How Ofcom Signed Off on Channel Four’s Lies

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Written by David Elstein

In this essay David Elstein, the historian, television director and executive, criticises Ofcom, Channel Four, and the makers of the programme ‘A Very British Way of Torture’ on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, for broadcasting distortions and falsehoods

The UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, is to take on new responsibilities. Once enacted, the Online Safety Bill will penalise internet platforms that fail to protect children from exposure to harmful content. Ofcom is recruiting additional staff to monitor behaviour.

The media giants it will have to confront, such as Facebook, are rather more formidable than some of the relative minnows such as GB News it currently ticks off for breaching impartiality rules. A possible ban on end-to-end encryption – seen by ministers as a protection of criminal behaviour, but by those who deploy it as crucial to safeguard consumer privacy – could see services such as WhatsApp boycott the UK entirely.

And Netflix has warned that if – as another piece of planned legislation proposes – its output will in future have to comply with Ofcom rules on impartiality and accuracy, there could be a “chilling” effect on its documentary production. But that assumes Ofcom is up to the job: recent experience suggests otherwise.

Last August, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, entitled “A Very British Way of Torture”. Like two similar previous films on the channel, this took the approach that the Mau Mau guerillas, drawn almost exclusively from Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, were courageous anti-colonial freedom fighters, whilst the British forces and auxiliaries that suppressed their rebellion were brutes and torturers.

No surprises there: this has been the paradigm of history books on the subject for at least twenty years, of which the most influential have been “Britain’s Gulag” by Harvard professor Caroline Elkins and “Histories of the Hanged” by the professor of African history at Warwick University, David Anderson. Both books were published in the same week in 2005.

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Memorial to the 11 Mau Mau prisoners beaten to death by African guards at the Hola dentention camp on 3 March 1959


As the programme progressed, I logged multiple errors of fact: again, this was par for the course. But I was reduced to open-mouthed amazement by one section of the film, where a man called Julius Ndegwa Migwi was interviewed. He made a series of claims that were highly critical of the colonial regime: all of them obviously false.

Migwi claimed to be the son of Megwi Ndegwa, one of the 11 Mau Mau detainees beaten to death by African guards at Hola Special Detention Camp on March 3rd 1959. By that date, the detention scheme, through which at least 80,000 Mau Mau suspects had passed in seven years, was being wound down. Just 2,000 detainees were still held, the hardest core in Hola. Migwi’s parentage claim could well be true. What followed was not.

Migwi said that the detainees at Hola closed camp (there was also an “open” camp) were deprived of food; that they were tortured if they refused to work; that he (presumably he meant his family, as he was only a child in 1959) were not told till “much later” that his father had died; that “they never told us what caused his death”; and that the victims “were buried in a mass grave after being killed”.

If the company that made the programme, Rogan Productions, had sent a researcher to the National Archives to read the relevant part of the transcript of the inquest into the Hola killings, it would have known better than to include this nonsense in its documentary.

What are the easily established facts? The closed camp detainees were not deprived of food. Rather, they refused to accept any meals prepared by the camp kitchens and insisted on cooking food themselves. On the day of the deaths, 12 of the 229 Hola detainees were designated as cooks, who were excused work so as to allow them to prepare food for the closed camp inmates.

No detainees at Hola were “tortured” to make them work. In the open camp, most detainees chose to work on the neighbouring Tana River Irrigation Scheme (TRIS), in preparation for their potential release to reserved farm plots nearby, where they would be able to provide food for themselves and their families (they had been rejected as “unacceptable” by their home villages, so could not return to them after release).

Nobody in the closed camp was required to work, though some volunteered to do so – 34 on the day in question. For this work they were paid, negotiating their wages with the TRIS civilian staff. The inquest established that there had been no physical punishments in the closed camp, for any reason, let alone refusing to work, for three years.

The policy changed on 3 March 1959. The eleven who died were part of a contingent of 85 who were marched to the irrigation site, ordered to start digging trenches, and then – thanks to a catastrophic failure of communication between the camp commandant and his warders – beaten with batons when they refused to work, or when they stopped.

The names of the dead detainees were obviously known to the camp authorities as soon as a roll call was taken. The Mau Mau leadership in the camp refused to co-operate in the process of formal identification. This was undertaken during five days of post-mortems, as each body was matched to fingerprint records. Almost certainly, the Mau Mau leadership would have quickly communicated the names of the victims to their followers outside. It is simply impossible that Ndegwa’s family would have been kept in the dark till “much later”.

In any case, the public inquest into the Hola disaster, overseen by the senior magistrate for Mombasa, William Goudie, opened barely two weeks after the deaths. Immediately, the colony’s senior medical officer, Dr Morris Rogoff, who had flown to Hola to supervise the packing of the bodies in ice prior to transfer to Nairobi for the post-mortems he then conducted, spelled out the cause of death for each of the deceased. In the case of Ndegwa, death resulted from acute pulmonary oedema caused by severe shock, as a consequence of beating with batons that had also left the victim with a fractured ulna and broken patella.

There was no mass burial, despite the programme suggesting otherwise, by repeatedly offering aerial shots of unspecified places to accompany Migwi’s claim. Bodies were returned to families, though there may have been complications with Ndegwa, who had three wives and eleven children: the archives document how officials dealt with the problem of compensation payable in his case – which was complicated by one of the wives being herself held in detention.

It is unlikely that any of Channel 4’s staff who work in programming would have been expert enough about Hola to challenge the production company over this farrago of falsehoods before approving it for broadcast (not that this absence would have diminished the channel’s legal responsibility for what it put to air). But I had been alerted to the planned transmission of the programme a week beforehand and had written to Channel 4‘s Chief Executive to warn her against a possible repeat of certain errors in a similar BBC programme broadcast 21 years ago which had resulted in an adverse Ofcom finding and the BBC being forced to make a public apology.

I offered to send her a copy of “Mau Mau Interrogator”, the book I had co-authored which set out the facts. She assured me that the channel and the production company were aware of my book and would take great care to comply with the Ofcom Programme Code (which requires that factual programmes “must not materially mislead the audience”).

Unfortunately, they seemingly did not read as far as the section on Hola, or they would never have given credence to Migwi’s fantasies. Nor would they have placed so much reliance on David Anderson as an expert interviewee if they had read my critique of his book’s highly inaccurate summary of what happened at Hola (though he at least avoided Caroline Elkins’ decision in her book to present an entirely fictitious account of the massacre by Mau Mau propagandists as fact).

In the Channel 4 programme, Anderson appeared to have swallowed a different Mau Mau invention, in referring to a “five-hour pitched battle” after a supposed “charge by armed warders with riot shields and batons”. There was no evidence offered at the inquest of any “charge”, let alone battle, despite plenty of detainees choosing to testify. Only one warder suffered any kind of injury: scarcely indicative of five hours of battle.

A claim by two Mau Mau witnesses that there had been continuous beating for five hours was dismissed out of hand by the magistrate, not least because the party of 85 detainees were only on site for four hours, including periods when all was quiet and most of them were working, according to the TRIS manager’s evidence. Moreover, as the magistrate observed, five hours of beating in 120-degree heat would have resulted in far more than eleven fatalities. The “five-hour pitched battle” never happened.

Of course, there are more ways of distorting history than exaggerating or telling lies. Suppressing the truth has the same effect. So, whilst interviewing twinkle-eyed Mau Mau veterans, the programme made no mention of the tens of thousands of civilians that Mau Mau are reckoned to have slaughtered in their bid to displace the leadership of the Kikuyu tribe.

However much it may have been presented as an anti-colonial battle for “land and freedom”, the Mau Mau rebellion was essentially one against the traditional age-based hierarchies of Kikuyu society. Winning control of the tribe was an essential preliminary to any kind of anti-colonial guerrilla campaign. While the leadership concentrated on forcing fellow Kikuyu to take oaths of loyalty at mass meetings, Mau Mau barely touched the colonisers: just 32 European civilians were numbered amongst its victims,

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A prisoner suspected of having taken part in the Mau-Mau revolt being questioned at the police station in Tigoni, Kenya in 1952.

Eventually, some two-thirds of the 1.5 million Kikuyu population swore one or more oaths: many of them because they knew that those who refused risked being killed on the spot, along with their wives and children: strangled, drowned, shot or chopped to pieces with machetes. Such extreme violence was part of the intimidation process designed to force compliance.

So thinly was the Kikuyu heartland policed by the Nairobi government that Mau Mau could operate with near impunity for nearly three years: the failure to intervene, in the face of repeated warnings from the handful of local officials witnessing the terror campaign, was easily the most culpable crime of Britain’s colonial rule in Kenya.

Eventually, a newly appointed Governor of the colony, Sir Evelyn Baring, pressed for a State of Emergency, which the Colonial Office declared in October 1952. Once military reinforcements arrived, it took nearly two years to suppress the rebellion. As the tide turned, Kikuyu hostile to Mau Mau formed a Home Guard. The battles between the groupings were some of the bitterest of the war: hundreds of Home Guards were killed by Mau Mau, thousands of Mau Mau were killed by Home Guards.

In an eyebrow-raising comment, one of Professor Anderson’s colleagues at Warwick University volunteered the view that Mau Mau and colonial behaviour were “equally brutal, equally violent”. This statement echoes a notorious judgment by Caroline Elkins in her book that the “moral balance” in the conflict was in Mau Mau’s favour, as they killed only 1,800 Kikuyu civilians, whereas British forces and auxiliaries killed nearly 11,000 Mau Mau.

She came to this conclusion by not counting the thousands of Kikuyu civilians killed by the Mau Mau before the Emergency was declared in 1952 – a slaughter that amounted to a “holocaust” in the verdict of Frank Corfield’s official report and which had ensured the Emergency in the first place. One District Commissioner estimated that the Emergency project of establishing protected villages where civilian Kikuyu could be guarded, whilst cutting off the guerrillas from supplies of food and arms, saved 20,000 lives.

Hola was not an isolated event: scores of prison warders, colonial officials and Home Guards were convicted during the Emergency of abuse of detainees, including torture or even murder. Yet, without for a moment condoning colonialism or colonial practices, it needs to be recognised that the scope and ferocity of Mau Mau slaughter was on a different scale to the misdeeds of the British in Kenya.

Even the Kenya Human Rights Commission, analysing the dismal record of rights violations in Kenya since independence, went out of its way to note that, “in the overall context of violations, the ‘colonial regime’ represents a tiny proportion”. Equating Mau Mau and British behaviour is not just bad history: it bespeaks a mindset that is only interested in one side’s crimes. Needless to say, the Channel 4 programme put no difficult questions to its smiling Mau Mau veterans.

I wrote to the media regulator, Ofcom, listing the many errors in the Channel 4 programme, including the fake claims by Julius Migwi. I never heard back, but earlier this year, tucked away in the monthly Ofcom Complaints Bulletin, I read that my complaint had not been deemed worth pursuing. This is the broadcasting equivalent of “nothing to see here”.

So it is now official: a state-owned television channel, required by its licence to ensure that its factual programmes “must not materially mislead the audience”, can broadcast blatant lies without reprimand, let alone sanction: provided, it would seem, that the lies are about British colonial policy. If that is how Ofcom interprets its regulatory duties, Netflix can relax.


History Reclaimed is grateful to the author, David Elstein, and to The Critic, in which it first appeared, for permission to republish this article.

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David Elstein