I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, by an article in the Dundee Courier on 16th December 2014. We were invited to be shocked at the lavish fare on offer to prisoners in local jails. The headline and first sentence set the tone.
“Christmas feast for prisoners doing porridge”
Criminals doing porridge in prisons across Tayside will be treated to lavish Christmas meals with all the trimmings.”
Feast? Lavish? All the trimmings? That is not reporting. It is a verdict, that the prisoners are receiving high quality meals, by implication meals of the standard one would expect in a good restaurant and certainly of a higher standard than they deserve. The article is opinion masquerading as reporting.
The choice of the first word of the article is interesting. Criminals. Yes, prisoners have, by definition, committed a crime. But when should we use that word? While they are engaged in a criminal career? While they are in prison? For the rest of their lives? For the period specified by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 until the conviction is considered “spent” and the offender is deemed to be rehabilitated? If the latter applies then prisoners serving a sentence exceeding 2.5 years would be labelled as criminals for the rest of their lives.
So what is the right time to call someone a “criminal”, and is it even a constructive term at any time? Colin McConnell, the head of the Scottish Prison Service said in August 2014 that it is unhelpful to refer to offenders and prisoners as criminals. He argues that such labelling makes rehabilitation harder.
McConnell was speaking at the International Futures Forum, whose website states that “the invitation to visiting speakers is simply to ‘make us think’ about an issue of importance”. Here is how the Herald reported the story.
The Herald’s story is disappointingly slanted and superficial for a quality newspaper. However, what is interesting is the tone of the comments under the story. McConnell is an expert in his field. Right or wrong, he made a serious and thoughtful point that deserves to be treated with respect.
The commenters are pretty well unanimous that McConnell is an idiot, unfit for his job. On the basis of skim-reading a newspaper article, a lifetime of prejudice, and ignorance of the subject, they are utterly convinced that they know better than McConnell. They do not merely hold a balanced opinion. They know beyond doubt that they are right.
Experts and ignorance
Experts are not necessarily right, and they do have to be challenged. But this should be on the basis of evidence, analysis and reasoned argument, not an instinctive reaction based on emotion and ignorance.
The Courier journalist, Jamie Buchan, seemed blissfully unaware of the difficulties and nuances that McConnell has to wrestle with; difficult issues that are hinted at in the title of McConnell’s talk, “21st Century Prison Policy: Humanity, Humility, Forgiveness and Redemption”. Buchan simply launched straight into his piece with the phrase “criminals doing porridge”.
Journalists and politicians should try to provide the analysis and reasoning that an informed debate requires. They should not be searching for populist, emotional triggers that will provoke an angry reaction. At least, that is not what they should be doing if they wish to be responsible. The Courier failed lamentably with that story.
Informed debate and cheap populism
The Courier failed badly again with their follow up on January 2nd 2015.
This is just the sort of story that makes me shake my head in despair at the irresponsibility of the press and populist politicians. Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP in the Scottish Parliament, is concerned that more is spent on prisoners’ meals than those of hospital patients.
Are prisoners getting better food than they should? Is the budget for their food out of control? Are the conditions for producing food comparable in prisons and hospitals? Do patients recovering in bed need as much as healthy prisoners? Fraser and the Courier address none of these issues. Fraser admits he doesn’t even know whether or not patients are getting enough nutrition. His concern is merely that the cost of hospital meals is too low. What is his measure for that? Prison meals cost more. NHS suppliers must be delighted. The problem, as he frames it, could be solved simply by the suppliers jacking up their prices.
This is just a cheap and populist attempt to exploit public antipathy towards prisoners and the idea of prisons as a place of rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. Such articles reinforce prejudice and make us more comfortable with our ignorance. Rather than challenging complacency and ignorance by promoting informed debate they close down discussion of the issues by pushing populist conclusions and painting those who expect a more thoughtful approach as naïve fools, politically correct “do gooders”.
Fraser comes out with the classic, populist politician’s justification. This “will not sit well with the public”. Instead of using weaselly phrases like that he should address the issues, acknowledge complexity where it exists, and explain to the public what an appropriate solution might be. That’s your job Murdo! You are paid a good salary and it is not to act like an ill-informed bore pontificating in a golf club bar.
A message for Christmas?
These articles are particularly disappointing at Christmas. This is the time of year when we are reminded of the wonderful gift that we all received but which we don’t deserve; the love of God shown in Jesus, who came to save us all from our failures and failings. Surely as a society we should recognise the humanity of all people, those in prison or not in prison, and allow prisons to mark this event as much as possible, like the rest of us do.
What a pity that a paper like the Courier can’t run a piece about the wonderful work that prison officers, chaplains, medical professionals and other staff do over Christmas to meet the needs of people who find themselves in prison. In Jesus’s words, “I was in prison and you came to visit me”, Matthew 25 v 36. Wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate, and inspirational, message for Christmas?