In the years immediately after the Second World War Britain retained a vast overseas empire. The empire was exploited to support the weakened domestic economy, and to construct an unprecedented experiment in welfare provision. In addition, significant numbers of “kith and kin” had made their homes in various imperial outposts. Particularly in Africa these settlers would prove an ongoing challenge to British colonial policy.
The last time that explicitly imperialist language was commonly used by British politicians was during the 1950s. These were also the last years of the dominant role of newspapers in the British mass media. Yet despite the apparent differences between the last years of the formal British Empire, and the first years of New Labour government, important shared patterns of mass media consensus, and therefore of limitations in the portrayal of complex events to the electorate, can be identified. It is useful to note how in both eras the portrayal of events has facilitated the development of aggressive imperialist policies.
At the end of September 1952, The Manchester Guardian described what the Kenyan rebels themselves called the Land and Freedom Armies like this: the “terrorist conspiracy known as Mau Mau”. The leader writer continued: “if force enough can be concentrated on the area most concerned in the next few weeks, the back of the conspiracy may be broken.”
It is always central to the description of colonial rebels, to forget that the contested territory is their home. The Manchester Guardian was a paper in the liberal tradition, and opined that “repression without reform is a dead end”, but of course this was “not to say that violence and murder are not to be repressed.” Imperial historian John Lonsdale reminds us that violence is incumbent upon the colonial power, an obvious point where conquest is involved, but conquest needs to be conveniently forgotten if imperialism is to be justified.
Whilst African leaders in Kenya were judged by the Manchester Guardian to “appreciate at least some aspects of western civilisation … Mau Mau does not seek a larger share in the benefits … it rejects them in favour of the relatively barbaric traditions of pre-European Africa.” Accordingly, Mau Mau was regressive in a way “not infrequent in primitive societies confronted with an advanced society which is so far beyond them that they cannot feel that they can ever play a worthy part in it.” If the colonial authorities and those Kikuyu in the security forces stood firm “Mau Mau can be stamped out and the forward march of the Kikuyu people resumed.”
In the months following the declaration of a State of Emergency in Kenya Colony in September 1952 a strong consensus dominated the coverage in the British press. Whilst it is important to note the exceptions, for example Colin Legum’s attempts to provide historical background to readers of the Observer, and John Redfern’s sometimes sympathetic pieces for the generally enthusiastically imperialist Daily Express, by and large Mau Mau was described in simplistic terms that ignored the role of the machine gun in the creation of Kenya Colony.
Visiting Kenya Colony, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman and Nation, initially predisposed to distrust the colonial authorities and the European settlers, felt justified in agreeing with the Conservative Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton that Mau Mau was “nationalism and thuggery”. He wrote that Mau Mau used for their “own purposes all the political and economic aspirations of land-hungry, dispossessed and terribly overcrowded African people.” Whilst recognising the existence of real grievances, Martin subscribed to a common imperial myth. He saw Mau Mau as opportunistic and criminal; he hoped for an African leadership that would create a reformist nationalist movement, in other words one which would develop a “recognised programme of emancipation” at a pace largely dictated by the colonial authorities, and preserving a multi-racial Kenya. Martin’s New Statesman and Nation wanted expert solutions to the Kenya crisis without realising that the rule of the expert was simply a different kind of imperialism. This is Franz Fanon’s clear distinction between decolonisation and liberation.
There were some superficial differences between the liberal papers and the more proudly imperialistic publications. Whilst the New Statesman and Nation looked forward to a gradual maturing of a moderate African polity in Kenya, the Daily Express held to its vision of a paternalistic and enduring empire. However, there is little difference between Martin’s acceptance that raw criminality lay behind Mau Mau, and the Express opinion column from the end of September 1952 which talked of the “slinking murderous terrorists of Mau Mau”.
Broadly then, at a time when thousands of Kikuyu were fleeing their homes, and with the Royal Lancashire Fusiliers on their way to the troubled colony, the consensus in the British press was strong. There was no mention of the Land and Freedom Armies, indeed this would always remain the case. There was only Mau Mau. Mau Mau was a combination of mental illness, criminality, and superstition. When it suited papers like the Express, Mau Mau appeared to have characteristics of a modern political movement, at other times it used the “African’s awe of witchcraft”. Mau Mau was against the interests of ordinary Africans, it was an irrational rejection of the benefits of British rule. Even Kenyan leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, certainly not a Mau Mau militant, were demonised, and British politicians, like Fenner Brockway, who were perceived as being too lenient on Mau Mau were relentlessly criticised in papers like the Express.
When settlers were attacked in Kenya the tales of their deaths were told with lurid fascination, and no personal details were spared. “Whirling their broad-blade double-edged knives the thugs slashed the middle-aged couple about the head and arms and ran” was the Express” description of an attack in October 1952. Mau Mau was always described as cowardly; its victims were always seen as heroes: “Dr Dorothy pulled herself from the floor by clutching the furniture and crawled upstairs. There she tore pillow cases and tried to staunch her many wounds.” It is important to remember that in the course of the Emergency seventy Europeans died. It is estimated that around ten thousand Africans met the same fate, but not until the Hola Massacre in 1959, when the Land and Freedom Armies had long been defeated in the field, did any story of the suffering of African rebels reach a British newspaper.
Analysis of the newspaper coverage of the so-called Mau Mau rebellion reveals that the British public was never given an adequate picture of the origins of the crisis. Only Colin Legum in the Observer even touched upon the complex impact of colonial policy upon indigenous Kenyan societies. Formally democratic Britain fought many dirty wars in distant colonial territories, and the case of Kenya would suggest that the British people were in no position to judge the causes of these wars, nor their true costs to those people who stood against the British empire.
Journalists depended on either the Colonial Office or Colonial authorities for much of their information. It is evident that no journalist trekked into the forests of Kenya to talk to the rebels. But what is perhaps more important is that across the mainstream spectrum the essential benevolence of British imperial policy was accepted. The violence with which the empire had been created and maintained was forgotten, and to this day the most enduring, and vital myth remains that British foreign policy is and always has been predicated upon progressive and generous ideals. A very public reassessment of the imperial legacy may be a vital prerequisite to a reassessment of ongoing British interventionism.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace