It's up to all of us to stand up for the rights of Scottish Gypsy Travellers

Mary Fee MSP, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee blogs on Amnesty International’s new research on Scottish Gypsy Travellers

I was honoured to chair the launch of two reports by Amnesty International on Scottish Gypsy Travellers. The event, which featured contributions from Scottish Gypsy Travellers, organisations that work within the community and local authorities looked at local service provision and media coverage of Scottish Gypsy Travellers throughout Scotland.

Sadly the reports show that despite positive steps there is still widespread discrimination against Gypsy Travellers. Unfortunately this discrimination is being exacerbated by coverage both locally and nationally in the written press and by politicians who are quick to condemn a minority group.

Nearly half, 48 per cent, of the newspaper articles on Gypsy Travellers during the timeframe of the Amnesty report can be classified as overtly negative. This is in comparison with only 28 per cent being regarded as positive and 25 per cent as neutral. The reason for negativity in many reports is the prevalence of stereotypes throughout. 38 per cent of all articles were quick to insinuate a link between Scottish Gypsy Travellers and criminality, with a further 32 per cent referencing dirt and poor hygiene within the community.

Whether this leads directly to the negative image of Gypsy Travellers found at large within the general public is hard to calculate but on some level I am sure it does contribute. 92 per cent of young Gypsy Travellers will have experienced bullying at some point in their life and one can’t help but feel that if that and whilst shows such as Big Fat Gypsy Wedding hide behind the perception of being informative to Gypsy Traveller values, they help only to reinforce these misconceptions.  

The 2010 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that 46 per cent of Scots believe that Gypsy Travellers would be unsuitable as primary school teachers, but on what grounds? Nobody today would dare say this against other minorities and rightly so, yet still this goes largely unchallenged. 37 per cent would be unhappy if a close friend or family member entered into a long-term relationship with a Gypsy Traveller. That is 37 per cent of the Scottish public who would be unhappy if their own friend or family member had found happiness. There is no other word for this than discrimination and this must be tackled.

It has been found that those aged 55 to 69 and 16 to 25 are more discriminatory against Gypsy Travellers than others. The latter figure, in particular, is depressing as this shows that it is not just simply a generational problem and that the Scottish Government must do more to help ensure that Gypsy Travellers are heavily included in any respect programme that tackles discrimination. However with 42 per cent of the public believing that giving money to organisations that help Gypsy Travellers find work is a bad use of government money this will not be an easy sell. Yet whilst it is all too easy to sit back and laugh at others we view differently rather than sitting up and taking action we, as elected representatives, have a duty to help and protect all within our constituency and the country as a whole.

No longer should elected representatives refer to Gypsy Travellers as people who ‘don’t care about this disgraceful mess they leave behind when moving on after being allowed to stay until the area stinks like a rotting tip’ nor that if Gypsy Travellers are in an ‘encampment’ then they are ‘giving me problems’. Amnesty found that out of all the comments from politicians during their research only four in total can be considered as positive. It is paramount that politicians should deal with all and any issues surrounding Gypsy Travellers with the respect and sensitivity that they would bestow on any other minority group, or indeed any other constituent full stop.  

Nor should journalists talk about a ‘plague’ of travellers or refer to their campsites as ‘illegal traveller sites’ particularly when the Scottish Government have instructed the use of the term ‘unauthorised traveller sites’. The harsh reality is that there are simply not enough council-run and private pitches to accommodate those that wish to travel. Journalists must also begin to make a conscious effort to build relationships and ensure that when reporting on a story they get the views from someone involved in the Gypsy Traveller community. This can lead to the balanced reporting that would ensure that gypsy travellers are no longer discriminated against. Sadly out of all the articles collected for this research only 6 per cent involved a comment from a Gypsy Traveller.

This leads to a vicious circle and it is not wholly the fault of the journalist. For relationships to grow and for the trust to cement the effort must come from both sides, including that of the Gypsy Traveller. For Gypsy Travellers to air their side of the story and to help fight misconceptions they must make themselves available for comment. One thing the Amnesty report makes clear is that journalists have at times reached out for comment but are met with reluctance from the Gypsy Traveller community. Again it is hard to tell if this reluctance stems from negative reporting that has preceded any contact with the community but in order to ensure that they are not compounding on the negative press they must makes themselves open to dialogue with journalists.

Even many ‘settlers’ that would consider them sympathetic or even supportive of gypsy travellers are so as long as it is ‘not in my back yard’. There are still many long roads to travel down to fight these misconceptions but we cannot fight them remaining silent. Amnesty International Scotland has highlighted the task at hand and it is up to all of us, politicians, journalists and the public, to stand alongside them and Gypsy Travellers.  

An abridged version of this post was published in The Scotsman on 12 April 2012

John Finnie MSP, Convener of the Cross Party Group on Human Rights at the Scottish Parliament, tabled a motion on Amnesty’s research:

Motion S4M-02558: John Finnie, Highlands and Islands, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 03/04/2012

On the Margins and Caught in the Headlines

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the two reports, On the Margins and Caught in the Headlines, on Scottish Gypsy/Travellers by Amnesty International; understands that On the Margins outlines a number of worrying issues in local authority service provision to the Gypsy/Traveller community; further understands that Caught in the Headlines examines the disproportionately negative media coverage of Gypsy/Travellers in the Scottish press; considers that there is still much to do to tackle the deep-rooted inequalities that face Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland; calls on local authorities to further develop good practice in working with the Gypsy/Traveller community, and calls on the Scottish media to tackle the prejudice toward Gypsy/Travellers that it considers is often portrayed in the media.

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