By Mike Doherty
Just as the controversy over the hyper-reporting of the suicide of Robin Williams was beginning to fade, West Mercia Police were called to a house in the village of Pow Green, Herefordshire, where they discovered the bodies of a retired businessman and his wife. Both had been killed by a single gunshot wound.
West Mercia Police later issued a statement saying that it was a potential murder-suicide by gunshot, that no third party was being sought and that a shotgun had been recovered from the house.
Reports confirmed that the retired businessman had retired in 2006 and moved to Pow Green, and that his wife had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. His stepdaughter later told reporters that she “didn’t want to speculate on the cause”, but also said she thought the tragedy had happened because of her stepfather’s “love for his wife and his distress over her degenerative illness”.
However, some of the businessman’s neighbours and a former business colleague, who all declined to give their names, also told reporters that Mr Knott had recently objected to a “traveller site” being developed on a field next to his house. They claimed told Mr Knott had murdered his wife and killed himself because he “feared” being “hemmed in” by “travellers”.
A witch-hunt duly ensued. The Sun led with “OAP Gypsy Agony Suicide”; the Daily Mail focused on house prices, showing aerial photos of the crime scene and nearby Traveller sites, all marked with thick red lines. The Daily Express enticed their readers with a front page banner headline reading “Tragedy of couple driven to suicide by Traveller’s site on their doorstep”, with an inside page declaring unequivocally “Man shoots ill wife and then turns gun on himself over traveller site plans.” Higher up the quality scale, the Daily Telegraph splashed with “Devoted husband fighting gipsy camp next door driven to murder and suicide,” and The Independent weighed in with “’Devoted’ husband shoots terminally-ill wife and self after battling travellers camp encroachment.” Even The Guardian managed to apportion one third of the content of its version to publishing speculation about “travellers” being to blame for the businessman’s actions. What had been a tragedy had now turned into persecution of an already stigmatised minority.
I traced the “gipsies” making the planning application who were at the centre of the media storm. The applicant turned out to be Zoe Lee, a Romany Gypsy with her own local cleaning business, who is currently living with her parents and younger sister in a rented house in the nearby market town of Ledbury. The first thing she told me was that reporters were camped outside her parents’ home, had been there all day with their “big burly minders” and “kept banging on their door”, despite being told repeatedly to leave.
I think at this point I need to make it clear that Zoe Lee is an ordinary member of the public as well as a Gypsy. That fundamental idea of equality – that Romany Gypsies and Travellers are ordinary people too – seems to be a hard fact to grasp for some of the public. That is no surprise given the kind of press that the UK’s approximately 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers receive, which tends to concentrate on crime and a significant minority who are more or less forced to live by the side of the road. The Traveller Movement submitted evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in an attempt to raise this demonization by the press of a minority group of British citizens. Since the inquiry ended, the demonization has actually got worse. For Gypsies and Travellers, all news is bad news.
There were Lees in Herefordshire long before its lush rural hamlets became a magnet for wealthy retirees. Like most Gypsy and Traveller families, the Herefordshire Lees no longer live nomadically, they work, they pay taxes and the younger generation – like Zoe Lee – finish school with qualifications.
Zoe Lee’s family have only recently moved into rented housing after the traditional nomadic life became untenable for them, and a pitch on a Local Authority site was unavailable. They are used to living as a family in a group of caravans and they want to go back to that. They have kept their horses on the Pow Green paddock next to the retired businessman’s house for a number of years, first as tenants, then as owners. Most of Zoe Lee’s wider family have already settled in the rolling Herefordshire countryside, some on the small local authority site and some on their own private ‘family’ sites, legitimately brought and developed with planning permission.
Before she became a victim of press abuse, Zoe Lee was simply trying to do the same. Her application was for a single static caravan and two tourers, whose roofs would have been barely visible above the landscaped hedging at the bottom end of the paddock. The house itself is well screened by hedges and trees.
Zoe Lee has several clients in the area, some of whom are also wealthy retirees. Two of them immediately cancelled their contracts when the media storm broke. Yet in a message that editors need to hear loud and clear, the rest of her clientele are still with her. In fact, two are complaining to the Press Complaints Commission, while two more have gone out of their way to show their support in other ways.
The Traveller Movement is also supporting Zoe Lee and will be making a joint complaint with her to the PCC, soon to be IPSO. We are doing this because, whatever the cause of the tragedy and whatever the papers say, Zoe Lee is not to blame and did not deserve the press she received.
This young woman has become yet another victim of press abuse and she is keen to fight back. When I explained the complaints process to her, and that I believed the articles about her breached three clauses of the Editor’s Code of Practice – 1 (Accuracy), 5 (Suicide) and 12 (Discrimination) – this is what she said: “If it helps to stop this happening to someone else like me, then I’m up for it.”
Mike Doherty is the Campaigns and Communications Officer for the Traveller Movement and news reporter for the Traveller’s Times Online. The Traveller Movement is a Hacked Off civil society supporter and campaigns for a fair and accurate press for the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers. On the 28th November, the Traveller Movement and eight Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller co-complainants, represented by Howe and Co solicitors, will be launching a judicial review of Ofcom’s handling of complaints about the harm and offence caused by the hit Channel 4 TV series, ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’.