Complaints follow "abusive" reporting of Herefordshire murder-suicide

4 November 2014


Above: John Knott, who police believe used a shotgun to murder his wife and kill himself. Reporting of the case focussed on a planning application for a small family Traveller site nearby

A ROMANY Gypsy woman and a Traveller campaign charity are complaining to the press regulator about the abusive reporting surrounding a recent murder/suicide of a retired couple in a Herefordshire village. According to the press, the tragedy was effectively blamed on a planning application by a local Romany Gypsy family.

The Traveller Movement and Miss Zoe Lee, who made the planning application for a small family site and who became the target of the abuse, have lodged complaints to the Press Complaints Commission about articles that appeared in five national and one regional newspaper. Miss Lee’s father told a reporter from the Daily Telegraph, that the Gypsy family had been “effectively accused of murder.”

The abusive reporting stemmed from an incident in Herefordshire in early August, when West Mercia Police were called to a house in the village of Pow Green where they discovered the bodies of a retired businessman and his wife. Both had been killed by a single gunshot wound. The police later issued a statement saying that it was a potential murder-suicide by gunshot, that no third party was being sought and that a shotgun had been recovered from the house.

Reports later confirmed that the couple had retired in 2006 and moved to the village of Pow Green and that the wife had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for at least a year and a half. The retired businessman’s stepdaughter later told reporters that she “didn’t want to speculate on the cause,” but also said she thought the tragedy had happened because of her stepfather’s “love for his wife and his distress over her degenerative terminal illness.”

However, neighbours of the couple and a former business colleague of the husband, who all declined to give their names, also told reporters that Mr Knott had recently objected to a “traveller site” being developed on a field next to his house. They told reporters that Mr Knott had murdered his wife and killed himself because he “feared” being “hemmed in” by “travellers”.

In the following days the newspapers led heavily on the anonymous speculation. The Sun led with “OAP Gypsy Agony Suicide”; The Daily Mail showed aerial photos of the crime scene and nearby Traveller sites – all marked in thick red lines. The Daily Express teased their readers with a front-page banner reading; “Tragedy of couple driven to suicide by Traveller’s site on their doorstep”, whilst inside the headline read “Man shoots ill wife and then turns gun on himself over traveller site plans.” Higher up the quality scale, the Daily Telegraph splashed “Devoted husband fighting gipsy camp next door driven to murder and suicide,” and the Independent weighed in with “'Devoted' husband shoots terminally-ill wife and self after battling travellers camp encroachment.” Even the Guardian managed to apportion one third of the content of its version to publishing speculation about the “travellers” being to blame for the businessman’s actions.

The Traveller Movement traced and got in touch with the Romany Gypsy family at the centre of the media storm. The applicant turned out to be a Miss Zoe Lee, a single twenty year old Romany Gypsy with her own local cleaning business, currently living with her mum and dad and younger sister in a rented house in a nearby market town of Ledbury. She said that reporters were camped outside her mum and dad’s; had been there all day with their “big burly minders,” and “kept banging on their door,” despite being repeatedly told “to go away”. Miss Lee told a Traveller Movement campaign worker that: “They are doing this to me because of what I am, not what I have done, aren’t they?”

Most of Zoe Lee’s wider family have already settled in the rolling Herefordshire countryside, some on the small local authority site and some on their own private ‘family’ sites, legitimately bought and developed with planning permission by themselves. Before she became a victim of press abuse, Miss Lee was simply trying to do the same. Her application was for a single static caravan and two tourers, whose roofs would have been barely visible above the landscaped hedging at the bottom end of the paddock from the businessman’s house – itself well screened by hedges and trees. The application had been recommended for approval by a Herefordshire County Council Planning Officer but the decision is not due until late September.

The PCC – which is currently in transition to become the new post-Leveson Inquiry press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation - has formally acknowledged the TM and Miss Lee’s complaints against The Sun, The Sun on Sunday, The Daily Mail, The Western Daily Press and the Daily Telegraph and an investigation is underway. The Daily Express will become a member of IPSO on September 8th and the TM has complained direct to the editor. The Traveller Movement submitted evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in an attempt to highlight the demonization by the press of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, yet since the Inquiry ended, the demonization has got worse. A spokesperson for the charity said: “For Gypsies and Travellers, almost all ‘news’ is bad news.”