July 9, 2013



Dr. Sterling is Professor of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and editor of the Washington Society for Churchill’s The Churchillian. His previous articles, on Churchill and air travel and sea travel, appeared in FH 118 and 121 respectively. The portrait of Sir John Reith, above, hangs in the BBC Board Room.

THE LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP between ChurchilL and the British Broadcasting Corp. tipped mostly toward the latter, especially in the 1930s, when BBC Director General Sir John Reith nursed a cordial antipathy toward the prophet in the wilderness.

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For nearly three decades Winston Churchill and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) shared a tense relationship which would have important long-term ramifications for both parties. Despite the success of his classic wartime broadcasts, Churchill’s views about the BBC, its management and role were often far less positive.

The British Broadcasting Company had begun in October 1922 as a commercially-supported radio broadcasting service based in London. John C.W. Reith (1889-1971)1 was appointed as general manager two months later. After a Parliamentary study (and partially in a negative reaction to the confusing rise of commercial radio in the United States), at the beginning of 1927 the BBC (by then a Corporation connecting numerous stations), became government-supported and thus non-commercial.

At the time of the nine-day General Strike of May 1926, however, the BBC was still six months away from renewal of its government-granted commercial license, placing it in a precarious bargaining position in any disagreement with the establishment. To Reith, the fledgling BBC occupied a unique place in the nation’s life and therefore had to maintain a neutral tone; indeed a policy was in place banning broadcasts on controversial issues.

Such a position was anathema to Churchill, then serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer: “I first quarrelled with Reith in 1926, during the General Strike. He behaved quite impartially between the strikers and the nation. I said he had no right to be impartial between the fire and fire-brigade. The nation was being held up.”2

Churchill perceived the BBC as an offshoot of the press, and spoke strongly for marshalling the BBC to the government’s side. Andrew Boyle, a sympathetic Reith biographer, notes that when the British Gazette was launched:

the ministerial editor of this unadulterated propaganda sheet began to pick holes in BBC output and sought support for his resolute proposal to take it over. The Chancellor could see no reason why the resources of broadcasting should not be mobilized as another powerful weapon against the strikers.3

Though often considered, the “formal decision not to commandeer the BBC was not taken until 11 May,” only the day before the strike ended.4

For two more years (until March 1928), the BBC maintained its policy of banning broadcasts on controversial issues. Shortly after the ban was lifted, Churchill, still Chancellor, delivered a brief radio address on his forthcoming budget.5 Given what turned out to be the strongly political nature of that broadcast, with a general election pending in 1929, the BBC decided not to ask Churchill to speak again. As one BBC official put it to Reith: “Last year the Chancellor’s speech could not fail to be, in effect, propaganda…though he did it very skilfully. This year its propaganda effect would be doubled.”6 That was the last thing the BBC wanted in an election year as it navigated the shoals of party politics.

Churchill’s limited access to radio grew more restricted when the Tories lost the spring 1929 election. His desire to reach the growing number of BBC listeners is evident in his December 1929 offer to pay “£100 [then worth $500 and today equivalent to ten times that] out of [his] own pocket for the right to speak for half an hour on Politics.” Reith turned him down out of concern about the precedent that would be set by a U.S.-style “time for money” scheme, and pointed out that the BBC
accepted political speakers only as designated by the main parties, not individuals. Churchill responded that he preferred the American approach to “the present British methods of debarring public men from access to a public who wish to hear.”7

Two years later, in mid-1931, the BBC refused to allow Churchill to broadcast his views on self-government for India while debate was ongoing in Parliament. This did not originate with Reith (though Churchill thought it did), but rather reflected the usual BBC practice of adhering to reasonable requests of the government in office.8 Similar decisions prevented Churchill from broadcasting about the economic crisis a year later, though he did broadcast several times as part of round-table programs featuring a variety of points of view. The clear problem was that “the [public] mood of the 1930s was not congenial to the forthright communication of Churchillian themes, and the BBC did not seek to dispel it.”‘

While continuing to blame Reith for his broadcast banishment, however, Churchill could still show his sense of humor. Before the Royal Society of St. George at an April 1934 speech that was carried live by the BBC, he chided its management:

You see these microphones? They have been placed on our tables by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Think of the risk these eminent men are running. We can almost see them in our mind’s eye, gathered together in that very expensive building with the questionable statues on its front. We can picture Sir John Reith, with the perspiration mantling on his lofty brow, with his hand on the control switch, wondering, as I utter every word, whether it will not be his duty to protect his innocent subscribers from some irreverent thing I might say about Mr. Gandhi, or about the Bolsheviks, or even about our peripatetic Prime Minister.

But let me reassure him. I have much more serious topics to discuss. I have to speak to you about St. George and the Dragon. 10

On 29 January 1935 Churchill finally did get a chance to broadcast about India. Reith dubbed the effort “awfully disappointing—a string of bombastic phrases with little sincerity at the back of it.”11 The speech was one of only a handful of such appearances: Churchill in fact spoke more often on the American radio networks (and was well paid for those appearances) than at home.

Reith’s first biographer, writing in 1938 just after Reith had resigned his BBC post, and while Churchill was deep in his political wilderness, offered what was probably a fairly typical view of Churchill at that time:

Imagine what would have been the case had the B.B.C. been under the direction of Winston Churchill, whose career does not possess sufficient justification for me to assume that a Churchill-controlled B.B.C. would have been other than a war-fermenting, rabidly imperialistic, recklessly adventuresome, class-warfaring instrument which, sooner than later, would have mortally offended some other nations.12

We need not dwell on Churchill’s famous wartime broadcasts, which have been widely reprinted and discussed here and elsewhere. But it should be remembered that none of those broadcasts was made from the floor of the House of Commons. Rather, they were repeat readings of his speeches (and often not as good as the original, as a tired Churchill readily admitted) for later broadcast.

In January 1942, he asked the House to consider an experiment in recording at least some key speeches and debate on the floor—both as a record and for possible subsequent broadcast—but no action was taken.13

As to the vital roles the BBC performed during the war, however, “In the six volumes of Winston Churchill’s epic history [of World War II] there are less than ten references to the role of broadcasting or of the BBC, and none of these involve any comprehensive assessment.”14 In part this may have been because of Churchill’s desire to describe actions rather than words, but it attested also to his continuing discomfort with the BBC. At an October 1940 cabinet meeting, for example, Reith (whom Chamberlain had named Minister of Information early in the year, but was switched by Churchill to Transport) wrote that evening in his diary: “I became aware of the intense discontent with the BBC. Churchill spoke with great bitterness: an enemy within the gates, continually causing trouble, doing more harm than good, something drastic must be done about it.”15

Some of Churchill’s anguish appears to have arisen from his concern about the employment of leftist writers and broadcasters at the BBC (and Ministry of Information) specifically hired to connect working class listeners to government programs and issues.16

Churchill’s discomfort with the BBC may have been reflected in his generally poor use of radio for a series of political speeches made during his doomed 1945 reelection campaign. Perhaps feeling burned by that vote, “after 1945 he was to refuse to broadcast on at least nine occasions.”17 WSC, Prime Minister Attlee and BBC Director General Sir William Haley all agreed on at least one thing: that the returning BBC television service (it went back on the air in mid-1946) would not play any political role. Television was not thought fit to deal with the complexities of political issues. As leader of the opposition, Churchill backed the Beveridge Committee’s determination that the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting should continue.18

Churchill’s personal aversion to television became more pronounced in his second administration (1951-55) when he avoided most coverage by film and TV (which, in any case, he regarded as vulgar). Churchill on TV:

never delivered a party political or election broadcast. Only once did he agree to appear on live television. He spoke a few words at the end of a tribute broadcast on his eightieth birthday, in November 1954. Churchill may well have feared that the television cameras would highlight his age and growing frailty. In 1955 he agreed to a secret screen test at 10 Downing street….when he was shown the screen test he hated it, perhaps…because it told an unflattering truth.19

He was, however, very aware of television’s potential political power, and thus the “intolerable burden if one had to consider how one would appear, what one would look like, all over the land.”20 If Churchill had had his way, the June 1953 Coronation would not have been televised: it was only the young Queen’s personal wish that allowed the BBC to provide its historic coverage.21

Discussions about broadcast policy, which by now interested Churchill hardly at all (other than news, he only occasionally listened to radio and almost never watched television), increasingly focused on the introduction of competition, a debate driven more by commercial than political concerns. During a 1952 debate about his own government’s plan to introduce television competition, Churchill told his doctor, Lord Moran, that though he felt the competition issue was “not at all fundamental,”

I am against the monopoly employed by the BBC. For eleven years they kept me off the air. They prevented me from expressing views which have proved to be right. Their behavior has been tyrannical. They are honeycombed with socialists—probably with communists.22

In late 1952, Sir Ian Jacob (who had been part of Churchill’s wartime inner circle) became director general of the BBC. However, even he could not modify WSC’s generally dour outlook on broadcasting: “…Churchill, even if he was never impressed by claims for commercial television (‘Why do we need this peep-show?’) and impatiently brushed aside arguments in its favor…had never been much impressed either by talk of the BBC as a great national institution.”23

It was (now Lord) Reith’s impassioned speech in the House of Lords against commercial television that helped bring Churchill around to argue in support of the competition his old adversary so resisted. Still, the real push for commercial television came from a group of young Tory politicians, not the Prime Minister.24 Paul Addison concludes that beyond the fact that he allowed it to happen, the ending of the BBC’s monopoly by the Television Act of 1954 owed nothing to Churchill.”25

Given the checkered relationship between Churchill and the BBC, it is perhaps a fitting twist to the story that, when he finally stepped down as Prime Minister in April 1955, a national press strike meant that news of his departure was carried only by radio, television and the Manchester Guardian.26 And, while Churchill may have harbored doubts about the BBC, its TV coverage of his final journey created lasting images, and with them a legend, of which any statesman would be proud.


From his autobiography, Into the Wind (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1949)

“He cited an item about Lord Knutsford having had to arrange – with a union official to have power maintained at the London Hospital. From this a general argument developed, Mrs. Churchill supporting him….He was polite to me; I wished we had had a proper set-to at the beginning of the General Strike.” —1926

“I met Churchill when he came to give his long-deferred broadcast about India. He was very agreeable; said he much appreciated my staying late to meet him. He borrowed 5/- from me for a taxi home, which, to my satisfaction, he never repaid.”—1935

“At the Admiralty…Churchill said he knew me chiefly as the individual who had kept him from broadcasting about India. That was a happy way of greeting a new colleague….it was very unsatisfactory.” —1939

“German invasion of Norway….Churchill said we had the Germans where we wanted them; I wondered how they had got there.” —1940

“My first minute from him was stamped ‘Prime Minister, Personal Minute’; attached was a red label with the caption ‘Action This Day’….A junior should not have to be stimulated or frightened into answering quickly a note from the boss (in any business)….I should not have expected Churchill to admit the possibility of delay in a reply to one of his minutes.” —1940

“He wrote me in 1945: ‘I know what a sacrifice you made when you gave up your position in order to join Mr. Chamberlain’s Government….! admired your abilities and energy, and it was with regret that I was not able to include you in the reconstruction of the Government in 1942. I was told you were difficult to work with….lf I can be of service to you at any time, pray let me know; for I am very sorry that the fortunes of war should have proved so adverse to you, and I feel the State is in your debt.’ “One may be content to take the ending of that letter as the ending of this story.” —1945



1. For more on this complex Scotsman, see Ron Cynewulf Robbins, “Great Contemporaries: Reith of the BBC,” Finest Hour 82 [1994], also posted on the Centre website.

2. Lord Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (London: Constable, 1966), 390.

3. Andrew Boyle, Only the Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC (London: Hutchinson, 1972), 195.

4. Ian Mclntyre, The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith (London: Harper/Collins, 1993), 143.

5. Ibid, p. 165.

6. Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. II: The Golden Age of Wireless (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 132, quoting a memo from Hilda Matheson to Reith, 20 March 1929.

8. J.C.W. Reith, Into the Wind (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1949), 151.

9. Briggs, 146.

10. Boyle, 237. Broadcasting House had opened in 1932, and for its facade Eric Gill had sculpted nude statues of Prospero and Ariel, which raised critical eyebrows.

11. Charles Stuart, ed., The Reith Diaries (London: Collins, 1975), 120. This compilation includes nearly twenty page references to “Reith’s hatred” of Churchill.

12. Garry Allighan, Sir John Reith (London: Stanley Paul, 1938), pp. 251-52.

13. “Broadcasting of Parliamentary Speeches.” Remarks to the House of Commons, 20 January 1942, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), vol. VI, 6551-52.

14. Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. Ill: The War of Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970, 4.

15. Boyle, 317.

16. Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front: 1900-1955 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992), 344.

17. Briggs (vol. Ill, 1970), 723-25.

18. Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. IV: Sound and Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 48.

19. Addison, 420.

20. Churchill as quoted in Moran, 756.

21. Cockerell, 19.

22. Moran, 390.

23. Asa Briggs, The BBC: The First Fifty Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 281-82.

24. Cockerell, 25-26.

25. Addison, 421.

26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8, “Never Despair,” 1945-1965 (London: Heinemann, 1988), 1125. 

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