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August 2020

'Every view on every question'

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News Churchill news

Richard Toye

Oxford, 2020


ISBN 978 0 19 880398 0

Richard Toye’s earlier book, The Roar of the Lion, focussed on Churchill’s speeches. The title of his new book indicates a more diffuse theme. Toye explores this very public life in three dimensions: Churchill’s own prolific writings; his media image; and his attempts to control the press.

Churchill began his journalistic career in the last decade of the 19th century, just as the telegraph and the telephone were beginning to globalize the press. He effectively ended it in 1947, with an article in Life on the Truman Doctrine.

By that point, ‘the press’ had become ‘the media’, and Churchill found himself having to navigate new channels. He famously took well to speechifying on radio, and he was hardly averse to being photographed or filmed. Indeed, in the notorious Sidney Street siege of 1911, he appeared in the newsreels, not pontificating but seeming to lead the operation from the midst of the crowd - perhaps one of the first politicians to exploit film in this way.

But he was never happy speaking to camera, and he hated the rigmarole of television. He also claimed that the new media undermined the practice of democracy: “under dictatorships,” he wrote in 1936, “the press is bound to languish, and the loudspeaker and the film to become ever more important.” Hence, perhaps, his hostility to the BBC, which he regularly accused of abuse of power.

Not that he was above trying to exercise power without responsibility himself, by censoring the newspapers – mostly unsuccessfully.

The early 20th century saw what Churchill called the ‘trustification’ of the press. As a Victorian, he regarded newspapers, in Toye's words,as “a positive force for national cohesion.” The press barons of the new century – Northcliffe, Rothermere, Harmsworth King – gave fewer than two hoots for national cohesion; they regarded themselve as political players in their own right, using the papers they controlled to influence opinion and policy.

Lord Beaverbrook, in particular, plays an important part in this story. Churchill’s response, in 1930, to ‘the Beaver’s’ newly founded United Empire Party was characteristically ambiguous: hesitant to damage a fragile friendship; cautious over committing himself to a cause that might not win popular support (protectionism touted as ‘Empire free trade’); ambitious to reassume control of the Conservative party (which he’d abandoned in the 1920s). Where did the main chance lie? What move would most advantage him?

Beaverbrook himself became exasperated with Churchill’s dithering. “He has held every view on every question,” he wrote to J L Garvin, editor of the (then right-wing) Observer in 1932; “… he is utterly unreliable in his mental attitude.” His words might suggest envy or resentment, as Toye suggests; but it was shared by many, throughout Churchill’s career.

The intricate, shifting network of political, press and personal interests makes this a tough tale to tell. Toye contributes all the solid scholarship and balanced judgement that distinguished The Roar of the Lion. The story catches fire at several points: the South African escapades; the Edwardian controversies; his prescient forecasts from the sidelines after World War Two, as Britain slipped from centre stage politically.

At other times, perhaps inevitably, the narrative slackens a little. Photographs of the main players, and a timeline, would have been helpful.

To his great credit, though, Toye resists reducing the complexity of Churchill’s character, both psychological and dramatic. This life in the news seems to anticipate another 20th-century invention: celebrity. Everything contributed to the cultivation of ‘Winston’: the books, articles, speeches and political machinations; the watercolours and the bricklaying at Chartwell; even road accidents and visits to the zoo. The circumstances of his birth had been mildly, usefully, scandalous (just five months after his parents’ marriage). And by the time the day dawned of his funeral – meticulously planned himself, apparently, as ‘Operation Hope Not’ – Britons had fallen for the myth. Richard Toye’s book shows us how hard, and at times desperately, Churchill had worked to create it.