It’s a story very familiar to anyone from a Traveller culture; with depressing familiarity sections of the British media dust off every shopsoiled prejudice and trope to demonise a culture already far off on the margins. But as researcher and activist Candace Thomas explains, Travellers are no longer inclined to suffer in silence.
I awoke in the early morning after Channel 4’s Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime to a surprising outcry on social media. I had slept through the buzzing arrival of several private messages and saw that I had been tagged onto Facebook posts, that at a glance featured already sprawling and impassioned debates. I spotted the usual network of activist, researchers, academics, heads of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller non-profits, but what was genuinely staggering was the mass of comments I was seeing from Gypsies and Travellers across dozens of pages. I sat there perplexed (I admit, I had not bothered to watch it – who needs more sensationalised drivel during a worldwide pandemic), so what was going on?
When I was undertaking my masters dissertation on Gypsy and Traveller identities I had to severely beg for participants to take part; I spent hours on the phone, had to return time and again to visit people on sites, had to consistently provide reassurance to participants, relying heavily on the help of gatekeepers, community elders, Gypsy/Traveller liaison workers- the list goes on! When I eventually did speak with participants it was almost unanimously agreed upon that the best course of action against media misrepresentation and hate crime was to “just keep your head down”.
I began, hunched over the phone, my mouth agape and eyes fixated – to frantically scroll down the list of comments, trying to take in the momentous shift in a struggle spanning centuries. I had messages from people who had already seen or had been sent bigoted, derogatory hate speech referencing the show: “Absolute scum. I think they are raised that way…”; “I’ve never wanted a certain group of people to get wiped out by coronavirus so much. #dispatches”; “Round them up and use them for vaccine testing – too good for even that”; “@C4Dispatces and @Channel4News Sterilisation…for all at an early age. Soon sort the problem”.
My heart began to break for these strong, proud and hardworking people. A people who survived Nazi inflicted genocide during WWII; who endured 500 years of slavery in Romania; who experienced mass deportation to the colonies in the 18-19th centuries; who were the victims of government inflicted torments; had been burned out their homes in the highland clearances, starved and forced to flee the Irish famine; who are still living through the ongoing ramifications of the 1895 government report (calling for the complete “eradication” of “Tinkers and Gipsies”). The inherited trauma and subsequent socio-economic struggle are enough to cope with, should have been sufficient to incite anger, to awaken a fight for social justice, to get people to speak out! I needed to find out why this documentary had been the final push – had lifted some heads.
If my mouth had been prompted agape when reading those comments, it resembled Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, by the end of the 45-minute documentary. I had originally dismissed it as another mockumentary in a long line of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding-esque fluff, which was an intentionally satirical jumble of lime green tulle, Swarovski crystal tiaras and the odd pony. It had promised to deliver an “unprecedented access to the world’s most secretive community”; in consequence it had reduced a beautiful, complex culture to something superficial – farcical. Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime is far more dangerous.
It is a shamelessly biased, bigoted and brandishing attempt, by an openly prejudiced director and producer Sharon Ward, to dehumanise an entire minority community in one fell swoop. The presenter Anja Popp sets out to interview people who have experienced a range of crimes ranging from extortion to stone throwing; some of which are committed by an individual Traveller or a particular family (some by groups of “youths”). Some recanted stories (hearsay) about crimes that had happened in and around sites in Lutterworth, Leicestershire with no evidence to suggest a single Traveller was actually involved.
Only two Travellers are interviewed (Paddy Doherty and Pauline Anderson) appearing after thirty minutes of anti-Traveller discourse – in itself creating an imbalance. Doherty and Anderson have since spoken out to say their comments had been “misused” and that Anderson asked to be removed from the documentary, as she was not previously informed that the documentary was centred around Travellers and crime.
It also features a motley crew of experts on the subject: Andrew Selous MP (accused of racism towards Gypsies and Travellers – advocate for enforced assimilation); police officers happy to guesstimate the percentage of Travellers involved in local crime “probably….about 95%” and a second, choosing to blur his identity, to argue that positive action is limiting police powers (when only 2/43 UK police forces have a targeted Gypsy and Traveller community engagement strategy). Other interviewees looked as if they were just pulled off the street to participate in some good ole fashioned drive by bigotry!
More worryingly, it repeatedly operates under the guise of legitimate investigative journalism, cherry-picking data clusters (an analysis of recorded crimes in and around 30 Traveller sites in southern England) to find a pattern that would support their pre-predetermined agenda. In order to create the illusion of trustworthiness Popp interviews Elizabeth Yardley (Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University). Yardley acknowledges that there is the “presence of an association” between crime rates and Traveller sites but that other factors must be considered. In response, Popp chooses to parse Yardley’s words, which hinders her ability to effectively convey the many structural causes of social problems, that could also attribute to increased crime rates. Popp ultimately refocuses the predetermined narrative: “but surely those factors you mention are almost unanimously applicable to Travelling communities…” All to promote the centuries-old myth that Gypsies and Travellers are inherently criminal.
The myth that Gypsies and Travellers are inherently criminal, or deviant can be traced as far back as the early 15th century. Historical accounts (largely, one-sided municipal records) depict Gypsies and later Irish Travellers as “vagrants” and “beggars” – a roaming band, peddling their loot from village to town, maintaining an air of mystery on the road. Gypsies and Travellers also became associated with satanic mysticism; accused of palmistry, sorcery and “trickery” throughout Europe. Being a “Gipsy” became synonymous with being a criminal, so much so that a series of discriminatory laws “Egyptian Acts” where passed in the 16th century, forcing “Egipsies” to renounce their culture and identity or face the death penalty.
It was the newly “enlightened” criminologists in the 19th century, who began to popularise the idea that Gypsies and Travellers where an inferior race, in which criminal behaviour was “not the exception but a general rule” (Lombroso, 1884). Thankfully, social scientific research has advanced to a stage in which there is near unanimous agreement, that there is no basis to suggest that a race of people is innately criminal. Rather, the correlation between race or ethnicity and an increased level of criminal activity, is the result of socio-economic conditions; low income, poor housing, limited education, access to health care etc. If you look at it through a racialised lens, you could add in that systematic inequalities can further hinder a minority groups ability to survive and can push already desperate people to do desperate things. Someone should have told Ward how it works (Elizabeth Yardley tried) – how necessary and ground-breaking a documentary on the real truth about Traveller crime could have been!
Why then, would Ward and the dispatches team choose to frame their documentary in such a predictable and one-dimensional way? Kate Green MP and Co-Chair of the All-Party parliamentary group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma has suggests that: “Characterising criminal behaviour by the racial or cultural background of perpetrators is unhelpful, discriminatory and stigmatising to a whole community.” I agree from my own perspective but what if you have differing intentions? Perhaps, it depends on who most benefits from the continued stigmatisation of Gypsies and Travellers.
The UK has experienced a political polarisation in recent times with an increase in right-wing popularity. During the 2019 United Kingdom general election, the conservative party manifesto included a promise to: “…tackle unauthorised traveller camps…give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments….make intentional trespass[ing] a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.” This was an obvious attempt to butter up middle England and earn some extra votes; the weaponization of bigotry for political gain.
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has since made it her mission to bring these promises to fruition. In November 2019, Patel launched a consultation into police powers, enabling the police to confiscate Gypsies and Travellers vehicles (homes and means of legitimate employment) in England. The commission boldly highlighted a lack of authorised camps but made no attempt to offer a solution; ultimately, it concluded that families who have their homes stolen by the government should have to apply for council housing. This was heavily criticised in the British media and labelled as “legislative cleansing”- a forced assimilation of a protected ethnic minority. Given this, a documentary that reveals the “truth” about the inherent nature of Traveller crime, would seem very helpful to Priti Patel’s camp (pun intended).
It would also serve to distract a nation that is suffering a global pandemic. The entire nation is navigating the physical threat of a virus and the mental exhaustion of being in a lockdown; holding the government (rightly or wrongly) to account. People are waking up to rapidly increasing daily death tolls, angered over PPE and critical supply shortages, are witnessing, horrific news coverages of packed ICU’s, people hooked up to ventilators, fighting to survive. The invisible nature of this threat is forcing us all into a state of unbearable paranoia; who will be next? Is the government doing enough? Does the lockdown infringe upon my liberty?
Was Dispatches: The Truth about Traveller Crime, consented to as a distraction, a more tangible, physical threat? This may seem farfetched, but Gypsies and Travellers have been used as scapegoats throughout history. They were accused of poisoning wells during the Black Death of 1347-1352 CE (alongside Jews and “witches”) after someone observed that they had their own method of collecting and storing water. Gypsies have always had their own hygiene practices to avoid becoming ritually unclean (“Mokadi”), which made it less likely for them to contract the infection or contribute to its spread. The Christian Church used this as an excuse; God had not abandoned the people, the “satanic”, “deviant” Gypsies had poisoned the people. The Church did not lose followers and the followers did not lose faith – it was just the Gypsies.
I am not suggesting that there is an underground anti-Traveller faction of the government, who has fallen down the same rabbit hole as Trumps supporters; embracing pseudoscience and alternative theories to explain the spread of Covid 19. I am simply pointing out that Gypsies and Travellers have and continue to be convenient scapegoats for switch and bate tactics. This documentary could ignite a moral panic that would allow people to focus on a physical bogey man instead of an invisible virus. It has given the keyboard gangsters something other than PPE shortages and testing scandals to write about. It was morally wrong for Channel 4 to throw an already marginalised, at risk community under the bus.
This is the section of this article I was most dreading; a section I have written and rewritten for over an hour – can I just leave it out? Will I be giving the same unbalanced answer to the posed question: What is the truth about “Traveller crime”? Are there Travellers who commit crimes? Here goes (deep breath)….in my experience, yes. There are individuals and small groups of Travellers (as Paddy explains; two or three families) who commit serious, violent crimes and should be held accountable for their actions.
The majority of people I know would never participate in any form of criminal activity (many Gypsies and Travellers are devout Christian; humanitarians and philanthropists). I also know good, hard working people who have had to survive hopeless poverty, had to put food on the table through a bit of “Chorde”. “Chorde” is the buying and selling of goods that have either “fallen off the back of a lorry” or are fake copies of original designs – think ,“Channel No. 6” perfume. If you need a more comprehensive picture think, Only Fools and Horse’s “Del Boy Trotter”. Del Boy is a “wheeler dealer”, a market trader who buys and sells stolen goods (slate from the Peckham church roof, in one episode) to support his orphaned brother “Rodney” and elderly grandfather, after his mother dies and father abandons the family. Del Boy is famed for his catch phrases, one of which happens to be a Romani Gypsy word: “Kushti” (happiness). Despite his involvement in criminal activity he is kind, generous and cherished by his community. He is also arguably one of the most beloved British television characters.
There are those who will read this and think I am making excuses for criminals; that it does not matter how desperate someone is – everyone has a choice. Then there are those who will understand, people from the same socio-economic background as Del Boy, people instilled with a strong working-class ethic. Who despite working a full-time job, still have to walk down to the local market and buy questionable goods for a third of the retail price, because it is all they can afford. The people who are selling these goods are doing so because they have to feed their families. They have both been forced to endure over a decade of austerity measures; deemed necessary after a financial crash that was caused by reckless politicians and greedy banking executives. There are criminals in every community. If we want to create a more equitable society, in which people do not have to commit petty crimes to in order to survive, then we need to ensure a government that will strive for class equality -“you know it makes sense”…
I am left feeling an anxious anticipation about the possible consequences of Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime. There has already been a recorded increase in anti-Traveller hate crime. Will this documentary garner already growing support for increased police powers; the right to make children homeless? Will the UK government succeed in act of ethnic cleansing?
If more Gypsies and Travellers lift their heads and use their voices – maybe not. This documentary has awoken something in the community I have not seen before. It is clear that If they wanted to dehumanise and put Gypsies and Travellers down, it did not work. Gypsies and Travellers across the country are on social media, showing that they are the very best kind of human, that they earn an honest living, many working on the front line; as nurses, as carers, as teachers, in food preparation and delivery. They are creating philanthropic challenges to raise money for the NHS. A young Traveller girl called Olivia Herring has raised over £30,000 with the “Cake in ya face” challenge.
They and others have written more than 820 Ofcom complaints about the documentary. The non-governmental organisation: Friends, Families and Travellers, has launched a complaint letter addressed to Channel 4 and Ofcom, which has gathered over 7000 signatures. The Traveller Movement is taking legal action against the Channel 4 and the dispatches team. Gypsies, Travellers and allies working together to show the truth about Traveller courage, compassion and culture.