The award-winning current affairs programme, Dispatches, has been condemned for a documentary aired on Channel 4 about crime and Traveller communities.
The documentary – The Truth About Traveller Crime – focused on crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Traveller community in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, while exploring criminal activities linked to other sites across England.
In response, however, critics threatened legal action and said they would complain to the media regulator, Ofcom, with some claiming that Dispatches had promoted “negative myths and stereotypes” and used “skewed data and flawed methodology.
They believe the programme could lead to hate crime against Travellers but Channel 4 has defended the investigation and said Dispatches examined an important issue that was “addressed fairly, accurately, and with due impartiality”.
The 45-minute documentary visited Lutterworth and also detailed other crimes reported to have been committed by the 300,000 strong Traveller community, suggesting that a disproportionate number of crimes were committed by its members.
Critics of the programme in Scotland include Professor Colin Clark, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He called on Dispatches to publish the raw data and methodology used, so that the “interpretation and analysis that was broadcast on air can be independently and objectively interrogated”.
He added: “What was most disappointing about the programme, aside from the blatant anti-Traveller and anti-Irish agenda that was evident, was the skewed data and flawed methodology used to support the assertion that there is a demonstrated link between the geography of Traveller sites and spikes in local crime rates.
“It needs to be made clear that correlation does not equal causation and the producers were guilty of this on several occasions.”
This programme did much to feed negative myths and stereotypes but little to portray the reality of Gypsy/Traveller life. Dr Lynne Tammi, Article 12
The human rights group, Article 12, also expressed concern over the programme, arguing that it sensationalised the issue and failed to provide balance.
Dr Lynne Tammi, national coordinator for Article 12 in Scotland, said the statistics and narrative “distorted and exaggerated to attract attention and ratings serve only to present false social representations and create further divisions within society”.
“Bolstered by trigger words – crime, guns, drugs, over-run, violence – this programme did much to feed negative myths and stereotypes but little to portray the reality of Gypsy/Traveller life and the prejudice members of the community face on a daily basis,” Tammi argued.
“We are living in unprecedented times. This presents us with necessary choices,” she continued.
“We can choose to accept the distorted narratives and dramatisations provided by programmes such as ‘The Truth About Traveller Crime’ or we can choose to challenge them – only thus can we ensure that programmes which sensationalise and seduce do not replace fair and balanced reporting or encourage further marginalisation of those already living on the peripheries.”
“As a social justice activist I spend my life challenging racism, but right now I don’t know where to begin,” he said.
“My community is terrified at the damage this show will do. Releasing such a programme at any time is irresponsible, but during a time of national pandemic, where minority communities are already disproportionately affected by Covid-19 – releasing this show is unforgivable.”
This show portrayed all Travellers as criminals, but focused on a handful of isolated examples, many of which have not been verified or proven. Davie Donaldson, Scottish Traveller and campaigner
Donaldson said he is a supporter of critical thinking and documentaries which “seek to get to the truth”, but he accused Dispatches of failing to achieve this and claimed that his community had not been properly represented.
“Their statistics were factually inaccurate, their methodologies of research vague, one Scottish professor calling for the release of the programme’s raw data, as many complaining that the ‘facts’ portrayed by the show were hearsay and never actually proven. It also only had two Traveller voices, one charity chief executive and one reality TV star – our voices were disallowed,” he added.
“This show portrayed all Travellers as criminals, but focused on a handful of isolated examples, many of which have not been verified or proven. It tarred my whole community with the acts of a minority of its members, from the offset it hoped to verify the age old stereotype that all Travellers are criminals – it didn’t in any way show a balanced picture.”
Pauline Anderson OBE, chair of the Traveller Movement, accused Dispatches of skewing an interview she gave the programme and said: “I am absolutely appalled at the misuse of my interview in this sensationalist TV show. At a time of national crisis when broadcasters should be bringing people together, they are instead sowing division and leaving my community vulnerable to hate crime and abuse.
“It’s an absolute disgrace to journalism. We expect more from Channel 4.”
In reply, a Channel 4 spokesman said: “We stand by the journalism in this programme which examined an important issue that was addressed fairly, accurately, and with due impartiality in accordance with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Channel 4 regularly addresses uncomfortable issues and any delay in transmission would have been unfair on the contributors.
“The statistics were drawn from government and police sources and analysis of the association between crime levels and some Traveller sites was undertaken by highly professional people.
“The programme included contributions from Travellers and Traveller advocates as well as people who detailed their experiences of living near certain Traveller sites and who questioned the authorities’ approach to criminality. Other representative groups were approached but did not respond or declined to take part in the programme.”