Pagan prisoners and press prejudices

Pagan prisoners and press prejudices

The Metro's news room yesterday must have echoed to the sound of the bottom of barrels being scraped, as the paper chose to put a story about the rights of Pagan prisoners on today's front page (7 December).

Pagan prisoners are to be allowed four religious festivals off work each year, in a similar way to Jewish, Muslim or Christian prisoners. This is a welcome recognition of the right to freedom of religion. Many offenders have abused others' freedom, but a civilised society responds by upholding human rights for all, not denying them.

Despite the Metro's association with the Daily Mail, it does not generally share the Mail's far-right agenda and more often than not, it avoids Mail-style front pages. But not today. The Metro managed to cram a short article full of crude stereotypes about Pagans.

In its second paragraph, the Metro refers to “the Pagan or Wicca faiths – immortalised in the 1973 film The Wicker Man”. I suspect that Pagans consider their faith to have been immortalised some time considerably earlier than 1973.

The article makes convenient use of the word 'may'. On Pagan festivals, prisoners “may be given special foods such as roast boar” and “may be able to hold apple bobbing contests”. No evidence is given for the possibility that such things 'may' happen.

The most offensive part refers to the May Day festival of Beltane “when believers celebrate the Sun God with 'unabashed sexuality and promiscuity'”. Despite their inverted commas around the phrase, the Metro does not give the origin of the quote. In reality, Pagans have a variety of views and approaches to the celebration of Beltane.

The Metro quotes the Prison Officers' Association's fears that prisoners will “jump on the bandwagon” by claiming to be Pagan. I doubt that people contemplating the horror of another long year banged up with no freedom would suddenly feel OK by the news that they can have an extra four days off work.

I am neither a Pagan nor an expert on Paganism. I am a Christian. I could name several other religions which have had quite an influence over my thinking, but they don't include Paganism. But in a democratic society wrestling with division and conflict, we need not only religious liberty but accurate descriptions of religion.

And we do not need newspapers which have already spread misconceptions about Muslims, immigrants and other groups to find yet more minorities about which to stir up prejudice.

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Symon Hill's book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion can be bought at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion, priced £7.99.

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