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Wed 22 September 2021

Katharine Quarmby explores why members of the minority communities are so dismayed by an Ofcom ruling clearing a controversial Channel 4 Dispatches documentary about Traveller crime

The UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, has been castigated by prominent organisations representing the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities for its decision to clear a Channel 4 documentary which explored purported links between some Traveller sites and higher crime rates.

It ruled that the April 2020 Dispatches programme – ‘The Truth About Traveller Crime’ – did not breach broadcasting standards. The programme reported on crimes allegedly committed by Travellers on one site and also examined the national picture of recorded crimes near sites around the country. As it is still billed on Channel 4’s website, the programme “looks at the truth behind stories of criminality and lawlessness”.

The ruling found that there was no misrepresentation of factual matters, that any harm and offence caused by the programme had been considered and judged “appropriately justified by the context”, and that Channel 4 “had provided adequate protection to members of the public”.

Ofcom went on to say that the programme did not suggest that sites were “no go areas” for police and did not suggest that all crimes in the vicinity of sites were committed by Gypsies and Travellers.

Channel 4 had argued that it “took care” to inform viewers that one of the two surveys it used in the programme actually showed a lower crime rate than average around sites. Having said that, the top line of the programme was that another smaller survey demonstrated that crime rates were higher around certain sites – which allowed the programme-makers to construct a narrative around Travellers and crime.

Ofcom’s decision has infuriated Traveller organisations and individuals.

The Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) group said: “Through #My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and now this, it’s not the first time Channel 4 has chosen to humiliate and further marginalise Gypsy and Traveller people. It is clear Ofcom is no longer fit for purpose and lacks the ability to challenge even the most obvious forms of racism and prejudice”.

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, called the decision a “collective failure” and said “it is extremely important for Ofcom to… assess the extent to which their decision-making procedures are rooted in institutional racism”.

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The judgment was finely balanced. Ofcom did make it clear that “certain statements could have been interpreted as suggesting that there was a causal link” between sites and high crime rates. It also conceded that “certain sequences and contributions… had the potential to cause harm by and offence by perpetuating negative stereotypes of Gypsies and Travellers as widely participating in violent and criminal activity” and that tensions could have therefore been exacerbated.

But despite those caveats, Ofcom did not uphold the more than 7,000 complaints about the programme. As Mattey Mitchell, campaigns officer at FFT, put it: “This outcome only highlights the rigged match we’re forced to play for representation and is particularly frustrating when you are powerless to respond.”


Journalism and Ethics

I have been reporting on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities since 2006, when I first visited Dale Farm in Essex – then the largest Irish Traveller site in Europe.

I visited other sites at threat of eviction, such as Meriden in the West Midlands; covered the eviction of Dale Farm in 2011; have reported from ancient horse fairs such as Appleby and Stow; and have attended vast religious services across England, convened by the Gypsy church, Life and Light. I have looked at the horrendous location of many Traveller sites in places where nobody else would be expected to live – by sewage plants, motorways, and rubbish tips.

I have dug into the crime statistics that lie behind programmes such as this, looking at crimes against community members as well as examining the sticky stereotypes that cling to the Traveller communities around this issue. I have also talked to police officers, prosecutors and academics about those stereotypes.

I covered the killing of PC Andrew Harper and the conviction of three members of the Travelling community in 2020 for the terrible crime and was struck by how fiercely Travellers condemned it – calling it unforgivable, condemning the lack of remorse, and saying that the killers in no way represented the community.

There are plenty of community members who are eager to talk about the over-representation of young Traveller men in prison, of women from the communities needing specialist help for domestic violence; and of the crimes against the communities.

There is, however, an ethical consideration of how to cover crimes by Travellers – which is to report on it fairly and not to demonise an entire community for the crimes of particular people.

Janette McCormick, deputy chief constable at the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ lead for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, told me after the three perpetrators were jailed for killing PC Harper, that it is not acceptable to dub the communities as “inherently criminal” and that “there is no evidence to suggest we have a disproportionately high crime rate around Traveller sites”.

So what to make of the Dispatches programme?

I can understand why the programme-makers decided, in my opinion, to assemble evidence to fit a thesis that would hit the headlines. The thesis comes right out of the ancient playbook – the idea that nomadic communities are thieves who steal away by night – and it can ignite ancient prejudices that are not challenged enough in the media.

The programme-makers caveated that narrative just enough to steer safely between the Ofcom rocks, deploying Traveller representatives as cover – who now say that they were misrepresented – so that the broadcaster could say that its journalists had talked to community members. The programme-makers also spoke to a criminologist, who was extremely careful to avoid making a causal link between all sites and crime, but whose work was nonetheless used in a way that might have suggested such a link.

In blurring the lines between correlation and causation and highlighting one survey over another, Channel 4 has swerved a harmful judgement against it, but was the programme scrupulously fair?

Ultimately, its impact will remain: community members will not trust Channel 4, or journalists from elsewhere, to play fair with them. Worse still, many community members feel that poor media coverage damages their reputation unfairly, and it has an effect on their mental health.

A Government-backed report in 2020 found that the communities were facing hate incidents on an almost daily basis, with a spike of cases reported after the Dispatches programme was aired.

As a journalist, I support press freedom – but that comes with a responsibility to be mindful of the impact of the work that we do, whether or not anyone complains. Ethics and freedom of speech go hand-in-hand.

Katharine Quarmby is the author of ‘No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers’, published by Oneworld

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