After weeks of tension, with travellers settling in urban parks or circling outside the city, the Mail decided that enough was enough. Tuesday's front-page banner headline, 'Keep This Scum Out', marked the launch of a campaign against 'parasites' who 'set up filthy, disease-ridden camps . . . and offend every decent citizen.' A telephone hotline was opened to the newsroom 'to help chase this scum out of the Midlands'.
Ron Hadfield, the West Midlands chief constable, was taken to task for refusing to arrest travellers who were not breaking the law. 'If you want a chief constable who wants to go out there and get rid of people living in caravans, I'm not your man,' Mr Hadfield had told his police authority. 'Hound 'em, Chief Constable,' was the Mail's stern response.
The stridency of the Mail's campaign, reflecting the populist, crusading style of many provincial tabloids today, worries organisations such as Shelter and Liberty, who regard it as a dangerous game to play on a rising tide of rural and urban vigilantism.
'The Mail's story is outrageous,' a spokesperson for Liberty said. 'If people commit criminal offences, then it's right that newspapers comment on it. To suggest that people will be dirty or commit crimes merely because they're travellers is completely unacceptable. We're very disturbed that newspapers are scapegoating particular groups when communities should be encouraged to work together to tackle the underlying problems of unemployment and homelessness.'
Jeremy Sandford, author of the Sixties drama Cathy Come Home and a committed supporter of the New Age travelling community, says he is dismayed by the Mail's campaign. 'As a journalist, I've grown up with the idea that one gives both sides of the question and this new trend in the media is very worrying,' he says.
'The Mail's reporting is frightening because it's the sort of thing you find in Third World countries with a very state-connected newspaper industry. It's also shocking reporting because it's very similar to what was being said about Jews and gypsies in Germany in the Thirties. It's the road that may lead to an explosion. It starts with verbal abuse then goes on to attacks in the press with official sanction. Then it's the destruction of property as we've already seen with the smashing of New Age vehicle windows.
'In very poor countries such as Mexico people live in vehicles because houses are out of the question. There's a great fear of these images in Britain. We say we can't possibly have people living in trucks and therefore they must be criminalised. But these are our own sons and daughters who, 25 years ago, at the time of Cathy Come Home, we were putting in the workhouse.'
Ian Dowell, editor of the Evening Mail, puts up a robust defence of his campaign. 'Action was triggered off by a stream of letters we've had for the last 12 months,' he says. 'Going back to the word 'Scum', we've had our biggest postbag for three years with about 70 per cent in our favour. People are saying 'Thank God someone's standing up for us at last.' '
A man answering the paper's hotline last week said the campaign was against all travellers, 'including gypsies'. This could be a breach of race relations laws, because Romanies are classed as a distinct ethnic group entitled to protection from discrimination. Mr Dowell was quick to disassociate the Mail from its hotline remarks.
'We were very careful not to include genuine gypsies in the article,' he says. 'The two groups we've gone for are tinkers and New Age travellers, the ones that are scum in my book. New Age people are mostly dropouts, we feel, and people disillusioned by the mercenary attitude of Britain today - but are still quite happy to accept state benefits provided by the mercenary state.
'Then I come to the tinkers who've lost their land in Ireland. We think they come here mainly because social security is higher.
'I'll admit I've had some letters about Germany and letters saying 'Sack the editor' and I've published them. Newspapers are all about people's freedom to express themselves. We're not advocating mob rule. We talk in strong language because we feel very strongly about it. We aren't saying they should be sent to gas chambers or even that they shouldn't do it. We say quite clearly that they're parasites.
'We've a man living under cover with them and our indications seem to be that these people are by and large drug-obsessed and not a music- based culture. Most of their vehicles are untaxed and as unwashed as the New Age travellers themselves. They've been joined at weekends by middle-class ravers.
'We haven't said to our man 'Take a particular line.' If they're all frustrated brain surgeons who just want to hang loose, as long as they're not causing too much hell under the trees, that's what his article will say.'