This long rant concerns a month-old article which prompted me to sign up to Mailwatch:
The grab is typically bathetic: an innocent man in his pyjamas is hacked to death in Africa by “rampaging raiders”, together with his pregnant wife, their son and their, um, servant. This being the Mail, though, there are extra details to draw our sympathy: the victims were white and middle-class (a doctor, no less); the attackers were black, numerous (“30 of them”) and so exotic that even their weapons need a translation (“sharp pangas, or machetes”).
The Mail's article on the Mau Mau is typical of its approach to history: emotional, manipulative, disproportionate, and whiny. Having established the central dynamic of the piece – innocent white victims; anonymous vicious black assassins – the author, Tony Rennell, then adds a political twist to the description:
“Kenya’s rebels — today hailed as freedom fighters against a repressive colonial British administration — had claimed four more victims in their fight for independence.”
The key words in this sentence are Fail favourites “today” and “hailed”. “Today” suggests that, over time, our understanding of what took place in 1950s Kenya has been distorted, and the readership was quick to fill the gap shrewdly left open by the article itself:
“I find it extremely irritating that Britain seems to be the only country hauled over the coals for our past. We have not been the only nation to commit atrocities, not by a long way. We seem to be doing all the apologising and yet never seem to demand anything of other nation's treatment of us over the years. If so, Italy should apologise for the brutal way the Romans handled the uprising by Boudica in AD60 and the Scandinavians should apologise for their treatment of us when they invaded (numerous times!). It's ridiculous.”
- Rich, Nottingham, 12/4/2011 10:33
“Why are they suing us now? Because we have the money. ...and lawyers willing to grab some for free....and politicians willing to let them.”
- Mike, Somewhere in sunny Wiltshire, 12/4/2011 10:05
“Hailed” raises the question, “by whom?” Again, the article leaves us to form our own conclusion, although the expression “freedom fighters” and the adjective “repressive” to describe the British administration point us in an obvious direction. Several of the comments make a connection with Mugabe.
However, even the Daily Mail can't ignore the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya. What it can do is couch them in concessionary subclauses which make it sound as though the British have already done enough soul-searching. Particularly telling is the use of distancing words (I suspect inserted by a sub-editor, given how many of them there are) to cast doubt on the Kenyans' accusations:
“The British crackdown was brutal and almost certainly
what today would be termed
a disproportionate response… Beatings are said to have been
a daily occurrence…[Kenyan claimants] who say
they were tortured…” Best of all, there's a paragraph straight out of the Tony Blair manual for how to appear to acknowledge criticism while brushing it aside and moving on to your point:
“Let’s be clear. Atrocities committed by the British against Kenyans are to be condemned. This was not a pretty war by any means and most definitely not Britain’s finest hour, any more than the concentration camps of the Boer War spoke well of British justice. But in the finger-pointing — and at a time when the Prime Minister has taken to making grandstanding apologies for supposed misdeeds in our imperial past — it is well to remember the Rucks and their innocent six-year-old son slashed to death in his bed.”
Linguistically, this section is utterly weasely. Any time a politician says “Let's be clear”, I squirm a little. When journalists use it, it's even worse. The choice of the passive form — “are to be condemned” — is instructive too in its vagueness and exteriority. And the Majorisms of the next sentence — “not pretty”, “not Britain's finest hour” — seem rather understated to describe a reaction that led to a thousand executions and the internment of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans in what were essentially concentration camps, most of them without trial or evidence.
But, as Rennell is eager to point out: “There is another side to the coin of British brutality — that of the horrors inflicted by the Mau Mau.” The rest of the article — about two-thirds of it — will be taken up graphically describing the “savagery” of the “barbaric” rebels (admit it, you knew those words were coming), and this time without a hint of “said to be” or “supposed”. (The British atrocities are not recounted descriptively.)
Towards the end of the piece, Rennell gives the casualty figures: 32 European farmers and 90 white soldiers died during the uprising, and “shockingly” more than 2,000 Kenyans who were loyal to the British. Not “shockingly”, up to 25,000 Mau Mau also were killed. Yet, if you believe the Mail, it was only the whites for whom “the fear was real enough, and it was why, in the eyes of white settlers, the authorities and the Army, every black man was a suspect.” In particular the article highlights the treasonous proclivity of cooks in white family's houses. What has the world come to, eh, when you can't trust your own servants?
All this is a prelude to the article's conclusion:
“And this is a vital point to remember as this unedifying chapter in our history goes under the microscope again. There are two sides — at least — to every story, and this is no exception.
As British misdeeds against Kenyans in the 1950s are put to the test, we surely are entitled to ask why no Mau Mau veterans have been prosecuted for the ghastly torture and murders they inflicted on their fellow Kenyans.
Why should it be that, in the fashionable hue and cry against our colonial past, we British are the only ones who are ever called to account?”
Again it feels as though the very last paragraph has been hacked on by a sub-editor. Even so, there are massive problems with the conclusion. It's a classic 'What about…?' finale: the British may have been occupying an African country, detaining its people illegally, killing hundreds and failing to protect thousands … but what about our
hundred or so victims? The Mail loves this kind of equality: it casts aside any concept of privilege, historical context, imbalance of power. Quite simply, if we have to say sorry for occupying your country, then you must say sorry, too, for booting us out. (As a footnote, it's interesting that in the final paragraph the point of view becomes explicitly “we British” rather than “the British” or “the whites” as used in the rest of the piece.)
A lot of straw men pop up too: are even Mail readers blinkered enough to imagine that the other European powers don't get “called to account” over imperialism? But the patronising line about there being at least two sides to every story is what this article really wants to show. More than that, those multiple sides must always be equal; and whenever our side gets more attention than the others, it's because of:
the British media and, in particular, the BBC…
- Bill Tort, Durham, 12/4/2011 7:01
The abililty of the Lefties to stick their fingers in their ears and shout la la la la la to avoid hearing the truth is legendary. Lefties should go back to reading The Guardian and leave the rest of us alone.
- W Smith, Dundee, 12/4/2011 9:10
The Mail effortlessly gets the reactions it was digging for, such as this from the inevitable Costa del Sol:
No person should be paid any compensation for something that happened over fifty years ago.It has been said more than once that one side was as bad as the other and should be left at that.Just a thought though.Wouldnt it be tradgedy if something horrible was to happen to the ambulance chasing slime who are bringing this case?
- Dougie Matthews, Marbella Spain, 12/4/2011 15:06
The real story, which you won't find on the Mail, is that the Foreign Office “mislaid” a bunch of incriminating documents relating to Mau Mau for fifty years. Recently they have been “found” again and, as a result, four Kenyans are suing the British government. “If they are victorious,” notes the Mail, “they could set a precedent for an avalanche of other claims from Kenyans which might cost British taxpayers millions.” Could, might, avalanche… bollocks. (I'm slightly disappointed that the Taxpayers' Alliance wasn't contacted for a quote here.)
The “recovered” documents show that “castration, sodomy, rape and beatings were everyday weapons in its unremitting defence of the rights of the white settlers.”
The 'expert' historian briefly quoted in the Mail's article as saying “Neither side emerges with glory” has in fact been leading the analysis of the documents. He has attacked the government's defence for its “inaccuracy” and revealed details of “systematic torture and abuse” by the British, including forced labour and the burning alive of rebels. This was known to, and covered up by, “officials at the highest levels” including the governor and the minister for colonies.
I don't see that there are “two sides” to this story. We have known about the white doctor's family and Mau Mau brutality for more than 50 years. These new documents reveal information (or confirm suspicions) about British imperial violence that has been hidden from the record. That is news. Why won't the Mail won't report it as such?
PS Who is Tony Rennell, the author of this piece? “I am essentially a journalist - that's what I've been for most of my working life - though I'm trying now to become a historian
and hoping in due course to be a biographer.” Keep trying, Tony!