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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March, 2005, 11:22 GMT
Gypsy campaign raises ethics issue
By Paula Dear
BBC News

The thorny question of how the media covers controversial issues has reared its head again, with a Sun newspaper campaign declaring "war" on a "gipsy free-for-all".
The Sun, 9 March 2005
The Sun launched its campaign to "stamp" on illegal camps

The paper's front page and inside story on Wednesday prompted one travellers group to lodge a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The report was misleading, discriminatory and likely to incite racial hatred against travellers and Gypsies, said the Gypsy and Traveller

Law Reform Coalition (GTLRC).

The Sun vehemently defended its campaign saying it was not racist, but spoke for millions of householders who have had, or face having, their communities "ruined" by illegal camps.

'Sensible debate'

This latest battle has been sparked by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's announcement that all councils must now take account of travellers' needs in their local housing plans, and identify land for them to buy and develop.

Papers such as the Sun and Daily Mail accused the government of treating travellers more favourably than the rest of the population.

The Daily Express talked of thousands of "law-abiding residents" who were powerless to halt the bulldozing of their landscapes.

The papers say the policy - which aims to address a shortfall of around 300 sites - will effectively mean more travellers get to stay on camps that were set up without planning permission.

I've not seen anything like this since the Julius Streicher Nazi campaign against Jews
Mike Jempson, MediaWise

The Sun has pledged its campaign will reverse human rights laws that allow the "illegal camp madness", and make planning laws more equal for all.

The Office of the Deputy Prime denies it is "going soft", saying all planning applications will still be decided locally, and that councils will have more powers to stop illegal encampments being set up in the first place.

The whole issue has long been a quagmire of claim and counterclaim, but the point is does the media's reporting of the issue simply reflect the harsh reality or does it pander to, or even create, prejudices?

With so many local and national media outlets in existence, both sides could each find examples of good and bad reporting, as they see it.

But travellers feel the balance is very much against them, and that coverage like the Sun campaign will only give a green light to those with a grudge.

'One law for travellers'

Andrew Ryder of GTLRC said there was a desperate need for a "sensible debate" on the issue, but that much of the media was preventing it from happening.

"We are very worried about lines like 'Stamp on the Camps', such as the Sun used. Our fear is that hooligans and thugs will go out and do just that."

Most tabloids had been guilty at some of time of whipping up tension over the issue, said traveller Len Smith, 66, who has complained to police about the Sun's reporting this week.

When asked for a consistently good example of reporting on traveller issues his only response was "the Guardian".

"There is just so much misrepresentation around," said Len, who lives in the New Forest, Hampshire.

What we have done is not racist or discriminatory
Graham Dudman, the Sun

"The irony is that often when travellers do finally get planning permission to stay, later when they meet their neighbours down the pub they'll say they can't even remember what they were objecting about."

Mike Jempson, of media ethics charity MediaWise, was more direct about his views of the Sun's campaign, saying the nature of the coverage was "obscene".

"They are even demanding revisions to the Human Rights Act. I've not seen anything like this since the Julius Streicher [a Nazi who set up an anti-Semitic newspaper in 1923] Nazi campaign against Jews."

He said the Sun was using the issue as "some kind of populist cause".

"It intrigues me that they take the people who they know they can get away with being offensive about, because they know no one will defend them, and they use that to try to overturn human rights legislation," he added.

But what about the human rights of those people who pay taxes and save up to buy somewhere nice to live?, said Sun managing editor Graham Dudman.

The complainants say the Sun breached three clauses of the journalists' code
Clause 1 - Accuracy: the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures
Clause 4 - Harassment*: journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit
Clause 12 - Discrimination: the press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability
* Some exceptions exist where public interest can be shown

"What we have done is not racist or discriminatory," he said.

"The Sun agrees there should be legal camps, but at the moment it is one law from travellers and another for other people."

He said the paper had received "thousands" of emails and phone calls in support of the campaign, and a few "very vocal" complaints from travellers.

One council leader who wrote in support of the Sun was Dartford borough council's deputy leader Jeremy Kite.

He told BBC News the issue was not about being anti-traveller, or about race, but about the law and whether it applied equally to everybody.

"I'm not going to say I stand by the Sun and everything they do, but we have signed up to the paper's three aims on this issue. I'm not uncomfortable with that - I'm convinced that what I have read is the people honestly saying 'we need something done about this'."


But in some cases publishing "scare stories" can be an end in itself, according to Daily Express journalists union rep Michelle Stanistreet.

Staff there have twice reported their own newspaper to the PCC, for its reporting on asylum seekers and, more recently, on Romany Gypsies.

"In the case of the stories on the Roma people we felt it was a cynical campaign to boost circulation. They saw the effect the headlines had, and exploited it by having as many scare stories about Gypsies "overrunning" the country as possible."

Site in Minety, Wiltshire
Many agree that the lack of sites needs to be solved

An Express spokesman said they did not want to comment on the issue.

Journalists there tried, but failed, to get the PCC to devise a new 'conscience clause' to allow reporters to refuse to produce work they viewed as unethical.

"It's an undisputed fact that on certain issues journalists come under enormous pressure to toe the editorial line," said Ms Stanistreet.

One resident, despite being part of a long campaign against unauthorised traveller camps in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, said much of the current reporting made him "uncomfortable".

Residents association chairman Rick Bristow said: "We feel we have moved on from this kind of debate. What the press do not seem to say is that there are thousands of homeless travellers, and we need to satisfy their needs.

"I would like it if they would separate the accommodation issue and the behaviour issue. A tiny percentage of travellers cause problems, for the settled community and travellers alike.

"The accommodation problem needs to be solved by providing more legal camps, while the authorities should be given the tools to deal with anti-social behaviour without having to worry about human rights or race legislation," he said.

The Cottenham travellers lost their appeal to stay on Friday.


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