Monday, March 14, 2005

Fair and unbalanced reporting

Last week, you may have noticed the headlines screaming out of such papers of record as the Sun, Mail and Express, promising that John Prescott was about to order local councils to allow travellers to set up campsites wherever they damned well pleased. These were, naturally, accompanied by scenes of devastation and filth. The Sun declared 'war on gypsy free for all'.

Something suggested to me that this wasn't quite the whole story, so I thought I'd do a little research of my own. By the power of the internet, documents and information that used to be open to a select few policy wonks and journalists are now easily available to political freaks like me.

So, a quick glance at the ODPM site revealed a couple of things. Firstly a news release about 'Temporary Stop Notices' - exciting stuff this, I tell you. These allow councils to immediately stop unauthorised gypsy encampments and other breaches of planning regulations without the usual notice period. The problem isn't this new power, it is the press release announcing it. While this details the powers and points out that the police already have powers under the 2003 Anti Social Behaviour Act to evict unauthorised encampments where there is an alternative site available.

So far, so good - what can have got the press so riled?

Here's the key phrase:

'[The Deputy Prime Minister] is minded to direct Brentwood Borough Council to produce a Development Plan Document to allocate land for Gypsies and Travellers.'

There we have it. Evil Prescott forcing councils to give gypsies prime sites next to you. Except... that councils are already supposed to identify suitable sites for travellers. The point is that Brentwood haven't done their job, so the DPM is going to make them do it and there will even be funding to support this. The ODPM have also launched an equalities and diversity package, which includes a case study on Fenland District Council's policies on travellers (p127 in the file). This policy invests some time in working with the travelling community to identify suitable sites and seems to have resulted in fewer issues with existing residents and small communities of travellers living happily close to amenities that they need.

Needless to say, the Tories jumped in, with Eric Pickles as the rentaquote mouthpiece, spewing:
'The Government is riding roughshod over planning laws, setting targets for more traveller sites and ignoring the views of local communities. Local councils will be forced to follow arbitrary diktats for new traveller camps - imposed by unwanted and unelected regional bureaucrats.'
You might have thought that he would take the time to read the document, but that would be asking too much - far too easy to give the Daily Malevolent their quick quotation. It simply isn't true.

Roy Greenslade in the Guardian today has more to say on the reporting of this issue, but I have no doubt - the press maliciously used the press release to feed their own prejudices. 22 tabloid pages were taken up with this drivel, including four front pages, packed with lies and misrepresentations.

You read it and you tell me - does that justify the vitriol directed at John Prescott and gypsies?

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