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Acceptable racism?

Over the years, most overt sexist and racist stereotypes have gradually and thankfully disappeared from mainstream media, yet the racial stereotyping of the gypsy and traveller community persists. Until now, this group has struggled to find anyone to fight its corner, but that is now changing. Editors need to take note, writes Anthony Longden, and be careful to avoid casual racism in the reporting of this community.

By Anthony Longden

Travelling communities are finding a new kind of voice.

One that is more media savvy than before, that says it is eager to engage, and which is beginning to have the ear of people in high places.

The launch of one representative body and the broadening of the scope of another, suggests a new confidence about contributing to the public discussion. It also throws a gauntlet down to the media.

So maybe it is a good time for editors to take a fresh look at how they portray Gypsy, Roma and travelling people, and to reflect on the attitudes that shape their news judgements.

Even a free media’s most doughty defenders might struggle to suggest we are all paragons of progressiveness in this area.

There is an uncomfortable ring of truth – although it is far from universal – in the charge that institutionalised racism lies at the heart of much of the coverage travelling people receive.

Writing in The Guardian in 2012, Mike Doherty, press officer of The Traveller Movement, said: “Racism corrupts everyone. Travellers are feared and mocked and the processes of ghettoisation are reinforced. Most people know racism against other ethnic minorities is unacceptable. This is not the case for the last acceptable racism and the media play a big part in this.”

Clearly, Mr Doherty felt, rightly or wrongly, that little headway had been made in the decade since Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said: “Great Britain is still like the American Deep South was for black people in the 1950s. Discrimination against Gypsies and travellers appears to be the last ‘respectable’ form of racism.”

In some areas of the press, it is almost a given that the voices of travelling people are absent from the stories about them. Is it indifference, fear or simple prejudice that prevents journalists from talking to them? Best practice requires that we get every side of a story and offer a right of reply.

Patently, the Gypsy, Roma and traveller communities excite strong emotions, prompt fierce reactions and often deep suspicion and anger.

Media story treatments, especially those in newspapers, tend to reflect the dismay of the ‘settled community’. It is absolutely right they should serve the interests of their readers but they should not be slaves to them. It is just a bit too easy to fight shy of challenging the perceived attitude of the many to the few.

Substitute the words ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’ for ‘black’, ‘Asian’, ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jewish’ and consider how stories are framed. What was it Trevor Phillips said?

The Traveller Movement campaign group began to remodel itself a couple of years ago as an umbrella organisation that aimed to speak up for all Gypsy, Roma and travelling people.

In June 2012, it placed itself alongside the Establishment – holding an event at Portcullis House, the parliamentary annex in Westminster – inviting members of the communities it represents to look the media in the face and debate portrayals of travelling people.

Channel 4 in the dock

I was there that night. Many of the travelling people were highly exercised – furious actually – about Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. They claimed the programme gave rise to new levels of persecution.

To their credit, members of the programme’s production team listened gamely to the criticism and did their best to explain their position. They did the same at a similar event held this summer, too.

The Traveller Movement has secured the support of politicians and lawyers prepared to stand up for this constituency in a way few would have previously thought possible.

This systematic approach to its campaign work led to a formal complaint to Ofcom about My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. This was rejected, a legal challenge was mounted, and judicial review proceedings were due to begin at the end of November. This could well be a landmark case with far reaching implications for the media and its handling of stories relating to travellers.

At its heart lies the argument the programme perpetuated racist stereotypes, broke regulations on consent to being filmed and did lasting damage to a whole community by reinforcing prejudice and misconception.

The Traveller Movement’s lawyer David Enright told The Guardian in February: “This is a case of significant public importance. Ofcom’s handling of The Traveller Movement’s complaints has exposed deeply worrying flaws in Ofcom’s procedures.

“Simply put, powerful broadcasters are treated more favourably than ordinary people who look to Ofcom to protect them and their children from harmful and offensive broadcasts.”

Ofcom stands by its decision, and the matter will now be thrashed out in court.

Channel 4 has already had to apologise for the “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier” advertising campaign after receiving a broadside from the Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled it had reinforced racial stereotypes and prejudice, as well as being irresponsible and offensive.

The legal supporters of the travellers will doubtless be paying close attention to other regulators, and the newly established IPSO – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – is likely to be in their sights.

Mind your language

It is, therefore, a sensible time for journalists to take stock and resist defaulting to unthinking, hackneyed ways of covering the lives and lifestyles of travelling people. Those who still do so would do well to move beyond what Rachel Morris of the Traveller Law Research Unit identified in 2000 as notions of the ‘bad’ Gypsy who is the thief and scrounger; or for that matter the ‘true’ Gypsy who is better than that.

The engagement of travellers, gypsies and Roma people has already begun on a small scale with events such as those organised by The Traveller Movement. But expectations have to be managed – the travelling communities must grapple with concepts of freedom of expression: the need for, and the right of the press to cover stories and air opinions that might be offensive to them.

Police action

Another sign of increasing public engagement was the launch in July of an intriguing grouping, one that many would have thought unthinkable a few years ago – the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association.

This organisation, which has won the backing of a large number of police forces and senior officers from across the country, was set up by two police officers, Jim Davies of Thames Valley and Petr Torak from the Cambridgeshire force.

Speaking at the launch reception of the association – again held in Westminster – officers from travelling backgrounds described how they had dared not reveal their ethnicity to even their closest friends and colleagues for fear of persecution or ridicule.

One former constable spoke movingly about her experiences after joining the police in 1994. She recalled how a sergeant in training school told her class that “‘Gyppos’ should be killed”. The woman said she now felt ashamed at not having spoken out, but felt she simply had to “keep her mouth shut” throughout her career.

“It was terrible. Family didn’t want to talk to me because I was a WPC, and all I heard at work was racism.”

She went on to talk of a staff briefing where officers were looking at CCTV of travellers setting up camp. “The sergeant said: ‘I wish I was a sniper and could have shot them’.”

“I feel I have let my community down by not speaking out. Police definitely need training – all we got was a leaflet that looked like it was from 1940.”

As well as representing serving officers with Gypsy, Roma and traveller backgrounds at work, the association wants to improve relations between those communities and the police, acting as expert consultants on a range of potentially vexed issues.

The association has its work cut out. Relations between the police and travelling people are often difficult.

In this post-Leveson environment, there is sharper public focus on the thought processes that underpin news judgments. And while we must rejoice in remaining robust, this should never be a euphemism for racist.

References and links

The Traveller Movement

Mike Doherty article in The Guardian

Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association

Rachel Morris (Gypsies, Travellers and the media: press regulation and racism in the UK)