Govanhill takes in just one square mile of the south of Glasgow, its rows of sandstone tenements bounded by railway lines, stations and in Queen’s Park, one of the city’s finest outdoor spaces. A more contemporary addition is the M74 motorway extension, whose ugly pillars overhang the approach to the area from the north, scything it from the city centre.
Over the past decade, however, the area has taken on a cultural significance far outweighing its modest size. This is not Govanhill the place, but more about Govanhill as an idea, a fixation, a recurring meme that pervades online discussions, newspaper comment sections and radio phone-ins on a vast array of issues seemingly little to do with a few streets in urban Glasgow.
It has become a byword for any number of social ills in modern Scotland, from human trafficking and sexual abuse to exploitative landlords, fly-tipping and overcrowding. The area has long been a magnet for new arrivals in the city and references to the Roma community, a few thousand of whom are settled in the area, are never far away, and nor are mentions of Nicola Sturgeon, who is the local MSP and, since 2014, the First Minister.
In a chapter in recent “state of the nation” compendium A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On, Katie Gallogly-Swan writes that Govanhill was “ignored by the national media” until they discovered they could use it as a way to discredit Sturgeon.
Certainly, if we can use Holyrood as a proxy for society’s concerns, Govanhill was rarely mentioned in parliament prior to Sturgeon’s 2007 Glasgow Southside win. Between 2003 and 2007, Scottish Parliament records show Govanhill being referred to just nine times. But in the next session, between 2007 and 2011, a staggering 164 mentions of Govanhill were recorded during official business.
It was a public petition put forward to the parliament by Govanhill Housing Association in late 2008 which indicated the situation was coming to a head, urging action to be taken to improve housing – already substandard but now coping with large numbers of Eastern European migrants. “The population has increased from 10,000 to 14,000 or 16,000—depending on which statistics are used—over the past three years,” the petitions committee was told.
A decade on, and Govanhill has rarely left the headlines. Its profile, not least given the First Minister’s presence in the area, has meant it has also caught the attention of those with particular agendas.
Two days before the UK went to the polls in June 2017, a short film appeared online from a young director, a dedicated website showcasing the snappy, Vice-style documentary. With shots of urban decay set against a thumping soundtrack, filmmaker Sophie Sandor promised “a glimpse of Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency before the 2017 Election, exposing the SNP’s failure to live up to its own rhetoric after taking the power and the money into its own hands”.
Over six and a half minutes, we saw the inevitable shots of dilapidated tenements and filthy closes, alongside brief interviews with two local activists. “Nicola has yet to set foot in any of these slum back courts of Govanhill and take one of her famous selfies,” we heard.
The film, simply titled “Govanhill”, was quickly picked up on social media by figures including the Scottish Daily Mail columnist Stephen Daisley and Blairite advisor John McTernan, who offered glowing reviews. The Daily Express, too, took notice. “This is great. Is it okay for us to use your video to write a story?”, the newspaper’s account tweeted at Sandor, as if to illustrate how journalism works in 2017. “Sure,” came the reply, and the article – “STURGEON’S SQUALOR: Anger at filthy slum where SNP leader’s constituents live” – was up shortly after.
National press coverage and praise from prominent commentators – not bad for a first time filmmaker. Of course, this would be overlooking that Sandor is, in fact, a staffer for the Institute of Economic Affairs, the London-based free market think tank described by journalist Andrew Marr as “the most influential in modern British history” yet which has been lambasted by critics for refusing to reveal the sources of its funding. She has previously worked for another influential right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, and the unionist campaign Better Together.
Sandor, the aspiring filmmaker, is clear that the film was a personal project and not related to her employer, but is nonetheless open about her intentions. “I’m not trying to be impartial,” she told me. Sandor’s view is that the current approach of pumping money in to prop up “old falling down buildings” is not working. Rather, her answers would involve “gentrification”, opening up land elsewhere for more, cheaper housebuilding, and “capitalism… things like Uber and chains coming in and making things cheaper and more efficient”, which can make “life better for everyone in the area.”
Sandor has now moved on to a second film project, about the positives of gentrification in Brixton, while her debut effort continues to appear embedded in fresh Express hit pieces. One of those interviewed in the film, Jim Monaghan of Govanhill Baths, was less than happy with his portrayal. “It’s awful. My interview completely misused, I told interviewer of Nicola Sturgeon’s consistent support for Govanhill Baths and Govanhill,” he commented after its release.
It was fitting that the film was seized upon so quickly the Daily Express. Since early 2016, the paper has – through headlines like “The great Roma home giveaway” and “Sturgeon’s EU slum: Squalor, filth and sex crime in constituency branded SHAME OF SCOTLAND” – been churning out a regular concoction of sensational stories about Govanhill. Much of this has been supplied ready made by locally divisive, self-styled activists “Let’s Save Govanhill”, with distant scribes embellishing scraps of video footage or social media posts into clickable content. They are far from the only newspaper guilty of this – in October, several sites including MailOnline and the Daily Record, furnished articles out of an exploitative, context free clip lasting 40 seconds that appeared to show two Roma women fighting – but they have been the most consistent.
In April 2016, the Sunday Express carried an article by Professor Tom Gallagher, a former Reagan-Fascell scholar for the high profile American neocon thinktank the National Endowment for Democracy, and a retired professor of politics at Bradford University, who had spent a day in Govanhill. Gallagher has a long history of skirmishes with the SNP, having spent the mid-2000s going after the party for perceived links to Islamism. Whatever his past grudges, since taking up the cause the Professor has offered an academic underpinning – and credibility – to some of the more commonly held ideas of Govanhill “truthers”, including that there has been a political and media conspiracy, with the SNP at its core, to “cover up” the reality of Govanhill.
It would be tempting to dismiss the ramblings of and in the Express as an anachronism – a dying print organ obsessed with outlandish weather forecasts and Princess Di, and read exclusively by an ever diminishing number of pensioners. But the newspaper, which was bought over by the Mirror group on Friday, is at the forefront of shareable online news in the UK. Analysis by Buzzfeed of viral articles in 2016 showed the newspaper as behind the “single most shared referendum-related news story” of any outlet during the EU referendum.
Like the sensationalist American websites – Breitbart et al – which came to the fore during the US elections, the Express can at times display a similarly scant regard for the truth. In terms of social reach, the most popular article written about Theresa May by anyone, anywhere, in 2016, was a pre-election Express piece displaying the implausible headline: “Theresa May says many Britons ‘BENEFIT GREATLY’ from Sharia Law”.
Rather than outright fake news, the Buzzfeed analysis concluded, the British public tends to “prefer stories from established UK news outlets that relied on exaggerating facts and taking quotes out of context.” So the Express’ keen interest in Govanhill, which extends to cultivating links within the opaque universe of right wing academia and “thinktankistan”, cannot – and should not – be dismissed so easily. When it suits its agenda, the newspaper has also been willing to stretch the facts.
“Figures obtained by the Sunday Express show there have been 184 rapes in the area in the past five years, the highest number in Glasgow, and 382 sexual assaults, second only to the city centre,” the paper thundered in October 2016, the headline referring to Sturgeon’s “SQUALID” constituency and the accompanying photos, videos and captions all featuring Govanhill.
But while the story was clearly talking about Govanhill, the crux of the article – the data – was not. What the paper didn’t mention was that the figures were for the Glasgow South East police command area, which covers Govanhill but also vast swathes of the southside, including Castlemilk, Mount Florida, Cathcart, Shawlands and Pollokshields. That much of this area is miles from Govanhill, and outwith Sturgeon’s constituency, was overlooked.
The figures are, of course, horrifying, and need to be viewed in the context of the vast majority of sexual crimes going unreported, not least among communities where there may be language barriers and a distrust of the police that prevents victims from coming forward.
But it is a powerful example of how data can be skewed – in this case to indicate that Govanhill was an extreme, an outlier, and accounted for a disproportionate number. The figure has since made its way into tweets, images and shareable content on social media. The idea that Govanhill is a hotbed of crime – including sexual crime – is widely repeated and given credence by the purported police figures published by the Express, only ever a quick Google away.
There is more in this vein. Tom Gallagher has written that problems in Govanhill trace their origins to a “Faustian pact” between the City Council and Home Office that lined the pockets of local officials and saw incomers from Eastern Europe pour into Govanhill. While conveniently playing into prevailing myths of migrant handouts and council kleptocrats, the allegation is as spectacular as it is without substance. While Glasgow has housed asylum seekers since the early 2000s, subsidised by central government, it is widely acknowledged that Govanhill’s rapid population growth came after EU expansion in 2007. It is, in other words, not about refugees, not least given that poorly regulated private lets are at the heart of the issue, rather than state-contracted refugee housing.
When I approached Gallagher for evidence of his claim in November, as well as his wider belief about a cover up, he declined the opportunity to provide any information. “You predictably home in on issues which defenders of the record of the establishment, like Councillor Mhairi Hunter, have already flagged up,” he said.
It turns out that Hunter, an SNP councillor in the area, has previously pulled Gallagher up about this. The professor responded to her that if he was guilty of repeating an urban myth, his crime was “venial” compared to other goings on in Govanhill. Hunter would later be vilified in an online Express article as “ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING” for “laughing at hardship in Sturgeon area”, after posting an offhand tweet about fly-tipping appearing to be “neat”.
It can be little surprise, then, that some on the extreme right have also now latched on to the issue. In now deleted tweets, an account calling itself “Real Govanhill” frequently adopted the language of the US alt-right, and pleaded with far right media figures like Paul Joseph Watson, Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson to visit the area and “expose” the truth. In January, a Scottish Defence League spokesperson told the Sunday Herald of their intention to hold a demonstration in the area. The man behind a series of “Missing” posters featuring Nicola Sturgeon, that appeared around Govanhill in March 2017 and were dubbed “hilarious” by the Scottish press, were the work of one Alistair McConnachie. He is a familiar figure on the Scottish far right, as profiled on this website in 2014, who was famously expelled from UKIP for questioning the Holocaust, and worked as a consultant for the Orange Order during the indyref.
Colin Clark, a sociology professor at UWS, wrote several years ago that there is a “long list of speculative allegations, wild gossip and persistent, unproven rumours circulating with regard to the various Roma communities in Govanhill”. This once again came to the fore following disputed allegations of children being sold for sex on the street in a Times investigation in November – which, whatever the merits of the original investigation, rapidly degenerated into the latest media circus in the area.
Given the media focus on the area, the often uncertain evidence presented, and the constant drive for sensationalism, it is not hard to see how these rumours have effectively taken on a life of their own, repeated in pubs and local gossip yet reportedly leaving the authorities perplexed.
When coupled with the polarised political environment in Scotland around both the SNP and Brexit , a dynamic which collides in Govanhill, the attempts by the right to weaponise the area – for a heady combo of clickbait, careerism, controversy and contrarianism – become easier to comprehend.