We Need To Talk About the UK Media’s Representation of Travellers

By: Josh Morris

If you follow any UK news publication on social media, you’ll eventually come across a story about an “unauthorised” Traveller encampment.

Alongside a description of the site and how many caravans there are, there will likely be comments from the local authority on whether they intend to issue an eviction notice, and a statement from the local police on how they intend to move forwards. Social media posts from these publications are often accompanied by comments from readers talking in thinly-coded phrases about their own experiences of “men with Irish voices” or what happened to levels of crime last time an encampment popped up.

It is discrimination that has been politicized by the UK government, blatantly seen in proposed policies against trespassing, an offense that disproportionately impacts Travellers and Gypsies, and in many ways criminalises their very existence by giving the police more power to “arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities.”

Even though there are only 300,000 Irish Travellers and Romani Gypsies (and the actual proportion of those still living an active travelling life are smaller yet), many UK media outlets cover traveller communities as if they are an enormous societal threat, pushing stereotypes and impacting the lives of members of these communities. Besides shows like Chanel Four’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime, these media reports are most of the population’s only glimpse into these communities—an enormous responsibility for journalists, that not everyone is treating with care.

Many in the Traveller community have spoken up about the damage that these media programmes perpetuate.

“We receive enough racism as it is,” a representative of the Friends, Families, Travellers campaign group wrote in a formal complaint to the UK Broadcast regulatory body OfCom.

“This program is going to make things worse. I live with my husband and children on the same property as my parents and brother. In the last five years, we’ve received death threats and hate mail. We live on a farm/smallholding. We’ve had nothing but struggles since we moved here.

One neighbour stopped our children from playing together when she found out I was a Gypsy. She worked in my daughter’s school, in her classroom. She started to ignore my daughter. Her education was damaged a lot because of her.

The school didn’t do anything about it, so I removed her from school and put her into a new one. Finally she’s getting the education she needs. We don’t know what it’ll be like when she goes back after this though. We just have to wait.”

The Traveller Movement’s Policy Manager Patricia Stapleton, pointed out that the media’s focus on criminality is irresponsible, and unfair.

“Travellers are a very tiny minority and it’s very problematic to focus on a minority within one tiny group”, she said, speaking to the tendency of these reports to highlight criminal acts within the community rather than profiling the community as a whole.

“People have very little access to Travellers apart from through the media, and if the only pictures and stories they’re seeing are about encampments that are very derogatory stories, literally the public’s only perception of Travellers,” she continued.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has gotten even worse.

“Due to years of bad planning and accommodation policies, they are essentially homeless,” Stapleton continued. “During the Coronavirus lockdown many roadside Travellers continued to experience evictions, yet they are pilloried in the press for a situation that is largely outside of their control.”

“The majority are living in bricks and mortar and don’t camp or do all the things everyone else does and that has huge implications.”

Stapleton says that like other ethnic minorities, Travellers and Gypsies tend to be over-policed with statistics showing that Travellers and Gypsies make up a bigger proportion of the prison population than they do the general public.

“There is some really positive stuff we’re always trying to shine a light on, but the problematic reporting has such a knock on effect on the community, especially children in schools,” she continued, pointing out that many children from the Traveller community experience racism and bullying, that can push them to drop out.

The absence rate for Irish Traveller children in England in the 2017-2018 school year was 18.8 percent while for Roma children it was 13 percent. For comparison, the absence rate for White British children was 4.9 percent, with the overall absence rate at 4.8 percent—a difference that campaign groups point towards as evidence of racist bullying and either blatantly or subconsciously discriminatory actions.

“It leads to things like teachers having low expectations, that kids aren’t going to stay in school, that kids are going to leave. Lots of my colleagues have never travelled. They’ve lived in one place their whole lives but there’s this misconception that they’re not going to stay, they’re not going to put down roots, so we won’t spend as much time with you, they’re not going to achieve in the same way as anybody else.”

Irish Travellers and Romani Gypsies are two distinct and protected ethnic groups with their own culture, heritage and language, but have been part of the United Kingdom for at least 500 years. While local authorities used to be required to provide facilities for the community (including those that chose to stay mobile), many of the facilities then either privatised or sold off since those requirements ended in 1994, meaning that Traveller communities now often live in overcrowded accommodation, often near heavy industrial sites or even waste disposal sites.

Even so, many face local racism in addition to institutional racism. When the Welsh government placed duties upon local authorities to ensure that sufficient sites were provided in Conwy, around 200 local residents marched against them, with the support of Conservative Assembly Member, Darren Millar.

It’s hard to imagine plans for facilities for many protected ethnic groups attracting marches in the 21st Century.

The participation of politicians, which lends respectability to so-called “legitimate concerns” around Travellers, which often include tropes about tax avoidance, criminality or their contribution to wider society, which then leads to the toxic mix of bullying and lowering of expectations inflicted on Gypsy and Traveller children in school.

“In the lead up to elections, politicians will use Travellers and potential Traveller sites as fodder to gain votes, saying “we won’t allow these Traveller sites down the road, we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen,” Stapleton continued.

As well as the 2019 Conservative manifesto, former Conservative Leader Michael Howard pledged to target Gypsies with a specific law in 2005. Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich also campaigned for a specific injunction alongside a local group as part of his 2019 campaign.

“We’ve had MPs as well saying the most awful things in parliament, against Travellers, about homeless Travellers essentially, so much so that we’ve started a campaign about it last year, aimed at politicians called “Cut It Out”, to get them to stop using derogatory, racist language about gypsies and Travellers in the UK, as a way of gaining votes.”

Fundamentally, if journalists and media organisations want to cover the issues affecting Traveller and Gypsy communities properly, there is a real need to invest in building bridges and recognise that for every positive story there is about relatively well-known people with Traveller or Romany Gypsy heritage like performer Cher Lloyd, Welsh Rugby International Samson Lee or Tyson Fury, there are dozens of negative stories, creating a wider distrust of the media.

“Every now and again you’ll see a good article, usually done in conjunction with a community member, but the vast majority of media is toxic,” Stapleton continued.

“It only seems to focus on one particular issue and it ignores to the detriment of every other issue, and the fact that, a lot of the time, Travellers live in houses, they don’t live on sites, but it has the same knock on effect for all Travellers regardless of where they live.”