By Linus Rees

Tunnel vision. The media descended on Fitzrovia and saw only what they wanted to. Photo: The Really Free School
Tunnel vision. The media descended on Fitzrovia and saw only what they wanted to. Photo: The Really Free School

It’s easy to understand why The Really Free School have contempt for the media when they portray social reality as something quite unlike it actually is. All the mainstream press when reporting the news story about Guy Richie’s house being occupied by squatters have given the impression that Fitzrovia is “upmarket” and home to just millionaires and celebrities.

Even an email sent out to subscribers of The Guardian’s Society newsletter called Fitzrovia “well-heeled“.

Fitzroy Square is home to many privileged people but Fitzrovia as a whole is not universally well off. It is also home to the poor and marginalised.

Like many of London’s neighbourhoods, Fitzrovia is a mixed area where there is a wide disparity of wealth. There are many people living in council and housing association properties as well as many residents living in poor quality private rented accommodation. There has been a history of campaigning for more affordable and social housing by the many community groups that have established themselves here over the past 40 years. The message from those campaigns is just as relevant today.

A short distance from Fitzroy Square there are several hundred people over 65 years of age of limited economic means living in a relatively poor quality environment and with access to few services and who are often lonely, yet have lived all of their lives here. The whole of Fitzrovia in statistical terms is characterised as environmentally deprived. There is a recognised lack of public open space and what space there is is heavily used.

Fitzroy Square itself is an example of this social divide and lack of public amenity. Unlike many other green spaces in London, it is kept locked for most of the time and only privileged key-holders have access to it. But none of the journalists hanging around outside number 34-35 Fitzroy Square seemed to notice this, nor the crumbling building of bedsits less than 100m away.

Bedford Square not far away on the other side of Tottenham Court Road is similarly kept under lock and key. Both Squares have had renovations recently paid for by Camden Council. These are the only two garden squares in the area and they are both kept locked.

In Fitzrovia hostels that support vulnerable people are due to be shut and community services are under threat because of the government cuts.

What The Really Free School has done is take a house that was not being used and created a space where ordinary people could get together and learn from each other and draw attention to the state of education in Britain. Instead, the press focussed laser-like on the fact the house is owned by film maker Guy Ritchie. None of the press reported that the School had previously occupied an empty house in Bloomsbury Square, put on educational events, left peacefully and returned the place undamaged without its owner having to go to court to seek possession. Neither did the press take much interest in the many progressive activities that are taking place in the School in Fitzroy Square.

A BBC reporter took exception to being thrown out when he was rumbled and The Telegraph grumbled about not being let in. Why do the press think they have a right to be inside when they are clearly incapable of reporting facts that are there for all to see or can’t be bothered to look for?

In reporting this news story they have not only done a disservice to the creative and inspiring young men and women who have set up this free school but also to the thousands of people living in Fitzrovia and the many hard-working voluntary organisations which try to relieve poverty and improve the lot of ordinary people.

These young people are a credit to their generation and we would do well, in the short time that they will be in Fitzrovia, to listen to their voices and embrace their enthusiasm for trying to bring about a better society.

The author is chair of trustees, Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association

14 replies on “Fitzrovia, Guy Ritchie, The Really Free School, and contempt for the media”

  1. Thanks for this article which does indeed put a very different slant on the “squatter” story from that generally available in “the meeja”.

    I don’t know whether there has ever really been an impartial press but when you see the tons of newsprint (not to mention hours of radio and TV “news” reports) consumed daily, one cannot but feel depressed at the thought of how the public is being fed biased views and factually wrong information on virtually every subject under the sun. Reports such as your are therefore vitally important but usually receive very little circulation.

  2. Obviously the way forward is celebrity squats. The straight media seem incapable of covering any social movement without either a) some kind of ‘stardust’ attached or b) violence.

    It is worth remembering the Savoy Hotel squat after the end of World War II – I’ve seen a picture of people hauling food up in buckets there but can’t find it on the web at the moment. There is a chapter devoted to ‘Post-war squatters’ in ‘Squatting: the real story’ 1980.

    Studs Terkel interviewed Jean Wood about her experiences in London during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985):
    “The housing was terrible. When the men came back from service and found their wives sleeping in these subway shelters and weeks went on, they took over the Savoy Hotel and became squatters. It was the best hotel in London at the time. The working people rallied around them. They went to these big hotels and the servicemen would let down buckets on ropes and we all put what bits of food we had in them. They occupied those hotels for ages. The authorities were petrified. They thought it was going to be Bolshevism or something. The squatting went on spasmodically for about six months. Then they put up prefabricated houses. They built them in one day. Every available construction worker was busy putting up these houses.”

  3. I also made a comment on the Independent article which described Fitzrovia as “upmarket”

    In the published comment I said:

    Fitzroy Square is “upmarket” but Fitzrovia is not. Like much of London it has wide disparities of wealth and deprivation. London may be a rich city but it has some of the worst social and economic deprivation in the UK.

    Why is it important to point this out? Reporting like this does a lot of damage to voluntary organisations working to improve the lot of poor and marginalised people. Currently voluntary organisations face huge challenges because of government cuts. This report describing Fitzrovia as upmarket comes at a time when we are trying to find the funds to provide community services and poverty relief. It makes our job much harder.

    Linus Rees

  4. Thanks for the article – its good to hear both sides of the story, if only the mainstream media were interested in telling both sides and letting the audience make their own minds up – obviously its difficult to be objective in everything all the time, but if it’s your job and your reporting influences the people who access it, than that should be the goal of the work – not to sell newspapers on popularist issues, or making situations seem worse or hype them more than they are worth. Anyway, good job!

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