I’m a cynic.
I admit it.
Actually I’m not. I straddle that see-saw fence where I rock from extreme cynicism to this naive wide-eyed puppy-like state. Today I’m feeling cynical.
Many years ago adult comic Viz ran a controversial strip called “Thieving Gypsy Bastards” in it a family of travellers did everything that the negative stereotypes would suggest, fly tipping, scamming, petty crime etc. All with authorities turning a blind eye. Even as an impressionable teenager I thought it was more than a bit close to the bone. But Viz sought to redeem themselves in the same issue by running a short strip about a nice honest gypsy woman. In one way you could say Viz were parodying the views of society in their strips. More likely, they wanted to get away with an appallingly racist cartoon by throwing a tiny morsel of contriteness back at an inflammatory situation. Either way it was years ago. I still feel uncomfortable about that particular strip but Viz made me laugh for over a decade so I guess I swang on my see-saw with wild abandon there.
So what does this have to do with the news then?
Well it seems that the press have taken a leaf out of Viz’s book of late. If not the press then maybe the police or the government or whoever decides how to time criminal and legal investigations.
You see a couple of weeks ago the media view of travellers appeared to be getting more and more benign and inclusive as time went by. I’m not naive enough to think that communities were welcoming caravans into their green spaces up and down the country, but shows (albeit in a voyeuristic way) like “My big fat Gypsy wedding” appeared to have given some insight into the travellers ways of life. Last month a traveller, Paddy Doherty, won the 2011 series of celebrity big brother. Even with viewers hemorrhaging since the move to channel 5 this is surely something of a landmark where popular culture is treating the travelling community as more than the stereotypical “Pikey/Gyppo” playground taunts you still hear in shameful common usage among adults. You could say that travellers were beginning to find themselves more integrated into society than ever before. Alternatively you could say that they’d gone from being figures of hate to figures of fun. Posing in their garish dresses for us all to gawp at like we used to at Victorian freak shows. Modern day clowns put in front of a camera purely to entertain the rest of society with their backward ways. There I go again, swinging from one side to the other!
The problem though, is that if you humanise these travel folk then you have to start respecting their rights. Their way of life. You know – all that stuff which we brush under the table when it comes to travellers. Now I’m not gonna launch into a big holier than thou defense of travellers here. The fact is that their lifestyles are problematic to the rest of society. They do tend to leave a lot of rubbish to clear up on their travels. They do cause friction with local communities. There are a lot of scams that are run by travellers which are pretty unpleasant (although there are many more run by our banks which appear to deserve billions in taxpayers support so it’s all relative isn’t it?).
So what do we do. Well the Dale Farm eviction has been set in the calendar for some time now. Everyone involved knew about it. But dammit! all these positive vibes that travellers are getting? There’s a chance that the public might be sympathetic to a community that’s living in a scrapyard and not bothering the rest of the world. People might start asking why are we wasting £18m to evict people and cause homelessness when our economy should have other things to worry about? People might start asking about their basic human rights – and why it is that we’re evicting people who have lived somewhere for years specifically to cause misery and hardship in a very unpleasant period of cutbacks and unemployment.
How do you take steps to undermine that sympathy?
Well, like I say, I’ve heard very little in the news about travellers, until a week or so before the eviction – when suddenly travellers were transformed overnight from simple folk who had big flash weddings into slave-trading scum! In the 8 days before the Dale Farm evictions were due we were suddenly bombarded with news about how they’d been chaining people up and feeding them a slice of bread a day.
It doesn’t matter that in the aftermath of the raid which liberated these slaves, some of them claimed they had not been ill-treated. Perhaps it’s a case of Stockholm syndrome. What mattered is that suddenly, these weren’t people deserving of sympathy but they were evil peddlers in human misery.
It wasn’t just the Bedfordshire raid that caught the imagination of the press. Suddenly there were slave traders everywhere in the travel community. A few days ago The Mirror was running stories about how travellers sold a slave for £10,000. The Daily Mail was running pieces about slaves kept in kennels by travellers. There were hundreds of articles pumping out fresh allegations, fresh raids, more evidence of slavery. Now I’m not gonna dispute all these allegations. The fact is that there probably were people kept, as slaves, in squalid conditions by organised criminals who live on the edge of the law. These gangs were exploiting the isolation of traveller communities to act with impunity. This is a nasty fact. Same as any community on the edge of the law, such as the trafficking of sex slaves as prostitutes.
Which brings us to the Dale Farm evictions.
Now this is hardly an open and shut case. It seems the plight of the resident travellers at Dale Farm have been attracting international interest. the UN commission of Human Rights has offered to step in an negotiate. A LOT OF PEOPLE think that Basildon council are acting rashly. The Previous government refused to sanction actions here precisely because of the backlash that it might cause. This isn’t some “do-gooders” or politically correct campaign. There are international bodies with serious reservations about this fuckwittery.
So why is it going ahead? I don’t know. But I’d imagine it would have been a lot harder if the police and press hadn’t waited until a week before the proposed eviction before suddenly throwing themselves headlong into a slavery campaign that must have been rumbling on for the last few years… decades if some of the accounts are to be believed. While the wide-eyed naive boy who I’d prefer to be thinks this is just coincidence I have a cynical itch at how staged the timing of all this press hysteria has come to be. It seems that the media are doing a reverse Viz. Demonising a community just as one of the community’s most high-profile and widely supported legal battles reaches its peak!