Winston Churchill: A Life in the News, by Richard Toye

A. W. Purdue considers how Britain’s wartime prime minister was a lifelong master at keeping himself in the public eye

August 6, 2020
British politician Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) during Election year
Source: Getty

Walking through Venice on her honeymoon, Clementine Churchill found herself deserted. Looking around for her husband, she found him at a kiosk, where he had espied a copy of The Times. The news always came first with Winston. In this original analysis, Richard Toye approaches Churchill as a journalist, as a man in the news and as someone who sought to influence the news, and to use it in support of his own political causes, by making alliances with the press magnates of the day.

His life spanned the great age of print journalism, a period when new electronic forms of communication aided rather than competed with the press, enabling newspapers to receive information of distant events and comments and articles on them via the telegraph and to inform readers at their breakfast tables the next day. As Toye demonstrates, Churchill, who was in his late forties when the BBC was founded, came to master radio broadcasting but was never at home with the camera when appearing on newsreels.

Yet he was not merely the passive product of British and global news culture, for he did a great deal to help shape that culture. He did so most spectacularly in his youthful role as adventurer and early war correspondent. Using his contacts and the influence of his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, he managed, while still a serving army officer, to get himself paid by newspaper proprietors to cover campaigns in Cuba; the North-West Frontier of India; Sudan, where he took part in the cavalry charge during the Battle of Omdurman; and the Boer War, during which he was captured and then escaped from Boer captivity. His reporting and the books he wrote about his experiences made him a household name, even before he entered politics. Toye comments that: “As he prepared to make the transition from celebrity journalist to politician, this pushing young man had already secured what he wanted from the press; its undying fascination with himself.”

His entry into politics was, no doubt, inevitable, for Parliament provided the biggest stage in public life, but – like his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, before him – he seems not to have been inspired by settled political loyalties. His rapid move from Conservative to Liberal was only the first of many apostasies, and he was never to become a conventional party loyalist. His alliances with various press barons, the Harmsworths, Beaverbrook and Camrose, were to be as significant as those with political parties in the variety of causes he espoused over his long career.

The relationships of politicians and the press are rarely harmonious, however, and, despite the enormous sums he earned from journalism, and his close relationship with press lords, Churchill’s were no exception. Although he courted the media, he often showed bitter resentment of the press and the BBC. As chancellor of the Exchequer, he set up the British Gazette during the General Strike of 1926 in order to express government policy; he became increasingly annoyed with Lord Reith, the first director general of the BBC, over the corporation’s attitude to the strike, even though, while more balanced and less emotional than the Gazette, it was generally supportive of the government. With more justification, he saw criticism by the press during the Second World War as a dangerous nuisance, although he was supported in this by Labour ministers.

As is well known, Churchill was by the late 1930s widely seen as a political failure. His achievement as a Liberal minister who had steered complex and controversial legislation through Parliament, as, along with Lloyd George, he laid the foundations of the welfare state, was a distant memory. He had become a largely discredited figure who had changed sides too many times, made great blunders and backed failed causes such as opposition to reform of the empire in India and support for Edward VIII at the time of the abdication. It was, indeed, unlikely that he would ever have become prime minister had it not been for the exceptional circumstance of 1940, when his record as only loosely connected to party became a positive advantage, while his flair for language, honed over years of journalism writing for so many publications with diverse readerships, gave him the great opportunity to serve his country in its most desperate hour. It is, of course, Churchill’s bold and charismatic wartime leadership and his ability to maintain national cohesion through a long war that made and justifies his continued reputation for greatness, but they also obscure his many misjudgements, both military and diplomatic, including his failure to appreciate that neither Stalin nor Roosevelt valued British long-term interests.

His oratory, which had come to be considered Augustan and somewhat archaic, suddenly became apposite to a time when the country’s past achievements were so relevant to its present; and those mellifluous phrases, interspersed by the journalist’s knack for pithy Anglo-Saxon witticism, were applauded then and continue to be central to memories of Britain’s war. Yet, he was not, as Toye has argued in a previous work, Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness (2007), a natural public speaker. He laboured over his speeches for hours, much as he did with his articles for newspapers, for he could not extemporise. They, like his radio broadcasts, were written prose delivered orally and with great flair and timing.

No previous prime minister had come to office so well known to the public through his journalism and books, although Disraeli already had a considerable reputation as a novelist. Many readers of Toye’s book may be struck by parallels with our present prime minister, also a leading journalist and influential figure before he entered the political fray. Boris Johnson has also, in The Churchill Factor (2014), a study written with his customary brio, considered the contribution that his subject’s journalism made to his career. A great admirer of Churchill, he nevertheless concurs with Toye’s analysis of his oratory, pointing to those many typed pages clasped as he rose to his feet “before trying to declaim as much as possible from memory”.

His writing and journalism were always important to Churchill. His income from them was enormous – and it needed to be for his lifestyle was extravagant. His country house, Chartwell, where he spent much of his time from 1922 to 1964, was an expensive purchase and costly to maintain. Major studies of Churchill have placed considerable emphasis on his books, particularly The World Crisis (1923-31) and the six volumes of The Second World War (1948-53), through which he sought to furbish his reputation and “write the history” of his time with himself as the central figure. They were massive achievements that no historian can neglect, but it was his articles for newspapers, ranging from the Morning Post to the Daily Mail and a variety of provincial papers, that first brought him into the political arena and then kept him in the public eye, even when out of office. Richard Toye is surely correct in seeing the journalism as central to the career of a man whose life was dominated by the news he did much to create.

A. W. Purdue is a visiting reader in history at the Open University.

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News
By Richard Toye
Oxford University Press, 400pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780198803980
Published 13 August 2020

The author 

Richard Toye, professor of history at the University of Exeter, was born in Cambridge in 1973 and recalls, as a child, finding it “hard to understand why so many tourists wanted to come there!”. He later moved with his family to Swansea and then Hove. He did both a first degree and an MPhil at the University of Birmingham, where he recalls being taught by “inspirational figures such as Andrew Chandler, Katy Cubitt, Scott Lucas and the late Eric Ives”. He was also greatly influenced by his supervisor, Peter Clarke, when he went on to a PhD at Cambridge.

Although the themes of his books range from The Labour Party and the Planned Economy, 1931-1951 to Arguing about Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France, 1882-1956 and he is now working (with David Thackeray) on one titled Age of Promises: Electoral Pledges in Twentieth Century Britain, Toye has repeatedly returned to writing about Winston Churchill. Separate volumes explore his rivalry with David Lloyd George, his relations with empire, his wartime speeches and his “strategy and statecraft”. Yet Toye saw “no danger of exhausting the subject” of such an iconic figure, given that “Churchill had such a long career and left such an enormous record of his thoughts and activities.”

Although Churchill remains a role model for many, not least the present prime minister, and a much more ambivalent or hated figure for others, Toye points to an underexamined aspect of why he remains significant today.

“We are still living with the legacy of the fact that, early in his own lifetime, Churchill became a global political celebrity,” he points out. “Thinking about how the press (and later newsreels and radio) brought that about can help us reflect on today’s media culture.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Master of the media blitz

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