It’s five years since TT’s Media on the Move conference – what’s changed?

23 August 2021
Betty Billington with a microphone

It’s just over five years since Travellers Times partnered with the BBC Outreach team to launch ‘Media on the Move’ a whole day conference at BBC Birmingham’s The Mailbox which brought together 30 Gypsy and Traveller people with journalists, programme makers and producers. The purpose of Media on the Move, was to encourage more informed coverage by the media through offering a rare chance to meet Gypsy and Traveller individuals, outside of an immediate production or news environment. There was also the opportunity for people from the community to increase their understanding of how the media works by talking to reporters, producers, scriptwriters and the like.

So, what, if anything has changed in those five years? The conference saw some good outcomes; BBC The Social, BBC Look North and Radio 4 all produced some great content with some of the Gypsy and Traveller people at the event – and it felt like the appetite for improvement was in the room, but, is it still the case that ‘bad news sells’?

Room full of people at a conference
BBC Media on the Move Conference

We are glad to say that we have been making some inroads and producing positive outcomes. On a national level Travellers Times worked closely with the BBC to produce the BBC4 documentary ‘A Very British History’ and we are working with the BBC Creative Diversity commitment around use and language style. The main press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) have published our Press Pack for journalists on their website, local news desks have responded to our mail out of the press pack and asked us for advice, Travellers Times Editor-at-large, Damian Le Bas’ book ‘The Stopping Places: a journey through Gypsy Britain’ was Radio4’s book of the week. On TV Peaky Blinders led the way with their portrayal of Gypsies and Travellers, in particular, commissioning a Romani speaking language consultant to address the gaffe from Series 1 and 2 when the Romany Gypsy characters spoke Romanian rather than the Romani language. Over on Channel 5 ‘Gypsy Kids’ turned out to be ok - produced by KnickerBockerGlory and  using Gypsy and Traveller consultants for the first series.

Mike Doherty
Mike Doherty TT Editor

However, Channel 5 then blotted their copybook when they broadcast ‘The Town the gypsies took over’ – referring to Appleby Fair. The Travellers Times hit back with an article from Jonson Welch,  whose family has had a long association with Appleby Fair, going back generations.Romani and Traveller people deserve better” wrote Jonson Welch .  Travellers Times also responded with ‘Memories of Appleby Fair’ a short film giving a more balanced view of what the fair means to its fair-goers. Finally Channel 5 aired a series called ‘Gypsies on Benefits and Proud’ – a programme so appalling that even the usual critics declared that Channel 5 had ‘hit rock bottom’.  

Nic Millington
Nic Millington Rural Media CEO

As ever, across the summer months, local newspapers reported badly on unauthorised Traveller camps and so we sent our Press Pack and invited Editors for conversations, and some even took us up on the offer. Over on the local airwaves, regional radio stations still invited us on air to be interviewed, almost always at the very last minute to ‘provide balance’ assuming that one Gypsy or Traveller person from anywhere in the UK can effectively comment on circumstances unknown to them and happening possibly 100’s of miles away. As Damian Le Bas said at the ‘Media on the Move’ event “I’ve had some really tough experiences on local radio. More than the presumption that we’re all the same, it’s the presumption that we can take anything and it’s not going to hurt us even if you have someone, for example, accusing us of incredibly disgusting racial stereotypes’

Damian le Bas
Damian Le Bas TT Editor-at-large

So, there were still plenty of examples of bad media reporting and representation, but, it seemed to be happening less and less, was there light at the end of the tunnel or was it the headlights of an approaching train?   

Then, in April 2020 – at the beginning of what was to become a global pandemic lasting more than 12 months – Channel4 hit a very low bar indeed with their train-wreck of a documentary ‘Dispatches; the Truth about Traveller Crime’. Much has been written about this already, and a year on campaigners are still waiting for a response from the, broadcast regulator, Ofcom’s investigation following thousands of complaints, but a programme so poorly researched, produced and edited must surely have been ‘rushed out of the door’, but for what reason?

Since then Channel4’s continuing drama for children and teenagers, Ackley Bridge has introduced a Romany Gypsy character; Johnny Cooper (played by actor Ryan Dean); into their series 4 – and it’s good. One of the suggestions from the Gypsies and Travellers at the Birmingham Media on the Move conference five years ago was that soaps and dramas should have popular Traveller characters in them. The TV production company The Forge, who produced Ackley Bridge, consulted and researched with Gypsy and Traveller people and that can be seen in Johnny’s character and the storylines.

Di Reid Head of BBC Outreach
Di Reid Head of BBC Outreach

Meanwhile in the newspapers ‘The Sun’ newspaper has tentatively begun to capitalise ‘G’ and ‘T’ when they write about Gypsies and Travellers in their articles, a possible style change we hope continues, and are also open to discussions about disabling the comments threads under online articles about Gypsies and Travellers. The Guardian and The Independent reports regularly and well on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller issues.    

What might also be relevant to Gypsies and Travellers and the media is that Ofcom has brought in new rules that strengthen TV and radio producers and broadcasters duty of care and responsibility for the welfare of people who “might be at risk of significant harm as a result of taking part in a programme.” Ofcom says the strengthened rules are about “protecting vulnerable people and others not used to being in the public eye.”

So, whilst there is still much work to do locally and regionally; for every producer or journalist willing to make a conscious effort to get it right when reporting on and representing Gypsies and Travellers (Hello, the wonderful ‘Bristol Cable’ news platform) there are many who aren’t, two steps forward and one back as they say.   

There is no magic solution to changing negative stereotyping in the media – the factors that drive negative media and racist reporting and representations of Gypsies and Travellers are complex and multi-faceted. We believe there has been change over the past five years since the Media on the Move conference and, for the better, and we will continue to drive for more positive change.

That is why, Travellers Times, with support of £1.3 million pounds over the next 4 years from The National Lottery Community Fund  , will launch TT Vision – our vision for the future and most ambitious project to date. Living wage paid training and internships will ‘break the glass ceiling’ for Gypsies Roma and Travellers. Co-designed training programmes will support Gypsy, Roma & Traveller people to BE the media, to become journalists, press officers, producers, editors, film makers, presenters and actors and to build mutual support networks within the media effecting change from within and, by year 4 will make Travellers Times an independent, Traveller led media platform.
Thomas Mcarthy
Thomas McCarthy - Pavee Folk Singer

As traditional Pavee singer, Thomas McCarthy said at the Media on the Move conference five years ago when he told the audience that one the roles that Gypsies and Travellers historically fulfilled was to spread news and entertainment throughout the cities, towns and villages of the UK and Ireland "Our people were the media until people got radios and televisions and telephones. We were the walking people, the Pavees".

As Travellers Times begins to plan the next exciting chapter of its 20 years history we will be releasing details of how people can get involved and pave the way for a better, brighter media landscape … watch this space ...

By Julie Colman for Travellers Times

All photographs (c) BBC Outreach Team