After having written extensively about the deviancy amplification of Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers by the media in my doctoral literature review, I awaited the release of ‘The Truth About Traveller Crime’ by Channel 4 with trepidation. It had received overwhelmingly negative reviews by those whom it sought to portray. Nevertheless, I was determined to give it a fair viewing and sat down to watch the show after a busy set of backshifts.
Despite my best efforts the programme, fronted by award winning journalist Anja Popp, immediately got my back up. ‘The Truth About Traveller Crime’ was presented as a documentary. As such, I perhaps naively expected there to be an element of sensitivity to the coverage. This was not the case, and indeed the narrative had the feel of a sixth-form social studies essay rather than an inciteful piece of journalism. This was suited to the content, which I felt was designed to titillate and outrage rather than inform.
Speaking as someone who has spent the last year having to reference and provenance every piece of research on Gypsy Travellers that I have used, I was disappointed at what I thought was an amateurish approach to evidence gathering. Popp began a lot of her evidential statements with phrases such as ‘I’ve heard that…’, ‘Some of the local feel…’, ‘Locals say…’, and ‘People say…’. This was indicative of an approach that was not accountable and took advantage of the fact that, with enough effort, journalists can find someone to say anything. Unnamed sources are cheap and their evidence should be treated with caution. Popp also implied that filming within the local Traveller site was simply too dangerous for her and her team. This from Dispatches, who have won awards for the daring filming of the bulldozing of Palestinian homes in the Gaza strip.
Also amateurish was the programme’s use of statistics. The production team preferred fancy overlaid maps of the UK over illustrating real information. There were no time frames given for gathered evidence and no provenance of sources. One example that I picked out was when Popp informed us that a quarter of Traveller sites are associated with serious crime.
Let’s unpack that.
Most obviously, I imagine that a similar statistic might be sourced for most local authority estates if the sample was selected carefully. Secondly, what does ‘associated’ mean? Associated by who? The media? Locals? Daily Mail readers? Thirdly, who decides what ‘serious crime’ constitutes? Ask some pensioners whether they consider the theft of their bins serious and you’d probably receive a positive response. All of these are points I would have to consider if I were trying to get a research project through an ethics board, and I’d expect to be knocked back for such woolly writing.
Dispatches also framed the police as being unilaterally opposed to the Traveller site. It showed only one approach from officers – that of going into sites team-handed and confronting residents. This is a tactic not likely to foster dialogue or trust. Was the use of Gypsy Traveller Liaison Officers considered? What about partnership working with Traveller charities or local authorities? Bedfordshire Police are a large organisation – presumably there is diversity of opinion amongst officers as to the best approach to working with Travellers.
One person whose approach to the Travellers’ site was not in doubt was the local MP, Andrew Selous. In one memorable speech he compares Traveller sites to ungoverned space in Afghanistan. This is a silly and needlessly provocative statement. Selous also describes Travellers as ‘terrorising his constituents’. I’m not sure whether it has occurred to you, Andrew, but Travellers are your constituents, too. A Planning Inspector noted in August 2019 that a toilet block should be provided for site residents’ use. Maybe pay some attention to that, yeah?
Most troubling was the framing of the documentary itself. There are many lines of intersection in our society – age, gender, health, socio-economic group to name but a few. Dispatches has chosen to differentiate according to ethnicity. I would argue that Popp did not approach her research with an open mind, but rather sought to draw links between Travellers and criminality using what is known as deviancy amplification, where perceived misdeeds by a minority are seen as symptomatic of that group as a whole. Are there examples of anti-social behaviour and criminality on the site in question? Probably, but Popp has predictably tried to project this deviancy onto an entire ethnicity. In one memorable line she asks, ‘Can we link [high crime rates] to the Travellers?’. Not exactly indicative of a journalist with an open mind. Every journalist and researcher should be aware of bias and compensate for it in their work. It is why, despicable as I found the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone by a News of the World journalist in 2002, I don’t blame all journalists for them. It is why all journalists should not be assigned blame for the reckless reporting of a now-debunked link between the MMR jab and autism, or the upskirting of female celebrities as they leave minicabs. We are responsible only for our own actions, which in Dispatches’ case includes this silly, immature television show. If Anja Popp and Channel 4 want to explore GRT culture, history, and issues, then perhaps a 46-minute television programme isn’t the best medium for that discussion. Members of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities could doubtless articulate their distaste for Dispatches’ documentary far better than I, but I can tell you that these multifaceted and generous communities are not represented by those who were portrayed on Channel 4 last week.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.