I realise I come to this a little late, but on the twenty-eighth day of March, in the year 2014, the Metro newspaper published on its website a news story.
Not unusual in itself, I realise. This is what news companies do. It makes them healthy and brings them many nice, shiny moneys.
This article, though, struck me as a bit odd.
“Pagans and witches serving in the British military”
Oka-ay… I’m sure there’s some news here. Maybe in the littler text underneath…?
The article reports that “A total of 770 members of the Navy, Army and RAF declared their faith as ‘other’. It [the 770] includes 120 devotees of paganism…”
And the piece goes on to describe paganism as being based on a reverence for nature and having been “famously explored in the 1973 film The Wicker Man”.
I wonder if the article writer ever actually watched The Wicker Man? While it was an excellent film (opinion piece), and remains a classic, it wasn’t exactly a documentary on modern pagan practices. I’ve been knocking around with pagans for, ooo, a meellion years at least, and never once in my experience has anyone ever stopped a ritual and gone, “You know what this really needs? A virgin police sergeant to burn. Get the Mister Punch masks out.”
Still, reading on, I see that at least sixty pagans serve in the Army, according to a Freedom of Information request, and also twenty who follow Wicca. Apparently these groups don’t overlap. But pagans, says the Metro, “would be the first to dance around a maypole on May Day or gather at Stonehenge to see the sun rise during the summer solstice.”
I’m not sure whether this means pagans in general, or Army pagans specifically. They have guns; we’d probably let them get in first if they wanted.
Perhaps I’m sounding a little snarky here. Truth be told, I’m a smidgen confused as to the point and purpose of this sudden piece – not to mention the fact that its content, what little content there is, is essentially the same as numerous other media articles over the last few years reporting on pagans, and followers of other ‘alternative religions’ (whatever that means: alternative to what?), working in public service.
“Pagan police get solstice leave,” said the BBC News in July 2009.
In May 2010, everyone’s favourite hate-paper, the Daily Mail (opinion piece) posted that “Pagan police win the right to take time off for festivals”, and explained that the said festivals would involve “unabashed sexual promiscuity”. This is a recurring phrase used by the Mail when dealing with pagans: it’s always in quotes, but no source is ever given. (And no, I’m not linking this one. They get enough traffic as it is – the article can be searched if you really want it.)
(It’s also worth mentioning that, despite the Mail’s assertions, in that case the officers in question had – and had always had – precisely the same right to take their allocation of leave whenever they wished, subject to the agreement of their managers, In other words, there wasn’t even the shade of a story there in the first place.)
The same publication posted a separate article in June 2010: “Onward Pagan soldiers: 100 UK servicemen classed as witches and druids”. Reporter Ian Drury claimed in his piece that, again based on Freedom of Information requests, “around 100” serving Army personnel are pagans, with thirty saying they were Wiccan. Again, no overlap was indicated between pagans and Wiccans.
It seems the numbers have dropped a little in four years. Of one hundred pagans and thirty Wiccans, there are now, according to the Metro, sixty pagans and twenty Wiccans. Is this cause for concern in terms of equality and diversity (oh, how the Mail despises those words…)? Or perhaps the drop, being measured in absolute numbers, is commensurate with the cuts the military has been enduring in recent years?
Either way, I think the Metro’s latest foray into this raises two interesting questions for me:
1. Why post an item that reports on nothing that the news-reading public haven’t already heard, and indicates no particular change in the conditions originally reported;
2. What motivates people, supposedly serious, worldly-wise, news-gathering people, to such fascination with the private religious beliefs of public service personnel?
I’d be interested to know how the Metro’s F.o.I. request to the Ministry of Defence was framed. Did they ask for a breakdown of religious demographics in the services and then only report on the few minority religions they found interesting? Or did they specifically ask how many pagans there were? (They may have asked how many people answered ‘Other’ and what additional information those people gave. But the data included the fact that there were also a hundred and ten Rastas: I doubt the MoD would have returned that detail if the request had specified pagans/witches/Wiccans only.)
I’m entirely sure that there will be people who argue it’s the “public’s right to know” how many pagans there are in our public services. But why do I, as a member of the public, need to know what religion our defenders follow, as long as I trust them to defend us effectively? Isn’t that trust enough? And if it’s not, then why aren’t the Metro and the Mail and these other reputable journals keeping me abreast of the number of Christians, or Muslims, or Sikhs or atheists in those services?