Finest Hour 152
By Daniel N. Myers
Churchill knew how to use the media to his best advantage. Reticent to grant interviews, he preferred to make news through his tongue and his pen. Whether writing articles early in his career, or books later, or merely striding through history, Churchill recognized that media attention would further his career and his ultimate goals, personal and international.
In May 1913, while First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill sailed for eight months on the Admiralty yacht Enchantress, visiting every important ship of the British fleet and “learning all he could about his ‘trade.'” Ever the thorn in a politician’s side, Punch published a cartoon showing Churchill, puffing a cigar and reclining in a deck chair next to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who accompanied him on part of his journey, reading a newspaper.
Churchill asks Asquith, “Any home news?” The PM responds, “How can there be with you here?”1 Punch’s cartoon typifies the Churchill we know from history: prominent not only in the news of the day, he often made the news itself. And news, whether the writing or the publishing of it, figured prominently in the Churchill story from his earliest days.
“No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”
When Churchill sailed to Cuba shortly after graduating in 1895 from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, he carried with him his first commission as a journalist from the British Daily Graphic to report the revolt against Spanish rule in Cuba. En route he spent several days in New York City as the guest of his mother’s friend, the well known Irish-American lawyer-politician Bourke Cockran.
He also dined with his cousin Sunny, the Duke of Marlborough who three days before Churchill’s arrival had wed the American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. The New York newspapers were not kind to his cousin, and Churchill wrote his brother Jack: “The essence of American journalism is vulgarity divested of truth. Their best papers write for a class of snotty housemaids and footmen, & even the nicest people here have so much vitiated their taste as to appreciate their style.”2
Notwithstanding his harsh views of American journalism, he was happily eager to accept a commission from the British newspaper, which easily financed his trip across the Atlantic. During and following his Cuban adventure, Churchill would send back letters for publication for which he was paid five guineas3 each—”no mean fee in those days for a first assignment.”4 Upon his return to England, Churchill sailed for India to join his regiment in Bangalore. At the first opportunity to see action in the Malakand Pass, Churchill sent to his mother letters for publication in the Daily Telegraph, asking that she secure compensation of not less than £10 each. Much to his dismay, she not only settled for £5 per letter, but the letters were published anonymously at the suggestion of Lord Minto, a family friend and former soldier.
Upon learning of publication without his byline, and at what he felt sure was a sub-standard price, Churchill wrote a scathing letter to his mother in October 1897:
I will not conceal my disappointment at [the letters] not being signed. I had written them with the design….of bringing my personality before the electorate. I had hoped that some political advantage might have accrued….I do not think that I have ever written anything better, or to which I would more willingly have signed my name. On such a matter the advice of a soldier (Lord Minto) was of course worthless….I will not accept less than £10 a letter and I shall return any cheque for a less sum….The Daily Chronicle offered me ten pounds a letter to go to Crete and I will not be defrauded in this way. As Dr Johnson says, ‘No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.'”5
Churchill would always write for money. Indeed, it was through writing—in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, books and lectures—that he was able to make a living and to raise a family. Churchill remarked on the life of a journalist and war correspondent, as he certainly considered himself to be, while serving in South Africa and penning the articles that resulted in two of his earliest books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton’s March. Awar correspondent’s “precarious existence,” he wrote, was “a necessary evil, for the lot of the writer in the field is a hard and heavy one. ‘All the danger of war and one-half per cent, the glory’: such is our motto, and this is the reason why we expect large salaries.”6
After he entered Parliament at the end of 1900, Churchill income from journalism was curtailed, though he continued to write articles and even short fiction for the British and American press, and to publish books of his speeches and a biography of his father, followed by a massive memoir of World War I, starting in 1923. His newspaper career revived a quarter-century later in an unusual way. While Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill restored the Gold Standard in 1925 at the urging of international financiers. In the view of many this policy was detrimental to the well-being of the country; to others, it was fatal when not accompanied by requisite wage and tax reforms, which put heavy pressure on key industries. In 1926, the colliery owners demanded that miners accept both pay cuts and longer hours, an action which led to a lock-out of miners and a nationwide General Strike by the Trades Union Congress.
With the Fleet Street newspapers shut down, Churchill founded and directed a government newspaper, The British Gazette. His writing was strident, aggressively anti-socialist and, to many, anti-worker. In response, The British Worker, a paper established by the TUC, retorted that “the threat of revolution exists nowhere save in Mr. Churchill’s heated and disorderly imagination.”7
While the Conservative Cabinet had envisioned The British Gazette as essentially an information sheet, Churchill ran it as a propaganda organ for breaking the strike. He even tried to take over recently founded BBC Radio, but was prevented by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the Cabinet. At the time of the strike’s end, in two weeks, Churchill had built the circulation of the paper to well over two million. While an impressive achievement, his stridency and aggressive writing style made a lasting impression on a divided nation, and would have a negative impact on his political career in the years ahead.
Churchill’s relationships with Fleet Street and the press barons often flashed hot and cold. Some of his best friends—Brendan Bracken, Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Camrose and Lord Riddell—were newspaper proprietors, publishers or editors. While they would socialize with Churchill and, in many instances, later took high government posts within his wartime government, they were not above attacking him when they felt he deserved it, especially during his “Wilderness Years” in the 1930s, when he split from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet over opposition to the push for Indian self-government.
After India, the principal reason for Churchill’s difficulties with the British press during the mid-to late-1930s was that he was openly critical of Hitler and Nazi Germany, while the new Baldwin government was encouraging the press not to antagonize the Third Reich. “This was not Churchill’s method; his articles were outspoken criticisms of German totalitarianism, militarization, and threats to other nations,” said his press agent Emery Reves, who later recalled that the Foreign Office tried to get him to cease representing Churchill: “The senior official there said I was doing a great disservice to England in disseminating Churchill’s opinions. I should think it over. It was doing no good. His opinions were not those of England.”8
Lynne Olson recently described the press censorship exercised by the government of Neville Chamberlain, which succeeded that of Stanley Baldwin, quoting the later remarks of James Margach, political correspondent for The Sunday Times:
From the moment [Chamberlain] entered No. 10 in 1937, he sought to manipulate the press into supporting his policy of appeasing the dictators….In order to cling to power, Chamberlain was prepared to abuse truth itself. He made the most misleading and inaccurate statements, which he was determined to see published so as to make his policies appear credible and successful. Quite simply, he told lies.9
The British Broadcasting Corporation was especially unfriendly to Churchill. Sir John Reith, its director-general, a tall and austere patrician whom WSC referred to as “that Wuthering Height,” had clashed with Churchill during the 1926 General Strike over the Chancellor’s efforts to direct the content of news broadcasts over the BBC. As a result, when the BBC began deciding which politicians would make broadcasts during the 1930s, Churchill was effectively banned from the air.10
On St. George’s Day 1933, a holiday during which Reith judged it safe to let him speak, Churchill wasted no time in sending a shot at his nemesis:
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.
Regardless of his relationship with the press—and the disdain many of his countrymen felt for him in the 1930s—millions of words, photographs and cartoons attest to the fascination in which Churchill was held in Britain and beyond. Though out of power in the 1930s, his articles were widely syndicated and his lecture tours well attended. WSC lived life large. His friends and acquaintances included the best-known and most preeminent personages of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Wherever he went, whatever he did and whomever he met constituted fodder for a hungry press.
“Up to the neck and in to the death”
Churchill knew how to use the press to his best advantage. He was reticent to grant interviews, offering only two major ones as a young MP (see Finest Hour 144), and then only because he admired the interviewers. Churchill preferred to make his press through his tongue and his pen. Whether writing news stories early in his career, or books later, or merely striding through history, Churchill recognized that media attention would only further his career and his ultimate goals, whether personal or national. His flair for the dramatic, and thereby his ability to capture the attention of the press and the public, was demonstrated in his choice of hats (often outrageous), his wartime “siren suits,” his ever-present cigar and walking stick, and his upheld “V for Victory” sign.
Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill and key British military leaders sailed for America. On his first day in Washington, 22 December 1941, a joint press conference was held in Roosevelt’s office. Press conferences were not something with which Churchill was familiar, but he handily rose to the occasion. Jon Meacham wrote:
The press conference was an example of how Roosevelt and Churchill helped transform how the story of politics was told in the middle of the 20th century. They both understood the significance of mass media—of newspapers, radio, magazines and newsreels—and always had. Roosevelt had been the top editor on the Harvard Crimson, and Churchill had made himself famous as a war reporter. Later both exploited radio. In America, Roosevelt’s persona and habits—the cigarette and its holder, his dog—were part of the popular consciousness; in Britain, Churchill’s oft-photographed courageous countenance was a powerful symbol of defiance. On afternoons like this one in Washington…these two political actors were, in a way, designing the stage set of modern politics.12
“It was terribly exciting,” said Alistair Cooke, the British expatriate, by then an American journalist.13 These two supreme politicians would use the media masterfully over the next four years, individually and jointly during the wartime conferences in Washington, Casablanca and Quebec. Hundreds of photos show them meeting, talking, joking, greeting soldiers and showing off their wartime collaboration. It mattered not that below the surface there were arguments on strategy, tactics, or ultimate war aims; it was only important that the news media report that their two nations were united against a common foe and, as Churchill put it, “up to the neck and in to the death.”14
Churchill preferred humor to profundity when talking to reporters, an art later practiced by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. Visiting Niagara Falls in 1943, he said to a reporter: “I saw them before you were born. I came here first in 1900.” Stupidly, the reporter asked, “Do they look the same?” Churchill quipped, “Well, the principle seems the same. The water keeps falling over.”15
Subjected to another American press conference in 1952, Churchill was asked by a reporter if he wasn’t thrilled by the crowds that attended his speeches. “It is quite flattering,” he cracked, “but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”16
Preeminently throughout his life, Winston Churchill was a devotee of the spoken word, which he had learned to deliver in his youth on the hustings to vociferous partisan crowds (for or against him, he cared not which). Given a BBC television screen-test in the early Fifties, he hesitated, mumbled, and flubbed it badly. At that 1952 press conference he had remarked: “…as a rather old-fashioned person I have not been one of [television’s] principal champions. I hope that the raw material is as good as the methods of distribution.”17
In 1898, in his first book, Churchill wrote, “It is better to be making the news than taking it; to be an actor rather than a critic.”18 He followed that rule throughout his life, always part of the action, never missing an opportunity to make the news. As he pugnaciously told a London editor, who had gratuitously suggested he make a graceful exit after the 1945 general election: “Mr. Editor, I leave when the pub closes.”19
1. Fred Urquhart, ed., W.S.C.: A Cartoon Biography (London: Cassell, 1955), 23.
2. Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America (New York: Free Press, 2005) 16-17.
3. A guinea was equal to one pound, one shilling, or 21 shillings. By one measure, five guineas in 1900 is equivalent to £1500 ($2500) today.
4. Woods, Frederick, ed., Young Winston’s Wars: The Original Despatches of Winston S. Churchill War Correspondent, 1897-1900 (New York: Viking Press, 1972), xiv.
5. WSC to Lady Randolph, 25 October 1897, in Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume I, Part 2 (London: Heinemann, 1967), 812.
6. Letter, “Camp before Dewetsdorp,” 22 April 1900, in Frederick Woods, ed., Winston Churchill War Correspondent (London: Brasseys, 1992), 298.
7. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, Prophet of Truth 1932-1939 (London: Heinemann, 1976), 168.
8. Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston Churchill and Emery Reves: Correspondence, 1937-1964 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997),
9. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Young Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 199.
10. Ibid., 120. See also Ron Cynewulf Robbins, “Reith of the BBC,” Finest Hour 82, 1st Quarter 1994; and “Churchill, Reith and the BBC” by Christopher Sterling, Finest Hour 128, Autumn 2005.
11. Broadcast Speech to the Royal Society of St. George, 24 April 1933, in Winston S. Churchill, Arms and the Covenant (London: Harrap, 1938), 91.
12. Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (New York: Random House, 2003) 144.
13. Ibid., 142-43.
14. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 3, The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell, 1950), 539.
15. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. VII, Road to Victory 1941-1945 (London: Heinemann, 1986), 469.
16. Norman McGowan, My Years with Churchill (Lon- don: Pan Books, 1959), 138.
17. Ibid, 473.
18. Winston S. Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), 97.
19. The Economist, 1 February 1965, quoted in Lang- worth, ed., Churchill By Himself, 528.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.