Traveller Movement fury as Big Fat Gypsy Wedding complaint “thrown out” by Ofcom

13 November 2013


News reporter

Above: one of the billboard adverts for Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, with graffiti accusing the show of racism. The adverts were condemned by the Advertising Standards Agency, but OFCOM has cleared the programmes themselves of causing harm

THE TV regulator; Ofcom, has finally announced that it has thrown out the two Traveller Movement complaints about ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ after a 14 month investigation. The Traveller Movement has reacted in fury to Ofcom’s “absurd” decision about the controversial Ch4 ‘Gypsy’ series, which has been dogged by controversy and protests since the day it first aired, yet has been watched by blockbuster audiences, including many Gypsies and Travellers.

The TM complaint was pushed through by David Enright, working for free on behalf of the TM. David Enright, who works for the law firm Howe and Co, won the Law Society’s Solicitor of the Year award for his work on the successful TM complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority which upheld two complaints about the notorious “Bigger, Fatter, Gypsier” billboards that advertised the second series of the hit Channel 4 show.

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, reacting to the news, said: “It is shocking that it has taken Ofcom 14 months to simply throw out our complaints and come to the astounding conclusion that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is a fair and harmless representation of the UK’s Gypsy and Traveller minorities.”

Ofcom’s decision, which has just been published, examines both the possible harm and offence and the accuracy and fairness of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls. Ofcom describes the two shows as “factual” and “investigative” “observational documentary series which followed individuals and families from the Irish Traveller, English Traveller, Gypsy and Romany communities of Great Britain as they prepared for, celebrated and reflected upon key events in their lives.” The Traveller Movement has pointed out that this description is exactly the same as the promotional blurb which Channel 4 uses to advertise the series.

Ofcom’s decision concludes that: “The programmes did not contain material that could be reasonably considered harmful or likely to cause harm in terms of presenting negative, racist or damaging stereotypes or endorsing prejudice.” Ofcom and Ch4 also say that BFGW never intended to be representative of the “Irish Traveller, English Traveller, Gypsy and Romany communities of Great Britain,” yet the Traveller Movement says that the BFGW narrative voice-over and all the Ch4 promotional and publicity material clearly stated that it was.

“We have always argued that this is not a documentary,” says Yvonne MacNamara. “So Ch4 finally admitting that it is not intended to be representative is a victory of sorts or a ‘silver-lining’ at least.”

“The show is a reality show that highlights some aspects of the lives of certain Gypsy and Traveller individuals; it is not a documentary as Ch4 claim,” she says. “It is the ‘Made in Chelsea’ or ‘The Only Way is Essex’ for Gypsies and Travellers and to claim it is a factual, investigative and accurate representation of three diverse minorities is both absurd and unfair.”

The TM also says that Ofcom failed to consider its evidence that “demolished” Ch4’s claim that it conducted thorough research into Gypsy and Traveller communities and issues. According to the Traveller Movement, during Ofcom’s investigation it was provided with a list of Gypsy and Traveller organizations and individuals which Ch4 said that it had worked with, including Martin Collins from Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller campaign organization, the Light and Life Gypsy Church and the Gypsy Council. The Traveller Movement say that they re-contacted most of the people on the list and almost all of them got back and said that they had either not been contacted, or that they had but had told Ch4 they were not interested in taking part.

Not long after the first series of BFGW was broadcast, Jake Bowers, former Editor of Travellers' Times, Margaret Doran, an Irish Traveller community leader and Joseph Jones of the Gypsy Council where amongst many Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers who turned up at a prestigious Royal Television Society event that featured the BFGW producers discussing how they made the show. During the protest, the producers from “Firecracker”, the independent TV production company who were commissioned to make the show for Ch4, were lambasted by the Gypsies and Travellers with Jake Bowers describing the series as a “mockumentary.”After the protest, Margaret Doran, an Irish Traveller community leader from Ealing told Travellers' Times that the series “had put the fight for Travellers rights back twenty years.”

Yet many young Gypsies and Travellers watch the show and Ch4 have a popular Facebook page dedicated to Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Travellers' Times spoke to a teenage Traveller who said that there were lots of young Travellers on it, as well as “country people”, but that the Travellers were the “dozy sort.” She said that she and all her friends often got messages from the BFGW Facebook profile asking if they had a wedding or a holiday coming up that they might want featuring on the show. “I watch it myself, and so do my friends, but it’s almost like we can’t help ourselves. We spend most of our times looking through our fingers, it’s so shocking,” she says.

The Travellers Times contacted Ch4 about the Ofcom decision who said: “We welcome Ofcom’s recognition that Firecracker Films and Channel 4 did not unfairly portray, nor advance negative stereotypes about, the Gypsy and Traveller communities and we are pleased that Ofcom has concluded that the ITMB’s complaints should not be upheld.” They refused to be drawn on whether there would be any more shows, yet their Facebook activity suggests that there will be and a ‘roadside’ Traveller family has claimed to a local paper that they were going to be in a new BFGW show to be broadcast in March 2014.

Talking to the Grimsby Telegraph in July, the Irish Traveller father said that his daughter’s wedding was going to feature on BFGW in the spring of next year: "A lot of people on it are fake and make up lies about our culture,” he said. “We're hoping it will give people a different opinion of us. We don't want people to be afraid of us; we are harmless as long as they don't bother us. We just want to get on with life."

The Traveller Movement is now considering its options, it says. There is no appeal to the Ofcom decision, but as the dismissed complaints only covers the second series of BFGW, this leaves room for another complaint about the first series if it is ever repeated – and the TM says that the first is by far the worse of the two.