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Words matter: Jimmy Carr, public attitudes and a community maligned

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After the recent Jimmy Carr controversy, two new reports provide timely context on the scope of discrimination faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities in Britain, writes Irish in Britain's Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Christian Zik Nsonwu.

  • Photo Credit: Jonathan James Syer, for Friends, Families and Travellers

Carr’s ‘joke’ on Netflix is a reminder of the destructive dynamics that define the conversation about GRT communities. The subsequent commentary illustrates how the social constraints that often moderate and challenge harmful speech, breakdown when applied to the GRT community, perpetuating a level of ‘tolerated’ bigotry.  

A report published last month, The Dinner Table Prejudice, Islamophobia in Contemporary Britain, by researchers at the University of Birmingham analysing the attitudes to ethnic minority groups in the UK, characterises this reality for GRT communities. The research sought to gauge the British public's attitudes around Islamophobia, but incidentally revealed stark data on the prevalence of anti-GRT sentiment.

Researchers found a “highly concerning” level of negative attitudes among the UK public towards the GRT community. Their findings “show that it is not Muslims who are the ‘least liked’ group in Britain but Gypsies and Irish Travellers, who stand out by an almost 20 percent margin. Over 44 percent of respondents acknowledged negative attitudes towards this group, followed by Muslims (25.9 percent) and then Pakistanis (14.5 percent)”. 

Sarah Mann, Director of Friends, Families and Travellers told Irish in Britain:

 “Through our casework at Friends, Families and Travellers, we hear the real-life impact of jokes which dehumanise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people – whether it’s a child being bullied, a family targeted by hostile neighbours, or nomadic people concerned about having their way of life criminalised.

"Jimmy Carr’s joke perpetuates a historic and international prejudice. Roma and Sinti people were tortured, murdered and subject to medical experimentation in their hundreds of thousands during the war – and after the war’s end, were still seen as ‘criminal’ due to their ethnicity.

"The prejudice held for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people is deep rooted and insidious. Jimmy Carr can laugh at it, or he can stand up and challenge it. We all have a choice whether we stand up to prejudice.”

A toxic media narrative coupled with highly visible and unchallenged discriminatory language, has led to an ‘acceptable’ level of hostility towards the GRT community. This can mean that stating and sharing anti-GRT views does not attract censure or challenge in ways that other targets of discrimination would.

Carr’s repugnant joke on this platform is evidence that this culture is mainstream – it is important to remember that this show was a commissioned programme on Netflix. Many anti-hate and GRT organisations have made statements challenging not only this content, but also highlighting wider structural deficits in the protections for this community. Irish in Britain has also issued a statement on the issue here.  

Marc Willers QC, a barrister who has represented Gypsies and Travellers for many years, observes that:

“The widespread prejudice and hate speech that GRT people face here in the UK is an unwelcome fact of their daily lives; and to our collective shame has generally become known as the ‘last acceptable form of racism’.

“We must call this prejudice out whenever we see it, whether that be in the media, on Netflix, in Parliament, at work or in our own personal lives. Only then will we ensure that today’s GRT children do not experience the same level of bigotry as their ancestors have done.”

With new legislation introduced limiting the powers of peaceful protest, a lack of representation in parliament and insufficient political will to champion change, there is a vital role for civil society and community leadership to organise. Carr’s comments are not only offensive but potentially dangerous. The public forum for debate can be febrile and compounded by the narrow range of voices, media, and policymakers shaping the conversations. When language is this explicit people’s safety can clearly be at risk.

Destructive cycle

Media that Moves, a joint initiative by Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange and London Gypsies and Travellers, in collaboration with the Public Interest Research Centre(PIRC), examines the systems that perpetuate negative stereotyping of Gypsies and Travellers in the media. Through a series of 30 interviews with journalists, editors, academics and people from Gypsy and Traveller organisations, Media that Moves analyses the exploitation of GRT community by the media. Its findings highlight the destructive cycle that enables an anti-Gypsy/Traveller narrative.  

“When a researcher reviewed three years of coverage in 12 of the biggest online newspapers, he found a total of 365 news stories, features and opinion pieces. That’s a story in a big national every three days, not to mention the stories in other nationals, TV stations, or the many local outlets.

“What’s more, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express produced more than half the stories, showing that there is something of a tabloid campaign to over-represent, as well as mis-represent, Gypsies and Travellers.” 

The findings from this research map to the lived experience of our GRT member groups. It highlights the apparatus of discrimination that these communities face every day. This is exacerbated by a lack of positive portrayals of Gypsies and Travellers in the media, with partisan media outlets stoking moral panic, “churnalism” and the “drama triangle”. Old and poorly researched stories that play on harmful stereotypes for their audience are typically seen as ‘easy wins’ and are constantly recycled. 

This research highlights the insidious nature of the media cycle – misinformation and characterisation reinforce a culture of desensitisation. This means we are denied any acknowledgement or meaningful examination of the systems that create isolation and exclusion.

It is therefore no surprise that much of the public debate is uninformed and lacks understanding of the legal framework that nominally protects Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers. These communities are recognised as ethnic groups under the Race Relations Act 1976, and they are protected by the Equality Act 2010.

Impact of new law

New legislation, currently in the House of Lords, has a disproportionate impact on the GRT community. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will transform ‘trespassing’ from a civil wrong into a criminal offence, even though police forces do not support such a change. Activist, author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot has highlighted that it will allow the police to arrest Gypsies and Travellers and “confiscate their homes if they stop in places that have not been designated for them”.

Through this provision, any adult can be imprisoned for up to three months. The Bill would also give the police the powers to move Gypsy and Traveller encampments if complaints were made, regardless of whether a crime had been committed. Given that authorised sites cannot accommodate the GRT communities that need them, the threshold for compliance becomes impossible. 

The Media that Moves Report summarises calls for action for journalists, advocates, and campaigners. The writers ask organisations to speak out against poor reporting and inappropriate comments but ultimately to build positive connections with the GRT community:

“There is plenty of common cause between Gypsies and Travellers and other groups in society that are misrepresented in the media. There would be power in coming together on broader media campaigns, with specific shared demands like changes to press regulation.

“In the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, there is greater opportunity to raise public understanding of Gypsies and Travellers as a misrepresented ethnic group, and to make sure that the large racial justice organisations in the UK are also doing their job properly and including this in their remit.”

As a membership organisation, Irish in Britain, is proud to work with and represent GRT groups in our network. Equality is a foundation issue for this organisation. It is and will remain a key policy priority.