I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story (a reprise)

A couple of years ago I criticised a shoddy article that the Dundee Courier carried about prison meals over Christmas. There does seem to be a pattern of papers printing mean and graceless articles at this time of year, the very time when we should be celebrating the good news of Jesus and goodwill to all men. Sadly some newspapers think it’s a good time to stir up resentment and moaning.

The Daily Record was at it yesterday with an article suggesting that large sums of money are being wasted on Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chaplains, and that prisoners are “milking the system”.

There are any number of criticisms that could be made of the article. It misrepresents the role of the chaplains, and the most powerful counter-argument would simply be a full explanation of the good that these chaplains do. I’ll leave that to someone better qualified to tell that story. The article assumes, ridiculously, that the only two reasons why prisoners might meet chaplains is because they have had a religious awakening or they are milking the system. The Record ignores the valuable support that chaplains provide to prison staff, who are doing an extremely tough and stressful job. The story also tucks away at the end an explanation of the figures for open prisons that undermines the assertions about their costs earlier in the article.

However, what struck me, as someone with professional experience in teasing out useful information and insights from contradictory, confused and biased narratives, was the lack of context to the figures. Governments inevitably deal with huge sums of money, so anything written about them will have VERY BIG NUMBERS. Without context VERY BIG NUMBERS can look seriously impressive, but they are as meaningless as simply capitalising words for dramatic effect, as I just did. The Record’s article would be a good case study for journalism students who should be asked to analyse it along with the latest annual report and accounts for the SPS (PDF, opens in a new tab).

Here are a few facts gleaned quickly and easily from the report, which is publicly available, even to Daily Record journalists.

  1. The chaplaincy costs are 0.7% of the SPS’s expenditure. So where’s the evidence that this diverts money from supposedly more valuable work? The next point suggests that it doesn’t.

  2. The cost of the chaplaincy service is 7% of the SPS’s underspend last year, i.e. the SPS spent £33 million less than its budget allowed for. Suddenly £2.4 million spent on chaplaincy services doesn’t seem hugely significant. By the way, I’m happy to acknowledge that budgeting for a prison service must be extremely difficult. Prisons have to take whatever prisoners the courts send them. They have no control over that.

  3. Wages paid to prisoners came in at 30% more than the cost of chaplaincy. Are prisoners coining it in? Are they milking the system by working? I doubt it. The average weekly wage of a prisoner in Scotland last year was £7.84, only 64p more than the hourly minimum wage. Chaplaincy services cost 86p a day per prisoner. Meanwhile, incidentally, prisoner canteens (which cover additional services like access to TVs) take back an average of £1.57 a day from each prisoner. Are you still worked up about the cost of chaplains?

Putting a little context around the Record’s figures prompts the response; so what? What reason is there to believe the SPS and prisons could be improved by eliminating such a tiny proportion of its expenditure – and losing all the proven benefits of the chaplains? If the Daily Record really believes that then they should put their figures in context and argue that the costs are not justified by the great benefits of the chaplains to the prisons, staff, prisoners and families, and through them to society at large. In the absence of any intelligent analysis by the Record it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just another mean spirited, cynical attack on an easy target by a paper that seems indifferent to the consequences.

Looking back at the article I wrote two years ago I think my conclusion then is equally relevant now. I still stand by every word. Happy 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 [or the Daily Record] 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?

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An overwhelming mandate?

In the House of Commons on Thursday December 8th David Lidington, the Deputy Leader of the House, made an interesting claim; “40% of the population of Scotland voted to leave” the EU in the June referendum. Actually, and I hope I’m not being pedantic here, the figure was 19% of the people living in Scotland. Nearly 1.4 million people in Scotland were not allowed to vote, mainly because they were foreign nationals or too young. Lidington clearly meant 40% of those who voted. 40%? Yes, it’s accurate more or less. The exact percentage was 38%, but I don’t have a problem with him rounding it like that.

The problem for the bold Brexiteers is that they have been insisting that they have
“a clear, overwhelming and unarguable mandate”. Now if it is reasonable to round up from 38% to 40% isn’t it equally reasonable to round the UK’s remain vote from 48.1% to 50%? Suddenly that overwhelming mandate in an advisory referendum looks awfully like a verdict that the electorate was split down the middle. Sure, 51.9% is more than 48.1% but given the flaws in the referendum, the overwhelming preference of younger voters to stay in the EU, the inability of those most directly affected (i.e. British expats in the EU, and EU expats in the UK) to vote, is that really a convincing justification for the disruption of Brexit?

As David Lidington would undoubtedly say if he were being consistent, “we must not forget that, throughout the UK, 50% of the voters chose to remain”.

My grandmother’s war

In a sense I am a product of the two world wars. If they had not taken place it is unlikely that I would have been born. The wars shaped the lives of my parents and grandparents. Both sides of my family were extremely fortunate. No close relatives died. My two grandfathers volunteered for the Army as very young men at the start of the First World War. They survived the Western Front and served till 1919, returning to Scotland, eventually marrying and starting families. They were the only sons in their family old enough to fight. In the Second World War the children on my mother’s side were too young, and on my father’s side only he, the oldest child, was old enough.

Grandpa Christie was in the Territorial Army between the wars. Shortly before the start of the Second World War his regiment was mobilised and he was a full time soldier once again. His regiment was stationed in Fife, across the River Tay from his home in Dundee. On Sunday 3rd September the UK declared war on Germany. Grandpa was granted an afternoon’s leave and Grandma took the three children over the river to see him. Dad had turned 16 a couple of weeks earlier. His younger brother Duncan was nine and sister Dorothy was six. The family went for a walk together and Grandpa said something I’ve often thought about since Dad told me the story. Reflecting on the start of another war Grandpa said to Dad, “the only consolation is that you’re going to be too young for this one”. I wonder if Grandpa really believed the war would be over that quickly, or if he was trying to be as optimistic as possible in front of the children.

Sadly it was not a short war. In 1942 the time came for Dad to join up, just after his 19th birthday. My grandmother took it badly. It was hard for that generation of women who experienced the horrifying casualty rates of World War One, then saw their children having to fight the next war. Grandma was a music teacher, an intelligent and educated woman, who wanted only the best for her children. She was very distressed at the thought of her firstborn child going off to war. For Dad’s last meal at home Grandma blew the family’s whole meat ration for the week on a huge plate of bacon and eggs for Dad. Once in the Army Dad volunteered for airborne forces and was assigned to a glider artillery regiment. I suspect he didn’t consult his mother about that decision!

Two years later in August 1944 it was Dad’s 21st birthday. By then he had been in North Africa and Italy. His regiment was recalled to England and was stationed in the south ready for the invasion of North West Europe, for D Day. Dad told me of his astonishment on 6th June 1944 when he woke up and discovered D Day had taken place without his unit, 1st Airborne Division. Britain’s other Airborne Division, the 6th, had been used in the Normandy landings and 1st Division was being held in reserve for the next big operation, Arnhem as we now know.

Dad in 1944, aged 20

Gunner Robert Christie, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, in 1944, aged 20

Grandma was very upset when the day of his 21st birthday came. She took her youngest child, my Aunt Dorothy, and they went down to the main railway station in Dundee, just to watch the trains arriving with soldiers coming home on leave, thinking of their son and brother. Meanwhile, Dad had unexpectedly been given leave at short notice. There was no time to send a telegram, and the family didn’t have a phone. He jumped on a train north, but missed Grandma and Dorothy at the station. When he got home Grandpa, who had been discharged from the Army on health grounds, told him that Grandma and Dorothy had gone down to the station, so he dashed back to find them for an emotional reunion.

A few weeks later when the 1st Airborne Division was surrounded and cut off at Arnhem my grandparents knew that Dad must be there. They were following the grim news with horror as the lightly armed and equipped airborne soldiers fought for their lives against the tanks of the Waffen SS. At the end, after Dad escaped across the Rhine, the survivors were issued with special pre-printed postcards saying that they had been in action. They filled in their families’ addresses and simply ticked a box to say whether they were unhurt or were wounded. Dad had been lightly wounded. Shrapnel had penetrated his steel helmet, gashing his scalp and concussing him, but he told a white lie, that he was unwounded. The postcards were then rushed back to the UK, to be delivered with the highest priority. My grandparents received theirs the next day confirming that Dad was safe. I doubt if the mail would get through that fast even today. It’s hard to imagine the relief and joy that families would feel when that postcard arrived, instead of the telegram from the War Office that they dreaded every day.

This simple account tells all I know about the experience of my grandparents seeing their son go off to war. They are just a few scraps that my father told me at various times. When I was a child Grandma was a loving grandmother, but she could seem rather stern and austere. These stories give a poignant insight into the strain parents had to endure in wartime. My family was extremely fortunate, far more so than most. Yet they lived with fear and stress of a sort that I have never had to deal with. For women like my grandmother life in wartime must have been hard and painful. We never forget the men who fought, but we should remember their families who suffered quietly at home.