telling squatters how to breaking into house using tips from the handbook. What you appear to be referring to are contact details and sometimes web links to the Advisory Service for Squatters from the housing sections on some council websites. Hounslow for example merely provide a phone number while others provide more detail. None offer tips or any kind of extract from the Handbook (which doesn't appear online) and most if not all also specifically say that they do not endorse the services offered by any of the organisations they list. Of course these lists of services are not compiled or checked by 'town hall bosses' so the entire premise is disingenuous.
3. "The tell-all handbook explains how to force entry through the back door, how to take locks apart and why you need a crowbar."
Hmm.. Did you mean the section on 'Getting In' which says "first try the first floor windows around the back" or maybe the first page where it says "get in quietly without doing any damage"? Again, I failed to find any specific explanation on "how to force entry through the back door". I also found nothing explaining the why for a crowbar and just a brief mention that if caught in the street with such a tool you could claim to have borrowed it to clear your drains.
4. The group's handbook also boasts: "Private homes may provide years of housing to lucky squatters."
Classic example of selective quotation taken out of context from the section on finding a place, specifically the part explaining that mostly it is best to leave private housing alone ann look elsewhere. After explaining that occasionally you might find places literally left to rot, the full sentence reads, " In these rare circumstances, private homes may provide years of housing to lucky squatters."
So, there are the issues I have with what you wrote and I might add that, like the articles from the day earlier in the Telegraphy (worst of the bunch), and the Daily Mail, you failed to go beyond the deranged ranting of Eric Pickles to mention that it is not just Labour council websites that provide contact details for the ASS or question why council housing departments would be off loading homeless people into squatting rather than housing them as they are required by law to do.
Marianna replies again
Ben, I'm going to tackle each point individually, My notes are below. You have gone into a lot of detail for one story. I am flattered. But I question your reasons.
I don't write headlines. As a fellow journalist you should know this. Headline accuracy is a subject you will have to take up with someone else.
> 2. "BARMY town hall bosses are telling squatters how to break into > houses using top tips from a £2 handbook."
Barmy defines town hall bosses who are directing people via their websites to the ASS. Town Hall bosses is a generic term for decision makers in local councils. It is not 'totally unfounded' to make the link between Town Halls and the advice given out by people they tell you to go to for advice If you access the website or phone the ASS up the handbook is what you will be told to read.
> I also found nothing explaining the why for a crowbar and just > a brief mention that if caught in the street with such a tool you > could claim to have borrowed it to clear your drains.
A brief mention of the crowbar is all you need. They've mentioned it, so I have. The handbook explains more than one way to get in - I think I did them a favour by only mentioning one.
> 4. The group's handbook also boasts: "Private homes may provide years > of housing to lucky squatters." > Classic example of selective quotation taken out of context
The circumstances may be rare, but they still do exist. If you are a thief, but only take other people's possession rarely it does not make you any less a thief.
I didn't at any point refer to the councils being only Labour. I merely defined them as councils. The entire story is in itself questioning why councils are offloading homeless people into squatting.
My final comments
Thanks for taking the time to reply. Taking my concerns as flattery is quite a leap of logic but take it as you will. My motives are simple, I despair at what passes for journalism and your piece on this story was rank. I am not a writer, I am a freelance photojournalist - I also happen to be a squatter (although the story isn't really about squatting at all).
> I don't write headlines. As a fellow journalist you should know this. > Headline accuracy is a subject you will have to take up with someone else.
I suggest you might like to take it up with that 'someone else' as it's your name that appears under those bullshit headlines.
> It is not 'totally unfounded' to make the link between Town Halls and the advice > given out by people they tell you to go to for advice > If you access the website or phone the ASS up the handbook is what you will be told to read.
That's you opinion. Mine clearer differs.
> A brief mention of the crowbar is all you need. They've mentioned it, so I have. > The handbook explains more than one way to get in - I think I did them a favour by only mentioning one.
A mention of a crowbar in one context is not the same as an explanation for why one might be useful. You do nobody any favours by making stuff up.
> The circumstances may be rare, but they still do exist. If you are a thief, but only take other people's possession rarely > it does not make you any less a thief.
That's irrelevant. You took part of a sentence from one place and used it out of context in promote an unrepresentative and prejudicial position.
> I didn't at any point refer to the councils being only Labour. I merely defined them as councils.
Sure, but Eric Pickles was specifically criticising the actions and policies of the labour party and your article was a response to his political opportunism. It certainly suggests a political bias on your part (or the part of you publication) to allow his selective accusations to go unchallenged when covering the story.
> The entire story is in itself questioning why councils are offloading homeless people into squatting.
Really? I must have missed that in my outrage at the misquoting and misrepresentation of squatting in your article. That's a shame as I would have been really interested to read an article that looked at why local authority housing departments, homeless charities and mental health organisations are increasingly dumping their duty of care onto people living in squats.
Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to reply.
To Rosa Prince and the editor of the Daily Star
Of all the articles covering this story this week, the article by Rosa Prince was by far the worse, infact one of the poorest examples of journalism I have had the misfortune to come across. Right from the start the piece is inaccurate and deliberately inflammatory. The headline for example "Squatters taught to pick locks by council leaflet", that's simply a lie! There is no council leaflet teaching squatters to pick lock. The Squatter Handbook (in it's 12 edition) is produced by the non-profit voluntary organisation, the Advisory Service for Squatters (with a thirty year history behind it) and has absolutely nothing to do any council. Furthermore, there is nothing in the handbook which teaches anyone how to pick locks (a subject well beyond the scope of such a booklet).
The article goes on to claim that the handbook (or council leaflet if you live in the fantasy world of Rosa Prince) suggests that those caught breaking in to a property should claim they are "clearing drains". Needless to say it does nothing of the kind. The reference actually refers to the part of the book where it says that if stopped in the street while carrying a crowbar, you could claim to have borrowed it for clearing your drains.
Then there is the blatant inflammatory use of a partial quote "Private homes may provide years of housing to lucky squatters". This has been taken completely out of context from the chapter on 'Fnding a Place', specifically the section explaining that mostly it is best to leave private housing alone and look elsewhere. After explaining that occasionally you might find private houses forgotten and literally left to rot, the full sentence reads, "In these rare circumstances, private homes may provide years of housing to lucky squatters."
The article cynically uses the out of context partial quote in order to play on individuals fear that their own homes may be squatted but the vast majority of squatting takes place in commercial premises, government or public sector housing.
Along with the typical anti squatter bias, the article seems to be aiding Eric Pickles party posturing by selectively listing only Labour dominated council websites which provide contact details for the Advisory Service for Squatters. The piece conveniently ignores Torry sites doing the same and no mention is made that the CityOfLondon.gov.uk site also provides links to the ASS. This wasn't a news piece at all, just an unchallenged rehash of Eric Pickles ranting.
It would have been nice if the article had put squatting put into the context of rising homelessness, the credit crunch and spiralling mortgage repossessions along with some consideration about why council housing departments would be palming homeless people off into squatting rather than housing them as they are required by law to do.
What more can I say - the Telegraph should print an apology and correction.
To James Chapman and the editor of the Daily Mail
I am outraged at the article of 2nd June titled "Councils show squatters where they can find out how to break in". It is full of misrepresentation of facts and a classic example of shoddy journalism. It is clearly deliberately inflammatory with partial quotes taken completely out of context. For example, having quoted the 'getting in' section on page 9 (which reads "Only a small minority of squatters ever get nicked - squatting is not a crime. If anyone says it is, they are wrong. With a few exceptions, if you can get into an empty building without doing any damage, and can secure it, you can make it your home"), the article claims that the guide adds, "Private houses may provide years of housing to lucky squatters". The key here is the controversial issue of squatting private houses but the two quotes are deliberately presented in reverse order from different chapters of the book. The later is actually a partial quote taken completely out of context from the Chapter 'Finding a Place'. Specifically, the line comes from the part explaining that mostly it is best to leave private housing alone and look elsewhere. After explaining that occasionally you might find private places forgotten and literally left to rot, the full sentence actually reads, "In these rare circumstances, private homes may provide years of housing to lucky squatters". The articles cynically manipulates these quotes in order to play on individuals fear that their own homes may be squatted but the vast majority of squatting takes place in commercial premises, government or public sector housing.
Further to the normal anti squatter agenda, the article seems to be aiding Eric Pickles anti Labour vendetta by selectively listing only Labour run council websites which provide contact details for the Advisory Service for Squatters and conveniently ignoring Torry sites doing the same. No mention that the CityOfLondon.gov.uk site also provides links to the ASS or that the booklet has been around for decades and is in it's 12th edition. This wasn't a news piece at all, just an unchallenged rehash of Eric Pickles ranting.
It would have been nice to squatting put into the context of the credit crunch and rising mortgage repossessions with some consideration about why council housing departments would be palming homeless people off into squatting rather than housing them as they are require by law to do.
What more can I say, incredibly disappointing and a sad illustration of the state of British journalism.
A google search for councils websites which provide contact details for the Advisory Service for Squatters revealed a couple of surprising entries which the articles had failed to mention... Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead - http://www.rbwm.gov.uk/web/social_advocacy_national_support_and_advice.htm City of London - http://fypsd.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Service.aspx?serviceid=%7Ba75ec16b-195c-4323-aca9-133042a3b56b%7D
Of those mentioned, some had already appeared to react to the bad publicity. For example, the page on the Islington Council site found on the 2nd of June was missing by the 3rd.
"Unable to retrieve document from 'http://www.islington.gov.uk/Directories/page.aspx?dir=LTCS&dir_name=LTCS&docid=0901336c805a4d6e': 500 Internal Server Error"
I wrote the follwing Email to Islington Council to see what their reply would be...
"Please tell me I am wrong but when I tried to visit the following page on your website (linked below via google cache) I found it unavailable yet it was there tthe day before so I wondered if the fact it was missing was a response to the inaccurate rantings of some of the right wing newspapers yesterday about 'labour' councils promotion of squatting? Please tell me that is not what has happened? You do realise that torry run councils also provide links to the Advisory Service for Squatters and so does the City Of London government website? Removing the link would suggest you'd done something wrong which is nonsense and I hope Islington council has a little more backbone than to cave into moronic opportunist like Eric Pickles. "
... but have received no reply.
Then on to the TV
The non-news story was taken up the next day on Channel Fives 'The Wright Stuff' produced by Princess TV. Their researcher spammed a few squat related mailing lists and addresses with the following:
Hi there, I work on The Wright Stuff, a news and current affairs discussion show on Five. Tomorrow we will be pegging the news story from todays paper about the handbook Councils are giving out to people who do not have a house, containing advise on how to squat.
A quote in the Daily Mail article states that 'Eric Pickles, the Conservative local government spokesman, said he was appalled that councils were putting would be squatters in touch with the a advisory service.' 'Homeowners will be horrified that town halls are giving squatters the green light to break into law-abiding citizens' homes, and that a squatters' rights pressure group is recognised and consulted by the Home Office on "equality" policies, ' he said.'Promoting such lawlessness is breathtaking, but is sadly an indictment of social breakdown that has become rife under Labour and the prevalence of human rights laws.'
The item will be a general discussion on 'Whats Wrong with Squatting?' So within this discussion we would love to have someone in the studio with experience of squatting. I was wondering if you are able to assist me with my enquiry for tomorrows show?
Already angered by the inaccuracies in the newspaper articles, I wrote to here to point out the inaccuracies compounded in her own email in the hope that they would not be further propagated. A brief exchange of emails followed, then some phone calls as I tried to figure out whether it would be worth appearing on the program or not. I've done quite a few bits of telly before in the past so was fairly confident I wouldn't turn into a completely incoherent fool when a camera was stuck in my face. While the research sounded genuine, I couldn't rule out that it might be a stitch up however the show is live so there could be no nasty post editing surprises - in fact I figured I could be the one to pull a fast one if need be.
To help me decide I checked out a little more about the show, which the researcher insisted it isn't a chat show (although it blatantly is). It is presented by Matthew Wright who I vaguely remember seeing on TV - either a very long time ago when I actually had one or more recently when I've watched it at a friends place. I did a little googling and found he had a reputation of shouting people down and cutting them off when their opinion differed from his. He used to write for both the Sun and the Mirror but I couldn't find anything he'd written about squatters and nothing in my quick search to suggest that his political views were especially unpleasant. I got the impression that he'd be intelligent but a bit of a lad.
The researcher told me that each day there is a celebrity panel and on this day it would be Lowri Turner, David Ian and Andy Abraham. Yeah, I hadn't heard of any of them before either so I did some quick research on each to see if there would be any nasty surprises. David Ian was clearly fairly right wing and has a second home in France so I suspected he would be anti squatter. Lowri Turner seemed to come across as a bit of a liberal with a tendency to make politically incorrect statements generating the kind of controversy that would ensure her place on endless TV panel shows but I couldn't guess what position she'd take on squatting. Finally, Andy Abraham was working class family man of African decent who was now infamous for loosing in the last Eurovision and dubbed 'the singing dustman' in the media. I guessed he'd read either the Sun or Mirror and could come down on either side of the issue depending on how the issue was presented.
Nothing seemed to suggest a stitch up at this stage and the producer phoned me to clarify the format and check a few details. I was intrigued to learn that they legal department had said I couldn't appear on the show is I was connected to the Advisory Service for Squatters, or if I had any conviction. Anyway, with little time left to make a decision I spoke to everyone I could at the squat to get their opinions and was surprised that most people seemed to think it was a good idea to go for it - so I did.
A late night cramming some facts, figures and history then a hideously early morning to ensure I reached the est london studio for 8am. I opted to break squatter stereotypes by wearing jeans (knowing it would be head shots only) with a shirt and suit jacket (the only suit I poses and actually intended for court hearings). It pissed down with rain the moment I stepped off the train and by the time I reached the studio I looked like a drown rat which was not a great start. Once in the studio and shown to the green room I started to really fell the nerves but as the panel members arrived and we introduced each other I recovered a bit. Then Matthew arrived, somewhat dishevelled himself and it soon transpired he was feeling a little hungover after a long night out on the drink. Chatting with him it soon became clear that he was actually pro squatting with stories of friends squats in various places around London!
Matthew and the panel guests were taken on set and the producer popped in briefly and told me that she'd actually had to instruct Matthew to tone down his pro squat attitude for the show to 'keep it balanced'. I was then left alone with my butterflies for another twenty minutes before being taken on set during an ad break and seated among the small studio audience. Nerves were really kicking in now especially when the floor manager walked up to one of the women in the audience and asked if she was the woman with the nasty squatter story. She broke into some rant about her council flat, how it took months to get the squatter out and how they had been growing marijuana in her window boxes but just as I started to feel that actually this might all end up really unpleasant after all, Matthew shouted across the set something about how that story has nothing to do with the issues they wanted to discuss.
The ad break ended, the set was silenced and the show went live again and straight into the segment on squatting. The intro was something along these lines: "What is wrong with squatters? I ask this after it emerged various local councils are offering a helping hand to would-be squatters. They’re directing them to a service advising them on how to break into and occupy empty homes. The Tories are outraged about it. But with the number of empty properties up by 20,000 in the past two years, aren’t the landlords the real criminals here? Is there anything wrong with squatting? Or should everyone be forced to pay for a roof over their head?"
Matthew opened the question up to the panel initially and it quickly degenerated into some nonsense hypothetically discussion about somebody locking themselves in your car and eating their breakfast there. I started to despair but then Matthew turn the discussion over to me. I can't remember the question or what I said and people have told me since that my first response came across somewhat stilted and nervous but quickly picked up. I corrected some of the statistics given, added some more and pointed out some of the shortcoming in the previous days newspaper articles. The discussion went back to the panel and back to me. I remember saying something about the long history of squatting in this country and the advisory service for squatters had existed for decades.
The issue was opened up to phone in callers and instead of the barrage hate I expected from reading the comments on the Daily Mail and Telegraph websites it remained quite civil. The first women was pro squatting and raised important issues about social housing and homelessness. The other two callers were anti squatter but didn't bring up anything particularly damning. I was given another chance to comment and I remember attempting to challenge misconceptions about private houses being squatted along with criminal damage and thieving committed by squatters. I explained how some property owners destroy their own properties to discourage squatters and to help them justify planning consent for demolition.
There was plenty of other things I had been planning to say but time went by really quickly. The format had been very different from what the researcher had told me. She'd said the discussion would start with me being introduced and asked about three questions before discussion went over to the panel and finally the phones. I had prepared myself for flipping the questions and just getting down to saying what I wanted to say but ultimately I actually far preferred being part of the discussion, getting the chance to engage and reply as the discussion went on. However I always found myself reacting rather than leading and I'd try to do different I I was doing it again.
Anyway, it was a good experience and I know it challenges peoples perceptions of squatters. After the show a studio audience member turned to me and said, "you can't be a squatter, you certainly don't look like one".