Why are the media so terrified of saying “traveller”?

Earlier this year, a young woman was brutally and savagely murdered by an assailant in the Irish midlands. There is no need to mention her by name, because the poor woman deserves better than to have her life forever associated, in google searches, with the manner of her death. But if you lived in Ireland this year, then you both remember her name, and the case, and, I suspect, the reaction to that case.

In the aftermath of her murder, we, in Ireland, had one of our patented “national conversations”. These conversations are not truly national – they never are. What usually happens is that the younger and more idealistic members of the media decide that the time for some form of “change” has come, and then all of a sudden, this “conversation” is everywhere – in newspaper columns, TV talk shows, drivetime radio. If you want no part of it, you have to turn everything off. In the case of the murder I mention, the conversation was immediately and instantly about the threat men pose to women, lad culture, misogyny, and the need for Irish men to change their ways.

I mention this because, as the headline might suggest, it is just as notable when the media devotes itself to avoiding a national conversation.

This week, in Rathkeale, county Limerick, there was chaos. Cars were rammed into other cars. People were viciously assaulted with bottles, and other weapons, both in the town’s bars, and on the town’s streets. The media reported all of this, with brief mentions of a feud, and some toned down descriptions of violence.

The first lesson in journalism school – journalism 101, as it were – is “the five questions”. Those questions are the key elements to every story. They are as follows: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

When it comes to the violence in Rathkeale, you will note that only three of those questions were answered: We got the what, the where, and the when. The who and the why went unanswered.

This, for example, is how RTE covered it. Or, as one wag said to me,  covered it up:

Yesterday afternoon, gardaí in the town responded to a report of a number of vehicles driving dangerously in the town.

When they arrived at the scene, they ordered a number of people to disperse and the road was closed for examination. A number of vehicles abandoned in the road were seized.

It is thought the clashes stem from an ongoing feud between a number of families.

Simon Harris has condemned the incident, saying that what happened was “absolutely unacceptable”.

It is important to speak frankly, so let’s do so: This incident involved travellers, many of them home for Christmas, and it is a feud between travellers.

Two years ago, the Oireachtas passed a law recognising travellers as a distinct and unique ethnic group, separate to, and distinct from, the rest of us. When travellers are covered in the media, the tone is always the same: That they are an oppressed, and disadvantaged group, with low incomes and poor health and educational outcomes.

The problem is that this narrative takes something of a hit when one sees footage of range rovers being rammed into each other at high speed. I would suggest, for example, that people who can afford to write off a range rover (regular retail price in excess of six figures) are perhaps not as disadvantaged economically as the media coverage in general would lead one to believe. Even accepting, as obvious fact, that those involved in this incident do not represent all travellers.

But surely, if standards are applied fairly, then the following is true:

If it is incumbent on “good men”, as we were told in the aftermath of that murder earlier this year, to call out and challenge “bad behaviour” from other men, and to recognise that the behaviour of some men makes all men suspect, then it must also surely be incumbent on “good travellers” (applying the same framing) to call out and challenge the lawless elements and destructive tendencies within their culture, and social groups. And it must also be worthwhile having some kind of conversation about it?

But no: Because in this instance, the media does not want to have such a conversation, for fear that it would stoke prejudice against an allegedly oppressed group. There was no such fear about stoking prejudice and fear against men, and boys, however.

What’s more, it’s all so pointless: The media’s piety, when it comes to travellers, is for the benefit, solely, of the media. The rest of us know the score, as it were. For a thousand pub and nightclub and hotel owners up and down the country, this is why they are nervous, fairly or unfairly, about traveller weddings and traveller funerals, no matter what Pavee Point says on the television, or no matter how many lectures the public get from the great and the good.

And so we live in an island of public piety, and private disquiet. Nobody wants to say “it was travellers in Rathkeale”, and yet, everybody knows it. We’re all supposed to condemn prejudice, and yet, incidents like this one are precisely why the prejudice exists. We’re not allowed to have a national conversation because, frankly, we all know such a conversation would first be pointless, and second mainly be a lecture about how the problems in traveller culture are mainly the fault of racists like you and me and every other settled person.

And so, the media does what the media does. You might think that what the media does is highlight the key facts of a story, but that would be wrong. In Ireland, the media’s job, very often, is to hide the key facts of a story. Rathkeale, this week, is exhibit A.

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