In an extract from his new book, Nick Robinson recalls how Churchill finally came out on top in his long-standing feud with Lord Reith.
By Nick Robinson
THE TELEGRAPH, 14 October 2012 — John Reith, the BBC’s founding father, had always disliked Winston Churchill and ended up loathing him. After the war, he remarked: “A whole lot of people could have done it better and more cheaply.”
Even when Churchill was dead, Reith refused to walk past his commemorative plaque in the floor of Westminster Abbey. The feeling had been mutual. Churchill referred to the puritanical Scot who towered over him as “that Wuthering Height”, and wrote: “I absolutely hate him.”
These two gigantic egos were always likely to collide spectacularly. Both men had enormous self-belief and very little self-doubt. This was a personality clash with policy consequences. Churchill never forgave the BBC for what he saw as the censorship of his views. Years later, he would exact his revenge.
The way Churchill was handled is a powerful warning of the dangers of the BBC believing it is being balanced by excluding the voices of those who do not represent conventional wisdom.
In the early years of the BBC, Reith’s main way of steering clear of controversy was to aim for political balance. Reith did this by subcontracting the choice of political speakers heard on the BBC. The leadership of each party could choose who broadcast on its behalf. It was an approach that guaranteed exposure for the opinions of ministers and their shadows, while dissident voices were silenced. Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George jointly complained that they were being prevented from broadcasting their views simply because they were not party loyalists.
Churchill’s frustration grew so great that, in 1929, he offered the BBC £100 to allow him to make a single broadcast warning against dominion status for India. When his offer was rejected, he complained that the corporation was “debarring public men from access to a public who wish to hear”.
Between 1930 and 1939, the number of radio licences issued tripled from three million to almost nine million. Yet in these years, when his voice could have made such an impression on the public consciousness, Churchill was heard only rarely on the BBC. He spoke on just 10 occasions in 10 years, and two of these were appeals for charitable causes.
He was finally invited to give a talk in 1934 and used this opportunity to warn of the danger of ignoring German rearmament. That broadcast demonstrated the impact Churchill could have had in warning the country against appeasement. It was not to be. This was his last radio appearance on the subject before the outbreak of war.
There is no written evidence that Churchill asked the BBC for the opportunity to speak out against appeasement. However, he did complain to a young BBC producer who visited him on the day after Chamberlain returned home from Munich. A memo records their meeting. They spent hours discussing the Nazi threat and “Churchill complained that he had been very badly treated… and that he was always muzzled by the BBC”. The producer was called Guy Burgess. The man who would become his country’s most famous traitor tried to reassure the man who would become its saviour that the BBC was not biased.
After Churchill became prime minister, on 10 May 1940, vast numbers listened to his extraordinary wartime broadcasts. Churchill claimed that all he did was to give voice to the national mood of defiance: “The people’s will was resolute and remorseless, I only expressed it. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
Even now, the sound of that voice warning of the need for “blood, toil, tears and sweat” makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
But many of the recordings of those speeches were made after the event. At the time, people often had to rely on a radio announcer reading out the text Churchill had given in Parliament, except on the occasions when the great man could be prevailed upon to repeat them for the benefit of the audience at home.
The prime minister’s speech to the House of Commons on the afternoon of 18 June 1940 gave the Battle of Britain its name and ended with a phrase that became shorthand for the country’s resolve: “their finest hour”. The prime minister had to be bullied by the information minister, Harold Nicolson, into repeating it in a broadcast to the nation at nine o’clock that evening.
The man who showed the prime minister to the microphone was Robert Wood, a BBC engineer. When advised that he should wait first for the bongs of Big Ben and then to be introduced by an announcer, Churchill boomed at Wood: “Why Big Ben? I am speaking. The world is waiting for me, not Big Ben.”
Before one broadcast, Churchill asked Wood to stop one of the studio’s antique clocks, which could be heard ticking in the background, on the grounds that it sounded “like bloody jackboots, and I won’t have them marching in Downing Street”. No wonder Wood concluded: “He was a devil to work for but a treat to work with.”
When the Conservatives won the 1951 election, Churchill became prime minister for the second time. In the next four years, he did not give a single television interview. Despite his obvious antipathy to television, this was the period when it began to flourish – thanks, largely, to the princess who became Queen.
The crowning of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was a massive national event, and one which saw a surge in the sale of television sets. Over two million licences were issued that year, compared with 25,000 held when transmissions restarted after the war. The prime minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Earl Marshal were united in the view that cameras should not be permitted [inside the Abbey]. It would be vulgar, intrusive and stressful for the young Queen. She, however, did not agree. Churchill was told in no uncertain terms by his monarch that the coronation should be seen by as many people as possible.
Twenty million watched the coronation service on television. More than 10 million saw it in other people’s houses and 1.5 million in cinemas, halls and pubs. Television had been placed at the heart of national life by a queen who defied political advice and who had a clearer idea of popular sentiment than those who claimed to represent the public.
On 5 April 1955, E R Thompson, the BBC’s first parliamentary correspondent, delivered the first-ever live TV news report: the announcement that Churchill was retiring. Churchill had unwittingly done the BBC a favour by resigning during a newspaper strike so that the corporation had the story to itself. Not for much longer, though. Some years earlier, Churchill had taken a decision that would change television for good.
He had decided to break the monopoly that his old enemy John Reith had considered so vital for broadcasting. He did so in the face of Reith’s hysterical warning that commercial television would be as disastrous for Britain as “dog racing, smallpox and bubonic plague”. Indeed, that wild overstatement seems to have helped overcome Churchill’s initial doubts. The grand old man explained his conversion to his doctor, Lord Moran: “For 11 years, they kept me off the air. They prevented me from expressing views that proved to be right. Their behaviour has been tyrannical.”
Not for the last time, the BBC was being punished by a prime minister who could not and would not forget how they had mistreated him two decades earlier. Not for the first time Churchill was to be proved right and Reith completely wrong.
The legacy of their bitter personal feud was the end of the BBC’s monopoly and the creation of a brand-new TV channel.
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‘Live From Downing Street’ by Nick Robinson (Random House, £20) is available from Telegraph Books at £18 + £1.35 p&p. To order, call 0844 871 1516 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk.