Jimmy Carr-Gypsies row: an end to the ‘last acceptable racism’ in UK?

Comedian refuses to say sorry for joking about Holocaust atrocity

Jimmy Carr on stage
Jimmy Carr performing in Newcastle upon Tyne in August 2020
(Image credit: Thomas M Jackson/Getty Images)

Jimmy Carr is facing mounting pressure to apologise for joking that the murders of thousands of Gypsies by the Nazis was a “positive” of the Holocaust.

The defiant comedian has vowed to “go down swinging” amid the growing backlash over his joke in his Netflix Christmas special His Dark Material, which was the most-streamed UK stand-up show of 2021, according to the British Comedy Guide website.

But while what The Mirror described as his “ill-judged quip” has triggered outrage after going viral on social media, The Traveller Movement, which represents the nation’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community, has long warned that such discrimination is the “last acceptable form of racism” in the UK.

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‘Not a laughing matter’

Carr made jibes about cancel culture during a gig in Tyne and Wear on Saturday, telling the audience that “the joke that ends my career is already out there”.

Netflex is also facing criticism for failing to edit the Holocaust gag out of the Christmas special. As of Tuesday, more than 16,500 people had signed a petition launched by The Traveller Movement to send Netflix a “strong and clear message” that “the genocide of Roma is not a laughing matter”.

Reality TV star Patrick Doherty, an Irish Traveller and former bare-knuckle boxer who won Celebrity Big Brother 8, told the Sunday Mirror that Carr should be “investigated by the police”.

“He’s talking about mass murder being a positive – would he be allowed to say this about black people killed by the Ku Klux Klan? There’s a level you don’t go to,” Doherty said.

“More than a million of my people were killed.”

UK’s least-liked group

According to the European Union, the Roma community – an umbrella term encompassing a range of diverse groups and Traveller populations – are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. Yet these communities are often left out of discussions about diversity and inclusivity, with OpenDemocracy also describing “Romaphobia” as “the last acceptable form of racism”.

A recent survey of more than 1,650 people in the UK by YouGov and University of Birmingham researchers found that 44% had negative attitudes towards GRT people – making them the “least liked group” in the country, followed by Muslims, on 26%.

“Gypsies have been a part of British life since the 16th century, yet are still largely not accepted as part of our society,” wrote Grace Claire O’Neill, a photographer and Romany Gypsy, in an article for The Guardian in 2020.

Europe-wide prejudice

Research by The Traveller Movement found that around 91% of Britain’s 63,000 Gypsies and Travellers had experienced discrimination. And such prejudice has been reported in countries across Europe.

In 2019, 25 attacks on Roma communities were recorded in France within the space of two weeks, after “a series of reports spread on social media alleging that Roma people in a ‘white van’ were abducting children and planned to rape them or sell their organs”, wrote Tommaso Vitale, an associate professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po, in an article on The Conservation.

‘Undesirable guests’ list

Pontins came under fire in March last year after a whistle-blower revealed that the UK holiday parks operator routinely turned away Gypsy and Traveller families.

An investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that Pontins used a “blacklist of mainly Irish surnames as part of a policy of refusing bookings by Gypsies and Travellers”, the i news site reported.

The so-called “Undesirable guests” list comprised 40 surnames with identifiable Irish roots such as Delaney or O’Reilly.

Amid the fallout of the list row, The Irish Times' Jennifer O'Connell wrote that while Pontins might not want to welcome Irish Travellers, “neither do many Irish establishments”.

In “the pyramid of discrimination faced by Travellers”, she added, not being welcome at Pontins was “probably not right at the top” – not when “many still struggle to access basic services here”.

Government hypocrisy?

UK government members were quick to defend the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community after Carr’s joke went viral, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid suggesting that comedy fans should “boycott” the stand-up.

But members of the Traveller community have accused ministers of hypocrisy for condemning the joke “while pushing through a raft of legislation hostile to their way of life”, said The Guardian.

Greg Sproston, policy and campaigns manager for The Traveller Movement, told the paper that planned new laws on policing, nationality, borders and elections would all “have disproportionately negative impacts” on the community.

“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.

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