May 2021 blog - Travellers and Crime? Reflections on the fallout from the Dispatches documentary

By Colin Clark & Chris McDonagh

On the 16th of April 2020, at the height of the first lockdown, we watched the Channel 4 documentary Dispatches: The Truth about Traveller Crime. It would be fair to say that expectations were low, given the title of the Dispatches programme and the fact Channel 4 had also been responsible for My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

The UK print and broadcast media, more generally, have a reputation for sensationalized hatchet jobs in relation to Gypsies and Irish Travellers. The communities are seen as an easy target for the mainstream media, but this programme was on another level. The Dispatches broadcast had a biased agenda from the start, it was clearly offensive and the backlash was immediate and hateful.

In addition to spurious claims and stereotypes about ‘Traveller criminality’, the producers also used flawed data to draw an entirely false correlation between Traveller sites and criminal activity.

What was witnessed in the aftermath of the programme has now been succinctly captured in a new report by the Traveller Movement entitled, Travellers and Crime? Reflections on the Channel 4 documentary and criminal stereotyping. The report accurately highlights the damage caused to the lives and livelihoods of Gypsies and Irish Travellers by the skewed and biased content of the Channel 4 broadcast.

Unlike the Dispatches show, this report focuses on the voices of those directly impacted by the anti-Traveller stereotyping that was witnessed in The Truth About Traveller Crime. The report illustrates how the programme has caused hardship to Gypsy and Irish Traveller families, captured in some of the survey responses the report highlights.

Shortly after the programme, the Traveller Movement launched a survey to try and understand the impact the programme had on Gypsies and Irish Travellers. In total, 68 responses were collected and analysed, exploring everything from the immediate fallout from the broadcast, everyday experiences of anti-Traveller racism, as well as Traveller experiences of reporting crime to the police.

The report starkly highlights the damaging impact on Travellers, and some of the key findings include:

  • 96% have heard negative stereotypes about Travellers and crime.
  • 67% had never seen a news article or programme that featured a Traveller as a victim of crime.
  • 56% had reported a crime committed against them or their family to the authorities.
  • 55% said that when they had reported the crime to the police no action had been taken.
  • 90% would challenge someone who held a prejudiced belief that most Travellers are ‘criminals.’

Of the 74% of respondents who watched the programme, many expressed disbelief, feelings of unfairness, and fear:

‘Quite worrying that a mainstream TV channel can get away with awful stereotyping of the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in the country. Total sensationalism and racist.’

Another respondent remarked on the direct harmful impact the show had on their relationship with a neighbour: 

‘Since the filming my neighbour’s have started giving me abuse again, and my windows have been smashed in.’

Most worryingly, Travellers won’t report crime and are rarely seen as victims of crime:

‘I used to [report crime]. It stopped mattering. When we were the victims we were approached as suspicious and the whole situation tended to be approached as though other Travellers were to blame.’

Some respondents criticised accusations made by police officers in the documentary that they could not take action against Travellers ‘for fear of being labelled racist’:

‘This type of policing also has a direct negative affect on the Travelling community because police are failing to protect the community of Gypsy/Travellers from acts of crime also with these types of tactics and that was not highlighted… Gypsy/Travellers have access to little justice in the system as a direct result of the ‘leave them to it’ mentality…

The Traveller Movement report - Travellers and Crime? Reflections on the Channel 4 documentary and criminal stereotyping - conclusively shows how the programme had a biased agenda from the start and sought to perpetuate a climate of hate. It also abandoned basic journalistic standards on reporting, and for all these reasons several hundred complaints have been made to Ofcom.

The report offers a number of recommendations to move forwards, targeted at the media, the police and to the broadcast regulator, Ofcom. It is most unfortunate that after a year since the programme was first aired, and all the complaints, Ofcom has still not formally responded.

We would urge everyone to read the report and make their own minds up.

The full report can be read on Traveller Movement’s website here: https://travellermovement.org.uk/phocadownload/Travellers%20and%20Crime%20Report%20FINAL.pdf