In an industry where sensationalism sells and conflict gets clicks, you’ll shift more papers if a Gypsy did it. Campaigners say the demonisation of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the media has to stop.
“There are some bastions of absolutely crap, horrible, racist reporting out there among the national press”
Four years ago John Knott, a retired businessman living in a Herefordshire village, killed his wife, Anne, and then himself. As well as struggling with his wife’s worsening Alzheimer’s, he’d been fighting planning permission for three caravans in the field next to their £500,000 home.
The headlines laid the blame for the murder-suicide firmly at the door of 20-year-old Zoe Lee, the Romany Gypsy who’d dared to apply for planning permission: ‘Husband killed wife after Gypsy camp battle’, ‘Stress of battle against Travellers’ camp ends in tragic pensioner double suicide’ and ‘Gypsy camp stress ‘drove couple to suicide pact’ were some of the choicest. Every story needs a good villain, and what started as a tragedy then became a witch-hunt.
Mike Doherty, editor of the Travellers Times, a media platform for stories by and about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT), says this kind of misrepresentative, exaggerated coverage is typical.
“It’s starting to change for the better, but there are some bastions of absolutely crap, horrible, racist reporting out there among the national press,” he says.
The ‘last acceptable racism’ is fuelled by media demonisation
Romany Gypsies are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, while Irish Travellers were recognised as a distinct group in 2000. Both are protected by the 2010 Equalities Act. Despite this, GRT people remain some of the continent’s most targeted and socially deprived individuals, facing daily prejudice and racism that can be exacerbated by inaccurate and disproportionate media coverage. Even if stories are balanced – and some are – headlines alone can sow discontent, especially in the social media age when attention spans are limited.
Putting the word “Gypsy” or “Traveller” (usually in lowercase) in a headline is a surefire way of getting more clicks. Trudy Aspinwall, team manager at the GRT advocacy project Travelling Ahead, says Gypsies and Travellers are often seen as fair game. “There’s a deep-seated prejudice that still exists in society in relation to Gypsies and Travellers, and the press just reflects that and feeds it,” she says.
Aspinwall has stood on roadsides with families while people have driven past and yelled insults. She says the TV show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding led to a notable rise in bullying when it first aired. “They would hear those views reflected back at them at school, at youth clubs and in the street.”
Travellers are sick of getting blamed for the actions of a small minority, Doherty says. Only 16% of the 300,000 Roma and Travellers in the UK are on unauthorised encampments. “The rest are on either sites that they own – private sites with planning permission, paying taxes – or they’re on public sites paying rent to the council.
“But when you open a local newspaper and there are Gypsies and Travellers in it, it’ll be to do with the tensions and conflicts around unauthorised camps.”
GRT discrimination in numbers
Findings from the Traveller Movement’s ‘last acceptable racism’ report*
Here are some discoveries from an online survey of 214 GRT people aged 18+ across Britain. It was one of the largest surveys conducted among the UK’s GRT communities.
91% experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity
70% experienced discrimination in some aspect of education
49% experienced discrimination in some aspect of employment
30% experienced discrimination in relation to accessing healthcare
55% had been refused services because of their ethnicity
77% experienced hate speech or a hate crime
76% had hidden their ethnicity to avoid discrimination or prejudice
77% had not sought legal help after experiencing discrimination
*Stats reproduced, with permission, from The last acceptable form of racism? The pervasive discrimination and prejudice experienced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Media coverage “merely reflecting public opinion”
John Goulandris, Conservative councillor for Stoke Bishop, says that the media focus on Travellers and illegal camps is just reflecting wider opinion. “The papers vary in style – some do perhaps have a habit of sensationalising – but if there wasn’t that minority breaking the law I don’t think the media could whip it up the way they do,” he says.
“People are getting fed up with all these illegal Traveller incursions on public open space, in particular Horfield Common, Blaise Castle estate and the Downs.”
In September, Goulandris brought a motion to a Bristol City Council meeting requesting that it apply for a high court injunction to evict unauthorised encampments more quickly. He says evictions take too long, cost too much and leave too much mess. He wanted Bristol mayor Marvin Rees to join a Conservative campaign to “tweak the law” and make unauthorised encampments a criminal rather than civil offence. After a furious response from the other parties, Goulandris lost the motion.
Currently, unless an unauthorised encampment poses an immediate danger, local authorities can’t evict immediately as they have to balance duties to the public with welfare needs of the Travellers.
There is a chronic shortage of socially rented pitches UK-wide. Bristol has two designated Traveller sites: one in Ashton Vale, which has 12 pitches, and another in Lawrence Weston with 20. Demand far outstrips the spaces available. And with only 4% of planning applications by Travellers meeting with success, the number of GRT families with nowhere to live is on the rise.
No consequences for inciting hatred
This lack of pitches feeds a running commentary in Bristol Live (aka the Bristol Post) and other local media outlets, in which Traveller movements are reported in virtual real-time and encampments are treated as dangerous weather fronts.
High-profile figures, meanwhile, have the freedom to say what they like in the press without fear of repercussion. Last December, Bristol Live published remarks by two Stockwood Conservative councillors that “the settled community [is] basically fed up with subsidising a minority alternative lifestyle”. The year before, Bristol 24/7 ran an op-ed by another Conservative councillor with the uncompromising headline: “Time to be tougher on Travellers”. The publications themselves face no consequences for fanning the flames of mistrust and division.
Aspinwall says that a lot of people just don’t have the resources to stand up to big newspapers and challenge libellous claims or racist language. “Most people, who are just trying to go about their daily lives – regardless of what community they’re from – don’t have the resources or the tenacity to keep going with that kind of thing. Or the knowledge. And I think the press knows that.”
Standing up to the papers
A group in Dorset has had enough of the misrepresentative coverage of GRT people in their area. Betty Smith-Billington, a Romany Gypsy, set up the Dorset Inter-Agency Concern for Travellers (DIACT)
campaign group in 2015 because she was fed up of the exaggerated stories in her local papers.
“The thing is, there are some bad incidents,” she says. “We can’t say that 100% of every Traveller and Gypsy is 100% true – there are good and bad in all – but we didn’t want so much bad reporting when we didn’t deserve it.”
Thanks to their efforts, local publications have toned down their coverage of unauthorised encampments and now fact-check more closely, approach GRT people for interviews when writing about them and – importantly – moderate their online comments. “It does work,” says Smith-Billington. “If you lobby then it does work.”
So how should the press report on issues involving GRT? Like you would with any other group, says Doherty: report on the individuals concerned without labelling them as one homogenous collective. The Travellers Times has a press guide to help journalists write responsibility about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, but he says that just sticking to the Editors’ Code of Practice would be a good start.
“The main thing I would say to editors is: do you really need to put someone’s ethnicity into a story?”
Doherty doesn’t have much hope of things changing any time soon. “Unfortunately, Gypsies and Travellers doing bad things has more news value than the wider population doing the same bad things, and that’s just not fair.”