DEMONS FOR A NEW AGE?
NEW AGE TRAVELLERS, THE MEDIA AND MORAL PANICS
The number of travellers in the UK has been estimated at anywhere between 60-120,000 (Bowers 2002; Council of Europe, 1994, cited by Hetherington, 2000; Gypsy & Traveller Law Reform Coalition, 2006). This includes Gypsies, Showmen, New Age Travellers, Scottish and Irish Travellers as well as labouring gangs and other itinerants squatting on empty land or derelict buildings (Earle, Dearling, Whittle, Glasse & Gubby 1994). Whilst these different groups of travellers may represent a plethora of separate cultures and beliefs, they all have one thing in common - the persecution of their nomadic lifestyle (Clark & Dearling, 1999).
“Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infractions constitute deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders” (1963, cited in McLaughlin et al., 2003)
The very name ‘New Age Travellers’ is generally considered to be a media label (Davis, Grant & Locke, 1994). The fact that this group of travellers have become universally known as such, despite rejection of the title by many who follow this lifestyle, points to the influence of the media on public perception of these travellers. Also known as the ‘Peace Convoy’, or in much of the tabloid media simply as ‘Hippies’ (Mason, 2006), making reference to the roots of the movement in the free festivals of the 1970’s.
The first ‘Peoples Free Festival’ at Stonehenge took place in 1974 and was inspired by festivals such as Woodstock in America and the Isle of Wight and Windsor Free festivals in the UK (Barrett, 2006). As other festivals began to spring up throughout the countryside, it was a small step for people travelling from festival to festival throughout the summer, to actually living in their vehicles throughout the year (Channel 4, 1991). Festivals were of major importance to this newly emerging Traveller population not only as social meeting place but as a market place operating it own economy. Vehicles, food, drugs, handicrafts and services could be bought, sold or bartered at festivals, and this provided a means of financing the lifestyle throughout the year (Hetherington, 2000). Added to this was the self policing aspect of the festivals, and indeed the lifestyle as a whole, whereby whatever problems occurred were dealt with or resolved without recourse to outside agencies (Carey, 2006). While a carnivalesque atmosphere presided, whereby normal rules were turned on their head (Hetherington, 2000), these were not lawless gatherings. A strong sense of community and the pagan spirit of ‘An it harm none, do what thou wilt’ (the Wiccan Rede, see for example, Gates, 2006) created an autonomous society but meant that those who did overstep the boundaries were dealt with quickly and sometimes severely, often by expulsion from the site (Carey, 2006).
Much has been said about the reasons for the emergence of New Age Travellers. Certainly there would have been those who sought a solution to difficult social circumstances such as homelessness, financial difficulties, relationship breakdown etc (Davis et al., 1994), but this alone would not explain the relatively small numbers who have adopted this lifestyle. There needs also to have been an ideology, perhaps influenced by the counter-culture of the 1960’s. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who travelled around America in the 1960’s in psychedelic painted vehicles, have been cited as an influence (Worthington, 2006; Hetherington, 2000) as well as a growing awareness of social and environmental issues - the term ‘Peace Convoy’ referring to the involvement of New Age Travellers in protests against nuclear weapons in the early 1980’s (Hetherington, 2000).
A search for self sufficiency and authenticity is another motivation put forward by academics (Worthington, 2006; Barrett, 2006; Lodge, 2006) and Travellers alike (see Lowe & Shaw (eds), 1993). This is an explanation for the importance of festivals, and in particular Stonehenge, in the emergence and subsequent culture of New Age Travellers. Stonehenge as a cultural gathering place, particularly at the Midsummer Solstice, is not confined to New Age Travellers, but rather was adopted by them for reasons which will be discussed below. Built over 4000 years ago, Stonehenge was ‘re-discovered’ in 1723 and by the end of the 19th century up to 3000 people would gather there for the Solstice, with pubs in nearby Amesbury staying open all night to accommodate the often rowdy visitors (Worthington, 2006). The establishment of the Peoples Free Festival was simply a continuation of an age old tradition, responding to a need, observed across cultures and time, for people to come together and celebrate (Lodge1, 2006)
By 1984 Stonehenge Festival was a month long affair attended by an estimated 40,000 people (Carey, 2006). On the whole it was peaceful and, consistent with the authorities attitudes of toleration shown in the 1970’s, was managed peacefully by the Police (Worthington, 2006). However the festival was perhaps becoming problematic, due to the growing scale but also in the perception that it represented an open defiance and resistance to the accepted order of mainstream society (Hetherington, 2000). To understand why this was viewed as such a threat it is also necessary to understand something of the political climate of these times. The Conservatives had come into power, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, in 1979 and had set about reforming a country which, economically at least, was on its knees. Riots in Toxteth and Brixham in the early 1980s are an indication of the dissent and rebellion felt by many in the lower classes. Police tactics employed in the Miners Strike heralded a new direction in police organisation (James, 2005) perceived by many as the attempted imposition of a police state (Lodge, 2006). In the light of all this, it seems inevitable that some kind of confrontation with New Age Travellers would follow.
And follow it did! In 1985, English Heritage, newly founded by the government to manage sites such as Stonehenge, decided through consultation with local councils and police, to ban the upcoming festival at Stonehenge. To this effect a four mile exclusion zone was set up around Stonehenge and large numbers of police were drafted in from surrounding constabularies to ensure the festival did not go ahead (Channel 4, 1991). On June 1st, a convoy of 140 Travellers vehicles was stopped by a police roadblock near the Hampshire/Wiltshire border - a good three miles outside the exclusion zone. What followed has become known, inaccurately, as The Battle of the Beanfield and what was described by veteran ITN reporter Kim Sabido, as
“Some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist” (Channel 4, 1991)
There are several good accounts which chronicle the events of that day (see, for example, the Channel 4 documentary ‘Operation Solstice’, 1991, or Alan Lodges ‘The Story So Far’, 2006), but for the purposes of this essay a blow by blow account is not necessary. There are, however, some interesting points to be made in relation to theories of deviance, deviancy amplification and the creation of moral panics.
Beckers’ Label theory can be clearly evidenced here, in that the travellers were breaking no law until the authorities acted to outlaw the festival and took out an injunction and created an exclusion zone around Stonehenge. This exclusion zone did not apply to local residents, or to those people driving along the A303 right past the monument, but was applied to anyone who looked like a New Age Traveller or festival-goer. In this way, anyone attempting to reach Stonehenge with any intention of holding or attending a festival was immediately criminalised, and the events of June 1st led to the largest mass arrest in history. Likewise, the Public Order Act 1986, the governments first attempt to deal with New Age Travellers, made made trespass a criminal, rather than a civil offence for the first time in hundreds of years (Lodge, 2006).
The effect of this labelling process may have contributed to the events of the day as well as having a longer term effect on New Age Traveller culture and lifestyle. Wilkins (1965) theory of deviancy amplification was heavily drawn on by Stanley Cohen in his work on moral panics (1987, 2nd edition), and can be applied here. The diagram below demonstrates the theory most clearly, showing the spiral which occurs once a group have been labelled as deviant and have drawn a response from the general public, media or other public institution. Both the deviance and the response can escalate during a moral panic, and become a self fulfilling prophesy.
Firstly we can apply the theory to the events of June 1st 1985. The convoy of travellers, faced with arrest at the roadblock, broke through the hedge and fence into the adjacent field, thus committing criminal damage. After a tense stand-off lasting several hours, up to 1000 police in full riot gear came into the field and began smashing windscreens and windows and violently arresting travellers. The remaining travellers then began to drive their vehicles around the field and into another (bean)field to evade arrest. One particular coach, its occupants having witnessed the police brutality towards fellow travellers and their vehicles, kept driving ever more erratically and refusing to stop. When the police finally managed to bring this coach to a standstill they swarmed upon it in huge numbers and acted even more severely in their arrest of the occupants, as a reaction to the seemingly defiant stance of these particular travellers (Channel 4, 1991)
Thus there is a clear escalation of what may be termed or viewed as deviance in the rule-breaking of the travellers, as well as in the response of the police, which in fact could also be termed as deviant. Likewise there was perhaps a longer term escalation of deviance amongst the travellers in two ways - that the resulting media attention attracted other people to the lifestyle, and that an attitude developed amongst travellers, that nothing mattered anymore. As Lodge (2006) describes it:
"There were plenty of people who had got something positive together, who came out of the Beanfield with a world view of 'fuck everyone!'"
The involvement of the media at this point is also very interesting and ties in with Cohens analysis of media involvement in moral panics. Cohens interactionist approach, being more interested in the process of moral panics, was non-committal in the reasons or motivation for media reaction, stating that
“The mass media operate within certain definitions of what is newsworthy … there are built-in factors, ranging from the individual newsman’s intuitive hunch about what constitutes a ‘good story’, through precepts such as ‘give the public what it wants’ to structured ideological biases, which predispose the media to make a certain event into news” (1987:45)
"The 'battle' itself took place on Saturday; by time the Monday morning papers were published the event was no longer of first importance, for the riot at Heysel, which put the whole world of football in disarray, had become the main event of the moment" (2006)
However, Mason also identified, in line with Cohen (1987), what was to become an ongoing pattern of media distortion and misrepresentation, stating that
"In practically all the articles in the Sun covering this episode, the 'hippies' are presented as potentially violent and delinquent, while the police are seen as an objective authority, whose words are always worthy of respect" (2006)
This kind of reporting, where the words and opinions of 'experts' are given particular weight, was identified by Herman & Chomsky as one of the ‘filters’ in their model of the media. In ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Herman and Chomsky view the media as a hegemonic tool which serves to
“filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public” (1988)
In this sense, the media are part of what they term a ‘propaganda model’, but this is not viewed as a conspiracy, but rather as the way that capitalism inevitably functions. They argue that this hegemony is so naturalized that journalists and other media professionals are not aware that they are operating with anything other than complete integrity.
On this occasion there were very few journalists actually present to witness the events they reported, the majority of them having followed directives to stay behind police lines at the bottom of the hill "for their own safety". Many of the reporters and photographers who did venture forward were blocked, threatened with arrest or subsequently found that their material had mysteriously disappeared (Channel 4, 1991). ITN's Kim Sabidos heartfelt narration was replaced by a dispassionate voice-over when the heavily edited version of his report was aired on the national news that evening.
"When I got back to ITN during the following week and I went to the library to look at all the rushes, most of what I thought we'd shot was no longer there. From what I've seen of what ITN have provided since, it just disappeared, particularly some of the nastier shots" (Sabido, cited by Carey, 2006)
Similarly, a freelance photographer, working for the Observer that day, having been arrested and thereby removed from the scene at the time, only to find that the negatives he had managed to shoot later disappeared from Observer archives during an office move. Another photographer who narrowly evaded arrest, found that his film disappeared despite having been left in the keeping of a firm of solicitors (Carey, 2006).
Another aspect of media reportage that Mason picks up, is the ridiculing of the Earl of Cardigan, who allowed travellers to recuperate on the land he managed for his father in Savernake Forest, in the days after the 'battle'. Local aristocrat and secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association, the Earl actually witnessed the entire debacle on June 1st, and was appalled by what he described as "unspeakable" police violence and "grotesque events" (Carey, 2006). In the media he was portrayed as a 'loony lord' with even the Times declaring that being "barking mad was probably hereditary" - an oblique reference to the fact that the Earls great-great-grandfather led the charge of the Light Brigade (Mason, 2006; Carey, 2006). In this way the media presented a view of the Earl as "the typical upper class twit" (Mason, 2006), perhaps seeking to undermine his credibility as a witness (Carey, 2006).
Justification for the police action that day, as well as one theory of media involvement in moral panics generally (insert ref), was that it was a response to the concerns of the general public. However, this explanation falters in the light of anecdotal evidence of the local reaction to the convoy which made its way towards Stonehenge that day. As Lodge says
“People stood outside their garden gates, smiling and waving at us. A carnival atmosphere with little evidence of the ‘local opposition’ that we had been led to believe was one of the reasons for obtaining the court orders” (2006)
Observer correspondent Nick Davies also describes the local reaction to the convoy in these terms, and discusses how his family and friends, who lived nearby, neither opposed the festival or could condone the police action (Channel 4, 1991)
In this vein I can also cite my own experience when in 1992 I was at the head of a convoy heading for a festival at Smeathorpe, near the Somerset/Devon border. Having been turned back by police roadblock on the A30, we attempted to reach the festival by way of the tiny country lanes which criss-crossed the area. We were again intersected by the police at a crossroads in the centre of a large village and a stand off developed as we refused to turn to the left where the roadblock was preventing our route straight on. The local villagers, far from opposing or feeling intimidated by what was now a large number of angry travellers, brought out drinks and sandwiches to us and a prominent local man came forward and announced, on behalf of the village, that we were welcome and they didn’t understand why the police were blocking our access to the nearby festival!
Of course, this wasn’t always the reaction encountered and at the time of my own involvement with the New Age Traveller scene there was widespread intolerance of travellers amongst the general public. What is unclear however, is whether this intolerance was genuinely bottom up, or was created by the media amongst a public who, for the most part, would have had little or no direct experience of New Age Travellers. The ‘willfull ignorance’, observed as an aspect of moral panics (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, cited by Jones & Jones,1999) leads the public to embrace the stereotypes presented by the media with little question.
The stereotype of New Age Travellers presented by the media and by politicians could be described as a self fulfilling prophesy, brought about largely by the spiral of deviancy amplification as a result of attitudes, policies and legislation against New Age and other travellers. Typically portrayed as work-shy dole scroungers (Hetherington, 2000), a study by carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2001, stated that these stereotypes were “greatly exaggerated”. The study found that paid work was important to New Age Travellers, with the majority of those interviewed either working or having had work within the last year, and few claiming benefits fraudulently or unnecessarily. The study also acknowledged the role that festivals had played in the Travellers desired self-sufficiency (Utting, 2001). This point is also mirrored in a 1986 report on ‘Itinerant Claimants’ commissioned by the then Department of Health and Social Security, which recognised that police action had
“disrupted the normal festival economy, and large numbers of claims to Supplementary Benefit were made” (cited by Carey, 2006)
Likewise there is a stereotype of travellers constantly trespassing on private land, “with no respect for the law or the rights of others” (Douglas Hurd MP, cited by Hetherington, 2006). This is constantly reinforced by the media with words such as “invasion” and “rampage” (Mason, 2006) and by headlines such as the Daily Telegraphs “Hordes of Marauding Locusts” (1992, cited by Lodge, 2006). This linguistic association of Travellers as some kind of army can also be seen in a confidential police report on the Battle of the Beanfield, which describes the convoy in terms of “leaders” and “lieutenants or warriors [who] carry out the wishes of the convoy leader, intimidating other groups on site” (cited by Carey, 2006). Police logs from June 1st 1985, directs officers to concentrate their efforts on the vehicles at the front of the convoy, which they term “the personnel carriers” (Channel 4, 1991)
This representation of New Age Travellers as an invading force is farcical, but has the effect of presenting the Travellers as a serious, physical threat to the state. Again there may be a case to answer for the theory of deviancy amplification. It has been argued that as a result of the policies and legislation aimed at the Travellers, and in particular the demise of the festival scene, the community became fragmented and the small element of Travellers intent on causing trouble was less easy to contain (Lodge2, 2006).
However, there are other, more subtle points to be made here. A report for the Childrens Society makes clear that Travellers will avoid stopping on private or farm land wherever possible, thus negates the stereotype of wanton trespass and disregard for property. The fact that Travellers do park on private land has been shown to be a direct result of legislation contained in the Public Order Act 1986, which left little option to do otherwise (Davis et al., 1994). Powers contained in this Act, which were aimed at "persons residing in vehicles" (Johnson, Murdoch & Willers, 2006), were further strengthened in the Criminal Justice Act 1994, and effectively outlawed New Age and other travellers (Rosenberger, 2006). Not only did trespass become a criminal offence, punishable by fine or imprisonment, but the duty of local authorities to provide sites for travellers, as laid down in the Caravan Sites Act 1968, was lifted. At the same time traditional Travellers sites which had been in use for centuries, were sealed off or built upon, leading to a 67% decrease between 1986 and 1993 (Community Architecture Group study, cited by Lodge1, 2006). As a result many Travellers were then forced to park on private land, thus criminalising themselves.
The Criminal Justice Act is seen by some as a reaction to a general increase in festival after 1985 (Channel 4, 1991), and in particular to the festival at Castlemorten Common in 1992, which drew huge media attention. Others maintain that Castlemorten was "at least partly engineered" by the authorities (Lodge2, 2006). This claim is made on the grounds that a huge police intelligence operation had been running for some time, and leaked documents revealed that enhanced police resources were in place for the expected Avon Free Festival that weekend, making it highly unlikely that a festival could have gone ahead without police knowledge or intervention. My own experience supports this. Having set off from Oxford in a convoy of 4 or 5 vehicles we were heading, on vague information received, for Stroud area. Just north of Bristol we were stopped by police and escorted by them for the next eight hours, herded into a larger and larger convoy, eventually comprising at least 100 vehicles. Having no idea exactly where or why the police were escorting us, we were both relieved and deeply suspicious when they eventually delivered us to Castlemorten, where a festival was just getting underway, attracting an estimated 30,000 people (Lodge2, 2006)
The media outrage with which this festival was met could be argued as promoting or even manufacturing justification for the Criminal Justice Bill which followed hard on its heels (Lodge2, 2006). Police powers were stepped up which meant that unauthorised sites could be evicted with ease, whilst no authorised sites would be made available, and outlawed nomadism once and for all. The potential for further deviancy amplification was recognised in the Childrens Society Report, Out of Site, Out of Mind, which stated that
"With repeated evictions, frustrations will increase, and the relationship between Travellers and the local authority and the police will become more prone to conflict" (Davis et al., 1994)
The perceived result of the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act was that Travellers were finally beaten. They dropped out of the media limelight and therefore out of public consciousness. Certainly things changed, but New Age Travellers have not, in reality, disappeared.
"In some ways the CJA sorted the wheat from the chaff - the more sorted travellers either found safe park-ups, bought land and hid away or ran the gauntlet of the planning system, moved to Europe and generally learnt to keep their heads down" (Ground Elder, 2004)
In conclusion it can be seen that the media played a role in the creation of the moral panic surrounding New Age Travellers. It is unlikely that any other than a minority of the general public were affected by or had any direct experience of New Age Travellers, which makes it hard to equate the instigation of the moral panic with genuine, bottom up, public concern. Rather it could be argued that New Age Travellers were seen as a direct threat to capitalism, and therefore to the elite, who then sought to eradicate them. The show of force displayed at in 1985 was not only ineffective but counter-productive in that, through media attention, more people were attracted to the lifestyle and festivals proliferated. The introduction of legislation created a spiral of deviancy amplification which went some way to justifying the stereotypes portrayed in the media. This ongoing negative media coverage, mirrored by the comments of various MPs, could be seen as a more hegemonic strategy, which turned public opinion against Travellers, ultimately justifying the introduction of more draconian legislation. This legislation, ostensibly aimed at New Age Travellers and the Rave culture, was also used, despite assurances to the contrary, against travellers and gypsies of all persuasions, showing that it is the nomadic lifestyle, rather than the activities of any particular group of travellers, that is deemed undesirable. New Age Travellers have not gone away but, unable to gather in such large numbers, are no longer considered as the problem or threat they were once perceived to be.
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