Striking a balance over gypsies and travellers

“Those who write and speak of Gypsies and Travellers often do not know them, and therefore do not often present a complete or balanced picture,” wrote Dr Rachel Morris in a paper for the Traveller Law Research Unit (TLRU).

Dr Morris was referring to the press who, she suggested, “represent Travellers in a stereotypical and prejudicial fashion.” That was 11 years ago.

I’ve tried tracking down Dr Morris, a job made harder because the TLRU at Cardiff Law School was disbanded in 2002 and now just exists as an online information portal. Rumour has it that she is now overseas.

As a journalism student investigating some of the issues around Gypsy and Traveller sites, I’d be interested to know what Dr Morris thinks 11 years on.

The bedrock of ethical journalism

Balance, impartiality, objectivity and use of a varied range of sources are, we students have learned, the bedrock of ethical journalism, although one can debate until the cows come home the question of how 100 per cent impartial or objective a journalist can ever be.

As I work on my journalism project for my Masters degree at Bournemouth University, I’m forever questioning the balance of what I’m presenting. I think my chosen topic is complex and emotive and there are always two sides to the story. Are both sides of the argument being given an equal voice though?  It’s no easy task.  Campaigners for Gypsies and Travellers are obviously willing to talk but gypsies and travellers themselves are cooler customers. Is that because of years of negative press coverage, perhaps?

An axe to grind

Then there’s the other side – people who have an axe to grind about Gypsy and Traveller sites. Maybe they’ve had negative experiences themselves, particularly of illegal sites, or fear the potential impact that a proposed site could have on their house value and their local amenities and environment. If they’re willing to talk, it’s often on the condition that they’re not named.

That said, public feeling is vented freely online.  One only has to look at comments posted in response to news stories about illegal sites where people feel safe in saying what they really think behind the relative anonymity of a username. The Gypsy and Traveller voice is conspicuously missing from those comment forums.

“A somewhat objective truth”

Dr Morris ended her paper with what seems an obvious point  – that journalists “owe it to themselves and to their profession to try and set standards and seek a somewhat objective truth.”

That’s my goal for this project. Follow me over the next month or so and tell me whether you think I’ve achieved it. It would be good to know.

Copyright for photos on this page: Susan Craig-Greene 

NEWS AND COMMENTS:

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New warning about localism for Gypsies and Travellers

“Lives at risk” say Dale Farm campaigners

Localism: who’s really got the power?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Striking a balance over gypsies and travellers

  1. Margaret Castle

    If there is ever a hint of a new traveller site being developed then you may be sure that local residents will join forces to block the proposal. Who can blame them when one sees the piles of rubbish that have been dumped on unofficial traveller sites. Who wants that kind of eyesore on one’s doorstep? Many of the travellers own large vehicles so why can’t they take their rubbish to the nearest refuse collection site? The truth is that the travellers don’t pay council tax so they aren’t entitled to use the refuse collection services provided by the local council. Perhaps if some way could be found of extracting taxes from travellers, they could be allowed facilities to dispose of their rubbish and would receive a better press?

    • Thanks for your comment, Margaret. When you say that travellers don’t pay council tax, my understanding is that they do pay it, as well as rent and utility bills, when they live on authorised sites. I think the issue arises when sites are established illegally. Do tell me if I’ve got it wrong.

    • Margaret we have seriously tried to get our local authority to take council tax payments from ‘roadside’ families and they won’t do it, it’s systematically impossible is their lame lame excuse. It isn’t systematically impossible at all, they don’t want to do it because then they would have to face up to their responsibilities to what are without any doubt ‘local’ families.

  2. Eamonn judge

    It’s true that formally gypsies and Travellers do not pay local taxes and hence are not entitled to use municipal tips, but when I turn up at my tip with rubbish no one checks who I am. I sometimes go to the tip of a neighboring authority if it’s on my way. If I can do it, why can’t gypsies and Travellers? No one would know and it would actually be cheaper than having to send clean up crews to a vacated site. And if not such a mess was created there might be less pressure to get them out so quickly. Do gypsies and Travellers shoot themselves in the foot?

  3. Barry Ewart

    One of the first things the ConDem Coalition Government did was to cut millions of pounds from LocalAuthorities to pay for sites for travellers/gypsies. To also put things into context some people have aslso mentioed that apparently because of a recent change of the law in Ireland (where travellers have now to pay to camp) we have had a slight increase in Irish travellers – so the demand has gone up while resources have gone down! Of course travellers have few friends and we have NIMBY – no sites near me.. So we have the revolving door, illegal camps, evictions, rubbish – I think it costs £50k in Leeds p.a. – perhaps we need an action plan – when traveller park illegally – deliver skips until they are moved on. Of course we need more places on official sites and more offficially but the problem is some Local Authorities will not play their part hence this crisis. Perhaps travellers, community workers, LAs should be brought together to work out alocal and national plan but despite all the upheaval tand upset this causes to local communities (and ttravellers) we will continue to have this revolving cycle until Government does what it should. Tragically dealing with travellers is not a vote winner and with th eusual unsympathetic media reporting is often the oposite – who will grasp the nettle?

    • Thanks for your comment, Barry. Re: your point that some local authorities will not play their part, I’m going to the Houses of Parliament this Thursday for the launch of a report by the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain that examines the impact of localism on gypsy & traveller site provision. This will find that there is “widespread delay and uncertainty amongst local authorities on how to move forward with their development plans (15 out of 100 councils). A further 18 only have or are putting in place defensive development management policies. Of the substantial group (40) who are developing criteria for site allocation, there is widespread reticence to go beyond defining criteria to actually identifying and allocating sites.” I’ll report back further on my website after the meeting.

  4. ” The truth is that the travellers don’t pay council tax”
    “It’s true that formally gypsies and Travellers do not pay local taxes”

    and your proof is….?

    As a journalist who works a lot on Gypsy and Traveller issues I have to say that the generalisations that get trotted out time and time again by settled population about these very diverse communities get pretty tedious (especially the one above).

    I totally understand that it’s a pain when the minority of very mobile Travellers rock up on a school field or business park and leave a mess but there are many thousands who don’t live like this and who are just as disgusted by their bad behaviour.
    What many settled people fail to realise (or don’t care about) is that a lot of these problems are basically caused because of homelessness. If you have nowhere to legally park your trailer then you are legally homeless. If the nimbys didn’t prevent enough transit and permanent sites from being built then they wouldn’t impinge on them quite so much. They would have places to properly dispose of their rubbish, they could get the healthcare they need and their kids could go to school. Of course you would still get a few idiots, but we have those in every community.

    I have been to a number of permanent Travellers sites, both local authority run and privately owned. They were all well tended, quiet, and the kids were well behaved, and there was a lovely community feel.
    Travellers pay rent and council tax on their plots (they call them ‘slabs’) and they pay for their electricity, water etc at commercial rates (ie much higher than we do in houses).
    I feel that people are FAR too quick to judge this community when they are totally uninformed about the reality.
    And don’t even get me started on Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and all the damage that has done – take it with a pinch of salt as you would something in the News of the World.

    If you’re interested in ‘striking a balance’ (redressing the balance is what is really needed) then feel free to take a look at a few of my stories

    http://www.ciaraleeming.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/BITN-822_York_Smiths.pdf
    http://www.ciaraleeming.co.uk/multimedia/appleby-girls/

    Good luck with your project and please try to be a balanced and fair journalist if/when you start work – we need more of them 😉

    • Hi Ciara,
      Pulling up on officially designated playing fields is relatively new. Incredibly many of our local citizens believe the roadside families do this as an organised protest. Without shouting how can I emphasise that this is not the the reason? The reason is that all the other little crevices and rough ground is blocked off with huge tree trunks or piles of gravel by the local authority over the last few decades.
      I wish people would just drop the emotion and get practical about solutions.
      Hx

    • Thanks for the input, Ciara. Your article in The Big Issue was very interesting, particularly the case study about Allerdale Council in Cumbria, which was looking to develop small sites where the families living on them would be asked to contribute “sweat equity” i.e. helping to build the site to encourage a sense of ownership. That was in 2010. I wonder how that project has worked out and whether there are similar examples around the country.

  5. Good to see Ciara Leeming on here. She’s done so much to help the dispossessed and displaced who lived in brick built urban streets, that Councils have pulled down in the name of better housing.

  6. Graham Jefferies

    I think we all need to understand them and their ways more. Eduction should begin in school, after all our children are taught about multi-culturism – so why not include Gypsies and Travellers? When I was young the older generation peddled myths about Gypsies that add to any prejudices that surface today.

    Why not allow them to dispose of rubbish? Lots of residents don’t pay taxes either, I would rather have clean streets!

    Government, or better still NGO’s, should be tasked with finding a holistic solution to the “perceived problems”.

    • Barry Ewart

      A verygood point by Graham re getting an NGO involved? We should usually be able to leave things to local democracy with some policy drive from Central Government but as I mentioned one of the first things the ConDems did was to massively cut the budget for travellers and at a stroke washed their hands on the issue to the Governments shame!. Sadly many Local Authorities (mainly of the Right) seem to be part of the ‘problem’ (Fitting with their own prejudices ? Or fearing a public backlash?) when they should be part of the solution. Perhaps a respected NGO with experience of community development like OXFAM could be brought in? When will the humanitarians step forward? A few progressive Urban Planners wouldn’t also go a miss and I’m sure enough and adequate sites nationally could ne found which would please most people (including travellers) if there was only the will! As John Lennon wrote in ‘Watching the Wheels’, “I tell them there are no problems, only solutions.”

  7. Joan Hick

    i agree with much of what Eamonn says about the perception of travellers and the publics reluctance to have a site near thier home. I have friends who are farmers who dread the prospect of an “invasion” onto their land because of damage and the difficulty of removal.
    i meet with professional planners and architects who have tried to assess the implications of the localism bill. thier view seems to be that it is confusing, contradictory and difficult to implement. on the one hand more power is supposed to be given to local people but on the other hand there is a statement saying that development to aid the economy should not be held back.

    The daughter of a friend who ran classes for travellers from an FE college ihn Leeds has been asked to contact you.

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