Sunday, 21 September 2014

[Guest View] Big Fat Media Myths

Gypsies, Roma & Travellers in the UK – Media Myths and Basic Facts

Emma Bell

The term ‘chav’ is employed as an insult. In Britain, the term is used as an insult for people at the bottom of the class system, where it also, often, implies inappropriate and excessive consumption, usually of ‘low-taste-high-cost’ designer goods paid for with ill-gotten cash or benefit payments. Calling someone a chav is to depict them as a lower class social parasite and one-dimensional consumer, adorning themselves and their property with tasteless consumables purchased with other people’s money. The insult is multifaceted: Chavs have no taste, they are thieves, they are lazy and they crudely believe that status is achieved through the conspicuous possession of conspicuous (tasteless) goods. As Owen Jones put it in his book, Chavs, ‘this form of class hatred has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, Internet forums, social networking sites, and everyday conversations’.

While Jones’ book has done much to make us more aware of the class hatred that the term chav encapsulates, what is not so widely known is that the origins of the term stem from the Romany words ‘chavo’ (boy) and ‘chavi’ (child).  Similarly, ‘Pikey’, a term which is used in much the same way as chav, is derived from the English term for ‘turnpike traveller’. The contemporary use of ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey’ as insults aimed at the lower classes draws upon and invokes existing long-standing stereotypes about Gypsy, Romany and Traveller (GRT) people. The recent employment of the term as a generally applicable insult for members of the lower classes therefore serves to reinforce historical prejudice directed at GRT people, because this relatively contemporary term of abuse for the lower classes, has a longer history as a term of abuse for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. These ‘real chavs’ bear the brunt of deep-rooted class hatred as native outcasts – they’re depicted as both ‘foreign’ and characteristically members of the underclass. Such ethnic class prejudice, ‘Romaphobia’, is rife in contemporary Britain.

As Romany journalist Jake Bowers explains, Travellers can be divided into two groups: ‘ethnic Travellers, such as Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, and those who live on the road for purely economic reasons such as New Travellers and Showmen.’ There isn’t one ‘GRT community’ but many, ‘each with their own particular culture and history’. Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies are protected under the Equality Act 2010. Irish Travellers, a nomadic group whose origins can be traced back to twelfth-century Ireland, began migrating to Britain in the nineteenth-century while Romany Gypsies arrived from Continental Europe in the sixteenth-century. Other groups include European Roma, Scottish Gypsies, Welsh Kale Gypsies, English Travellers, and Romanichal. Despite the diversity of travelling communities, groups are habitually conflated in the media as ‘gypsies’ – a term only applicable to Romany people – or in official documents as ‘Roma’. However, those labels exclude Irish Travellers, at the forefront of ‘gypsy’ press stories and reality television, and are controversial: ‘Roma’, for example, is said to be an ‘ethnonym’ for only certain groups while others reject it, making collective representation a challenge’ (McGarry, A, 2010. Who Speaks for Roma? London: Continuum).

GRT people are the most marginalised and reviled in the UK. A 2003 MORI survey for the ‘Profiles of Prejudice’ report commissioned by Stonewall revealed that over a third of respondents freely admitted prejudice against GRT people – more than any other ethnicity. Predictably, most respondents cited newspapers and television as the most important influences on their opinions. Like asylum seekers and low skilled economic migrants, GRT groups attract prejudice because of a supposed deviant relationship to the economy and the social contract. Accordingly, in the MORI poll, prejudices towards GRT people were ‘expressed in economic terms’, with respondents claiming these groups ‘do not conform to the system by paying taxes, have a reputation for unreliable business practices and lack of respect for private property’. Rationalization for prejudice against ethnic groups often has this economic form: the social construct of ‘justifiable’ prejudice against GRT groups disturbingly echoes prejudice against freed black slaves in nineteenth century America, anti-Semitism based on supposed Jewish usury and business practices, and the ‘cultural and economic invasion’ of migrant workers and asylum seekers in Europe. Yet GRT groups were also criticized in cultural terms for ‘not belonging’ to British society and having ‘a negative impact on the environment: for example, being unsightly, ruining public spaces with encampments, and being generally dirty or unhygienic’. However, a binary of good/bad GRT stereotyping is operative in that clear distinctions were made ‘between Romany Gypsies, respected for their history and culture, and Travellers or modern Gypsies’ (Stonewall, 2004. Understanding Prejudice).

GRT people have for centuries been stigmatised by such stereotyping, from the romantic guitarist, the sexualized dancer, the uncanny fortuneteller and the scapegoat thief, to the takers of children. There is, in short, a binary of archetypes: ‘good’ gypsies – free spirited, creative, mystical nomads – and ‘bad’ – dirty, scrounging, anti social parasites. As traditional GRT ways of life and livelihood are increasingly dying out, the ‘romantic gypsy’ of the nineteenth century imagination gives way to the anti-social ‘gyppo’, ‘pikey’ or ‘chav’.

But what’s the real story? Here are three big fat myths about GRT people in the UK:

Big Fat Myth One: GRT people are invading the UK.

This is media fear-mongering and there is no evidence for anything worthy of the label ‘invasion’. While there are presently no clear figures for GRT demographics in Britain, estimates range from fifty-eight thousand (2011 UK Census) to three hundred thousand (Council of Europe, 2012, Roma and Travellers), with those figures contested by sections of the GRT community (ITMB, 2013, Traveller Population in England Report). Some are travelling, some settled or partially settled, and the majority were born in Britain. Moreover, the 2014 widely-predicted influx of Roma gypsy benefit tourists from Eastern Europe simply didn't happen.

Big Fat Myth Two: GRT people make their fortunes living on hand-outs.

Again, there’s no evidence. Most traditional GRT means of subsistence – hawking, agricultural labour, etc. - have been criminalised or mechanised, and GRT people are routinely refused employment on the basis of their ethnic background. Many GRT people withdraw from state education or are bullied out, and so are safest setting up their own businesses. Illiteracy and innumeracy rates are high, although that is changing with the popularity of Bible classes held by the Light and Life Gypsy Church. Most are self-employed, in businesses including scrap metal and landscaping, and registered for tax. There is a diversity of incomes, from wealthy to very poor, yet most subsist at the lower end of the economic scale. While twenty-five per cent of GRT people are officially homeless, they are underrepresented in the welfare economy, with most unable or unwilling to claim benefits.

GRT women’s labour and economic power is often obscured. While the ‘Gypsy-themed’ reality programmes seek to present to us the oppressed, though often lazy, housewife, many GRT women work running market stalls, trading, contributing to their family businesses and providing unpaid care for the elderly, disabled, and sick.

GRT people are, like the rest of society, entitled to public services, and those living on local authority or private sites pay council tax, rent, gas, electricity, in addition to a fee to the council or private site owner. Rates for basic amenities on sites are often set higher than for residential housing. Moreover, GRT people are the least likely social group to access social or healthcare services. Yet at the same time, their health is poor, child mortality rates are three times the national average, they have the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group, and suicide rates are disproportionately high. To compound matters, many GRT literacy, social integration, and outreach programmes have been cut under the scandal that is the UK coalition government’s welfare cuts.

Big Fat Myth Three: GRT people are anti-social and criminal

A report released in 2014 by HM Inspectorate of Prisons revealed that 5% of the prison population in England and Wales identify as GRT. Given that 0.1% of respondents to the 2011 England and Wales Census identified as ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’, that might appear to indicate a disproportionately high GRT offending and conviction rate. Yet there were huge issues with collecting GRT data on the 2011 census (ITMB, 2013), meaning it likely vastly underestimated the number of GRT folk in the UK. While setting up illegal encampments (trespass) is a criminal offence, wait times for legal pitches are currently counted in years. Of the thousands of GRT caravan sites in Britain only a handful are considered a 'problem'. One other reason for over-representation in the judicial system is that, in court, GRT offenders are more likely to be given a custodial sentence. This is due to the fear of travellers absconding as much as because illiteracy rates make compliance with a community order unmanageable (Cottrell-Boyce, J., 2014.)

So, we’ve learned a few facts. Now we need to fight back against media myths. Media attention on gypsies is episodic, appearing at times of economic downturn and, as Clements put it, when scandals about other ethnic groups are disproven: ‘demonising gypsies [occurs] when new scapegoats fail for example, asylum seekers, Central European benefits scroungers, single mothers, paedophiles then the traditional ones resurface. Gypsies seem to fulfil this requirement adorably; they are one of the few racial groups that no-one seems to complain about if you incite people to hate them’ (Clements, L, 2007. “Human Rights and Gypsies: It Is Time For a Rethink”. In: Gunning, J and Holm, S, eds. Ethics, Law and Society III, Aldershot: Ashgate, p.296). Given the recent explosion of representations of GRT people, it has never been more urgent to examine the motivations behind, framing of, and lived consequences of, these new stereotypes – stereotypes being, as Morris warned, ‘a major root of social exclusion’ (Morris, R, 2000. p.215).

Until their emergence into the mainstream via reality television, and subsequent press attention, GRT people were marginalised in popular culture. In a forthcoming Ashgate book on consumerism in the media, edited by Alison Hulme, I address the ways in which post-documentary television, including Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, Big Fat American Gypsy Weddings, Gypsy Sisters, American Gypsies, Gypsies on Benefits and Proud, and Paddy and Sally’s Excellent Gypsy Adventure, have played a critical role in shaping contemporary GRT identity.

While BFGW is focused on social rituals it consistently seeks to construct a problematic narrative on consumption and consumerism. The general agenda is to present GRT peoples’ economic bases as stereotypically benefit-dependent, criminal, and supported by illegitimate cash-in-hand labour. One accusation frequently aimed at GRT people is that they do not pay taxes or contribute to the state coffers that fund their encampments. Because the issue of GRT business practices are obfuscated in the programme, the audience is prompted to wonder where the community obtains their money and if they are economically legitimate; at the very least, existing stereotypes are reinforced rather than challenged by the one-sided, selective representation. Audience-directed tropes encourage in the viewer self-flattering ‘downward comparison’ with GRT people, symptomatic of a broader cultural pathology of Romaphobia that sees consumption as a guarantee of self-worth. BFGW ‘could have been the first piece of television to reinvent the stereotypes and humanize an often-misunderstood minority’ (Allan, 2011). It isn’t. Indeed, it not only failed spectacularly to positively ‘reinvent’ and ‘humanize’, but actually served to reinforce and bring to the mainstream existing myths and prejudices.

GRT communities are becoming more pro-active and organizing politically against their representation in the media. Both The Traveller Movement in Britain and Friends, Families, and Travellers compile regular reports on the media and contributed to The Leveson Enquiry into Press Standards. The GRT newspaper Traveller’s Times provides advice and support on complaints against the media, and in 2014 The Traveller Movement in Britain organised ‘A Bigger Fatter Public Debate’ and parliamentary seminar on GRT in the media. What is more, GRT groups are starting to recuperate the word ‘chav’, for example setting up the young people’s networking site ‘Savvy Chavvy’ which won the UK Catalyst Award for using technology and media to challenge social problems. GRT communities continue to face personal, political, and media racism but they are increasingly fighting back.

For more in-depth information on contemporary GRT communities in Britain, I recommend Katherine Quarmby’s No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers. London: Oneworld, 2013.

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