Romani journalist and broadcaster Jake Bowers argues Channel 4’s latest broadcast about the Gypsy and Traveller community amounts to inciting racial hatred against one of Britain’s most marginalised ethnic communities. He says the broadcaster should now provide a right of reply to community members.
Call me naïve but I’d assumed that the only ‘journalists’ who still attempted to link entire ethnic groups with criminal behaviour where right-wing thugs like Tommy Robinson.
Last night, I watched in horror as Channel 4 channelled the spirit of Joseph Goebbels in their Dispatches programme entitled The Truth About Traveller Crime. On flimsy evidence, it dressed up blatant prejudice as an edgy investigation into Traveller criminality. Fearless reporter Anja Popp assured us she wasn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions about spikes in criminality in and around Traveller sites.
Yet over the course the investigation it appeared she only entered one traveller site, spoke to no Romani Gypsies and could only name two perpetrators. Her own statistics proved her central thesis – that Traveller sites are hot-beds of criminal activity – was about as reliable as Tommy Robinson’s grasp of Islam.
As one of Britain’s few Romani journalists, Gypsy and Traveller criminality is a stereotype I’ve spent a career looking at and my conclusion has always been this: there is a problem with crime in these communities, but it is no more prevalent than in any other community.
In my experience Gypsies and Travellers are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. Simply put, I know of far more victims of racist abuse than people with serious criminal records. But whereas criminal convictions affect the lives of a minority, the stigma of Gypsy criminality affects the life of every single community member. I had been interested to watch The Truth About Traveller Crime. Unfortunately, what I saw does not befit Channel 4’s status as a public service broadcaster and supposed champion of unheard voices and diversity on TV.
For almost an hour, we saw Anja Popp and her crew from Hardcash Productions scour the nation looking for Traveller criminality. Primarily focusing on Irish Traveller sites in Bedfordshire and Leicestershire, she looked at issues of violence, extortion, hare-coursing and robbery.
Perhaps most explosively she wanted to investigate the idea that the police were now so hamstrung by political correctness that they would no longer enforce the law on Traveller sites. An anonymous copper in a shady woodland gladly confirmed her suspicions. He clearly wasn’t a member of the growing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Police Association, whose members regularly confront institutional racism against the community within the ranks.
In her bid to paint a fearful picture of a lawless community she allowed Conservative MP Andrew Selous to liken Travellers to the Taliban without challenge, and parroted the claims of some villagers outside Leighton Buzzard that Travellers outnumbered them “five to one”.
My contention with the programme is not whether some Travellers are criminal, it is that framing criminality in terms of its proximity to concentrations of a specific ethnic group means that group can be condemned. I’d be surprised if Channel 4 was planning any programmes on Black, Asian and Jewish ‘criminality’. And although I hear fraud is big in the leafy suburbs of Cheshire and Surrey, I suspect I’ll be waiting a while for an exposé on the cultural tendency of middle-aged white guys to dodge tax.
Using drone footage of caravans and a map that represented Traveller sites like viral hotspots on a map, Popp never got too close to her quarry. The closest she got was near the Mere Lane site in Leicestershire, but Popp admitted “our security advisor has warned us not to film openly too near to the site”. Even the local residents she spoke to seemed camera shy, preferring to make the kind of anonymous allegations bar room bores regularly trot out as fact.
Despite the supposed crime wave Popp was investigating, she could only name two convicted Traveller criminals in the hour: Nelson Hedges and Patrick Doran. Her description of Patrick Doran’s horrible career of extortion, intimidation and theft was the closest she came to journalism. But she missed the true insight the case gave: individuals and families can legitimately be described as criminal when a court finds them to be so, but labelling entire communities as criminal is racist propaganda not journalism. Because for every Gypsy and Traveller criminal, there are scores more Gypsy and Traveller business people, employees, nurses, police officers and charity workers. Most of us actually live in houses, not sites. As in the 56% of Gypsy and Traveller sites Popp even admitted were in areas where crime was below the national average, we have long been your law-abiding neighbours and colleagues.
We had just begun to forgive, if not forget, the insults Channel 4 had thrown at us with My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, but this programme was far more damaging. To many community members it is akin in Nazi propaganda. It’s time Channel 4 gave a right of reply to a wronged community who in their thousands are now complaining to Ofcom and Channel 4.
Jake Bowers is a Romani journalist, broadcaster, filmmaker and artist blacksmith.