Headlines have branded them as “pikeys” “nimby gypsies” and “mobs.” Tabloids have demanded a “Stamp on the camps” whilst regional press tells tales of whole communities coming together to fight the “gypsy war.” They’re also the subject of one of Channel 4’s most watched series, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, a show which homogenises disparate ethnic groups under one loaded term and portrays them as marriage-obsessed and prone to violence.
It is not surprising then that coverage like this has caused journalist and campaigner Mike Doherty to claim that portrayals of these communities represent “the last socially acceptable form of racism in Britain.” Yet are these examples really symptomatic of an industry-wide prejudice and bias? Are journalists taking enough steps to ensure fair coverage in their reports on communities who are the subject of ingrained hostility in some sections of the public?
“My sister and I don’t go out alone now because we’re afraid of what might happen to us.”
Shannon O’Donnell lives in her family’s caravan in an area of Scotland with an un-newsworthy crime rate. Yet she and her sister will now only leave their home when accompanied by others, even if it’s just to go to the local shop. Her reason?
“It’s because of the way we get reported on by the newspapers and in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.”
She has come to the annual conference organised by the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain (ITMB) along with 200 others to discuss how to combat the prejudice they as Travellers and Romany Gypsies face on a daily basis.
“When we were on our way to a convention recently a group of men approached us at a Road Chef and told us that they were going to “grab” us.”
Speaking of the incident, she looks distressed.
“It’s not something that Travellers do, it was a few individual people but we’ve been blanket labelled. Luckily our parents were there to warn them to back off but it was frightening that they thought they had some sort of right to do that to us because it’s apparently “what we do”.
“Journalists just don’t realise the physical impact their stories can have on our community.”
Despite living in Britain for over 500 years Traveller communities who share long histories and common traits have only recently been officially recognised as ethnic minorities under the Race Relations Act. This includes Irish and Scottish Travellers and Romany Gypsies, who altogether number around 300,000 people in Britain. Under common law rulings this means that they are now covered by the same anti-discrimination legislation that protects other ethnic groups from prejudicial treatment.
Consequently this means they should be protected against discriminatory and unfair practices in broadcasting under the sanctionable ethical codes of practice adopted by the BBC and Ofcom. It also technically warrants their inclusion in the Press Complaints Commission and NUJ guidelines, unenforceable yet moral self-regulatory codes, the latter of which is currently subject to wholesale overhaul following the Leveson Inquiry. But could this apparent need to overhaul the ethical regulations of the print industry alongside anaemic responses of broadcasting regulators to allegations of hurtful discrimination within My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding suggest that no top-down system of regulation is currently working well on its own?
Much anecdotal evidence suggests that most people have never knowingly met someone of ethnic Traveller descent. David Enright, the solicitor who helped ITMB file a complaint to OFCOM against Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, thinks: “There’s only one place people can get these views from and that’s the media.”
This could make the role and responsibility of the media, as one of the few points of contact between non-Traveller and Traveller communities, increasingly potent.
Like Shannon, ITMB reports suggest that media impressions are often stereotypical and negative and influence real-life interactions.
In a letter to the Leveson Inquiry it stated: “prejudiced reporting creates the perception that the cultural difference between ethnic Travellers and the rest of society are so wide and glaring that Travellers will always be outsiders.”
This year’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings provoked criticisms from viewers. It was only in November, eight months after it was last broadcast, when OFCOM decided to launch an official investigation into the series. Lord Avebury, secretary of the all-parliamentary group for Gypsies and Travellers, in a speech called the series “extraordinarily immoral and powerful to society.”
Enright appeared perplexed when asked at the conference about the programme’s messages and the use of the tagline “bigger, fatter, gypsier.”
He said: “You wouldn’t use it for any other ethnic group: Imagine saying “Bigger, fatter, Jewier.”
“It shows the deep-rooted nature of the prejudice we’re dealing with.”
Georgia McCann, a Scottish Traveller who hosts seminars to educate non-Traveller professionals about the communities, knows first-hand the effects media coverage can have.
“A lot of people who come to my training seminars watch this programme for background research. They start to look us over to find stereotypical elements to visually identify us as a Traveller such as jewellery and then make other assumptions about us based on the show’s characters.
“Since it was on TV I no longer wear any because I don’t want to be picked out of a crowd and have these links between my appearance and my personality made. People tend to lump Romany Gypsy, Traveller and Roma groups together as one; totally overlooking the differences between the different communities.
“Anything like the OFCOM investigation is good but there’s just not enough being done: it’s like trying to plant a couple of seeds in a hurricane.”
It would be overly-simplistic to say all or even a specific section of the media is biased or uncompromisingly prejudiced. The Sun is notorious nationally for its “Stamp on the Camps” and “war on the gipsy free for all” campaigns. However even it has run a couple of articles which attempt to highlight discriminatory efforts to re-enforce stereotypes within Channel 4’s series. Then there is the BBC, which at the national level at least appears to have made efforts to enshrine its charter obligation of impartiality, with shows such as the two-part documentary, Travellers, offering a more honest look at Scottish Travellers’ day-to-day lives. The Guardian has adopted a more analytical view, digging deeper in its reports than some in other sections of the national press. Its journalists find stories that go beyond shallow preoccupations with 14 stone wedding dresses and bare-knuckle fighting.
For the editor of Travellers’ Times, Damian le Bas, and out-going NUJ president Donnacha DeLong it is in regional media outlets where unsatisfactory reporting on Traveller communities can be more apparent. Wracked by owners’ cuts to staff the financial and time constraints on reporters and their research are implicit.
Donnacha says: “We’ve seen lots of cuts in local media where most stories surrounding these communities take place. The problem is that there are fewer journalists who now have to cover larger areas. This means they don’t always know the story well so the easiest aspect for them to cover is the crime aspect given to them by the police.
“I’m not blaming the journalists; I’m blaming the people who won’t hire enough journalists so they can properly do their job.”
Yet le Bas believes that “you can only make so many excuses.
“Gypsies are categorised as being part of an environmental problem in a lot of local paper reports. These appear to be echoes of hostile public opinion. Rather than being talked about as genuine human beings who need a place to live we’re likened to being blights on the landscape that lower house prices in areas. I don’t think it helps that it’s also reflected in some local authority policy-if you call certain councils you’ll be directed to their internal environmental section.
“There’s a failure amongst some journalists to approach Romany people to get a quote from them or a humanising picture. I’ve noticed that pictures of Traveller and Romany communities are often taken from a long way away, like how you’d take a picture of a flock of sheep, it’s almost like they’re livestock. You don’t often see close-ups of individuals or even their faces which could imply to some people that we’re dangerous.
“As a journalist your job is to get both sides of the story of a conflict but quite often journalists report on issues as questions of ethnic strife; them against us.
“All we want is the same crack of the whip everyone else gets.”
He also believes that some article focuses represent a “very twisted set of values.”
“The number of the crimes carried out on ethnic Traveller communities and their severity when compared with the petty crimes of which they are often accused are so disproportionately and wrongly focused on in some parts of the media.”
A Bolton News article printed in September could be one such case. Titled “Burnley MP hits out at massive clean-up bill as travellers set up illegal camp” it seemed to allege that legal and clean-up costs involving a group of Travellers was costing “tens of thousands of pounds.”
It linked them to “illegal” activities, a trend spotted by Donnacha who states: “they are the last group defined by their ethnicity who are targeted by biased coverage which includes an increasing crime focus.”
The actual truthfulness of the article’s focus was also disputed by a local councillor.
Howard Baker, councillor for the Trinity ward said: “The headline is a severe exaggeration. I looked into it and found it cost in between £130-£200 to move them through court.”
Whether the journalist had verified his source remains unclear.
“I think journalists should always check their sources then double check them. There are always concerns from the local communities about Travellers which come with stereotyped images. I think articles like that one can fan the flames of distrust and dislike.”
Much of the paper’s recent coverage concentrates on land disputes and efforts to keep Travellers away from sites. A solitary article and a few letters from readers consider the underlying issue of a lack of legal site provision whilst a comment from the communities was found only in one story. All the reporters also failed to identify them as proper ethnic groups by not capitalising “Gypsy” or “Traveller” within their articles.
A failing to adequately critique public perceptions and produce well-informed reports in the local press is a claim that Westmorland Gazette news editor, Mike Addison, strongly denies.
“I think our paper is exceptionally fair and accurate. We have the largest amount of Gypsies and Travellers coming into the area due to the Appleby Fair. We do features, interviews and take pictures to try put their viewpoints across as there is a lot of ill feeling from the communities that they pass through.
“Our reportage is never criticised by the public for being unfair. Local papers can only present readers’ opinions then try to get an opposing view to ensure fairness. We as the press challenge their views.
“I think newspapers generally take a responsible attitude on the whole to what they report.”
Accounts of the inadequate quality of some reports do not essentially mean Traveller communities are being deliberately attacked. Le Bas believes it may be more a matter of “ignorance, lack of facts and fear that drive continued prejudices” in articles.
Maybe this goes some way to explaining McCann’s contention that she has never been approached by a journalist for a quote despite being a community awareness-raiser.
It’s an issue Manchester Evening News Editor, Rob Irvine, readily admits exists.
He said: “The relationship of journalists with Travellers is almost non-existent. It’s an unacceptable form of racism but there’s almost no communication between the two. I know that reception to us can be hostile- the problem is there aren’t any intermediaries. It’s a real weakness we have.”
Yet Addison again states that such an issue doesn’t exist in his area. He said: “They tend to put up a spokesman who we normally consult if there are any problems and to balance news stories.”
To ensure consistently fairer coverage Donnacha believes it is important to make sure spokespersons from these communities are available to talk to journalists.
He suggests it should be part of a several-pronged effort to make sure satisfactory reporting is standardised despite cutbacks.
“The challenge is to rebuild journalists’ knowledge about these communities so they can report intelligently and accurately about a story.
“Newsrooms should get in touch with organisations which are trying to educate them and invite them into the newsroom. I think if people actually begin to properly think about the story there are a lot more interesting things than people being arrested or doing something illegal or controversial.
“My fear is that any efforts will be undermined by fewer local journalists so informed knowledge could be lacking. It will mean people will avoid areas that are likely to cause problems in reporting, such as Traveller communities.
“It’s also important that we start rebuilding local media. If big owners are no longer interested in sustaining it then people need to take it back. We need to rebuild a sense of community media that belongs to them and reflects the community.
He is also fairly optimistic that the explosion of social media sites like Twitter will create more opportunities for members of discriminated-against communities to produce their own published content.
“It could mean they don’t have to rely on big news agencies’ reports of them; they could produce them themselves. I expect in the next few years more people will be able to tell their stories in a way that is engaging to audiences.”
Le Bas would simply like to see Travellers gain the respect that comes with knowing that somebody’s ethnicity does not dictate their personality. He says: “This is the end result but how we get there is the complex issue. At the moment it seems that attitudes seem to be going backwards.”
Lord Leveson’s report commented on the continued negative representation of Traveller communities within the mainstream media and the significant influence these institutions can have over community relations and societal perceptions. It stated that whilst newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories are accurate.
For some like Donnacha, le Bas and others, this does not go far enough. They feel that reports should be supported by properly-informed contexts to challenge popular myths and deep-rooted prejudices held by some sections of the public. To them it is apparent that top-down legislative change only does so much when challenging allegations of discrimination. It is not the reactive powers of regulatory bodies but the grass-roots-led efforts that hold most hope for permanent and progressive change.
What effect Leveson, cuts and new technologies will have on these efforts to end substandard reporting and allegations of prejudiced reporting, coupled with the problems of an uncertain economic climate, remains to be seen.