Roma accuse government of hypocrisy over Jimmy Carr joke

Ministers’ criticism of comedian at odds with planned laws harmful to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, leaders say

Members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community have accused the government of hypocrisy after ministers condemned a Holocaust joke by Jimmy Carr while pushing through a raft of legislation hostile to their way of life.

The Traveller Movement, which represents the GRT community, said it had been “surprised” by the government’s promises to better protect the community against hate speech following the backlash to Carr’s joke, in which he said the genocide of Romany and Sinti gypsies in the Holocaust was ignored because people did not want to “focus on the positives”.

Greg Sproston, the policy and campaigns manager for the Traveller Movement, said the government was currently trying to pass three bills – on policing, nationality and borders and elections – all of which woud “have disproportionately negative impacts” on the GRT community. He added that a national strategy to reduce inequality in the community announced over two years ago “still has not materialised”.

“If the government is serious about protecting and supporting these communities, they would scrap this discriminatory legislation and bring forward the strategy without delay,” he said.

The policing bill is especially controversial within the GRT community as it would give police powers to move Travellers’ camps if anyone complained, regardless of whether a crime had been committed.

Billy Welch, a Gypsy leader, said he was consulting lawyers to see if Carr could be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. He said the comedian’s joke was offensive in part because of the legacy of trauma after between 200,000 and 2 million Romany and Sinti gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust.

“There are many still living who witnessed the brutality of what happened, and many more who lost their families in barbarous and sadistic murders. Making a joke of it is too painful,” he said.

The Traveller Movement has called on Netflix, which aired the His Dark Material special containing the joke in December, to remove the gag and apologise. The group’s petition has gained thousands of signatories. The charity has also offered to help the platform amend its editorial guidelines to prevent a repeat of the incident. “It’s hard to over-stress the hurt and distress this causes,” Sproston said.

Sproston said Carr’s joke demonstrated that the GRT community was consistently “seen as low-hanging fruit or a legitimate target”, and that many people did not understand that they were a defined ethnic minority whose rights were protected by law.

He said one young Irish Traveller told him “no matter what he achieved or where he is in life, as soon as he hears a comment like that it diminishes his progress and he’s back to square one, because it reminds him of everything society thinks about him”.

A recent survey by University of Birmingham researchers found that 44% of people in the UK had negative attitudes towards GRT people, making them the “least liked group”, nearly double the level for Muslims, who were the group to receive the next most prejudice.

Research by the Traveller Movement in 2017 found that 91% of GRT people had experienced discrimination, which it described as “the last acceptable form of racism”. These attitudes have a profound impact on areas such as employment and education, where GRT people underperform, and the criminal justice system, where they are over-represented.

Carr has defended the joke as raising awareness of the genocide of an estimated 25-50% of Europe’s population of Roma and Sinti gypsies, and some commenters have suggested it may have been intended ironically to highlight prejudice against the GRT community.

However, Sproston said the audience’s laughter and some reactions on social media show that anti-GRT attitudes are so deeply entrenched that many took the joke at face value, which could further harm an already deeply disadvantaged community.

Rosa Cisneros, a member of the GRT community who researches Romany culture at Coventry University, said she was “sad but not surprised” by Carr’s joke.

“This situation has highlighted that anti-Gypsyism and Romaphobia still exists today. For me, it isn’t about censoring Jimmy Carr or being offended or me being part of the ‘woke’ brigade that I want to just cancel a show or infringe on someone’s freedom of speech and his rights. No, I am utterly horrified that we live in a space where such harmful and hateful speech is accepted and seen as a joke.”

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said the government was “committed” to the national strategy to support the GRT community, and was supporting councils to build more authorised Traveller sites, which he said had increased by 46% since 2010.

He added: “But it is only right to give councils and the police powers to tackle the small minority of Travellers breaking the rules on unauthorised sites, which undermine good community relations.”


Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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