Winston Churchill: still newsworthy after all these years
Richard Toye |
The 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death and funeral has put him in the news again. In many ways, he’s never been away. Even minor revelations about his life are guaranteed good coverage, and, as the comments sections of newspaper websites demonstrate, readers are eager to debate his legacy. This mass of coverage reminds us that before Churchill made history, he made news. To a great extent also, the news made him. If it was his own efforts that made him a hero, it was the media that made him a celebrity, and has been considerably responsible for perpetuating his memory and shaping his reputation in the years since his death.
Born in 1874, Churchill initially combined his journalistic activities with his army career; the papers he wrote for included the Morning Post and the Daily Telegraph. In 1898, G.W. Steevens, war correspondent of the Daily Mail, described by Churchill as ‘the most brilliant man in journalism I have ever met’, boosted his new friend’s career with an article that dubbed him ‘the youngest man in Europe’. Steevens shrewdly observed that Churchill had qualities that could make him ‘almost at will, a great popular leader, a great journalist, or the founder of a great advertising business.’ Churchill undoubtedly did establish himself as a great journalist, at the same time as he was working to establish himself as a political leader. He was elected to Parliament at the turn of the century, at a time when MPs did not get salaries. In his first ministerial job, as Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, he wrote up a major imperial tour as a series of articles for the Strand Magazine, which then were published in book form as My African Journey (1908).
Journalistic activities were also important to Churchill later, as he struggled during his post-1929 ‘wilderness years’ to find the money to run and maintain Chartwell, his country house in Kent. It was also a way for him to put his views on foreign policy before the public at a time when (for the most part) the BBC was keeping him off the airwaves because of his anti-establishment views that appeasing Nazi Germany was a mistake. During the Second World War, the Sunday Dispatch republished his old articles week by week; later still, his war memoirs were serialised by the press.
Yet in spite of rapid improvements in communications during the course of Churchill’s life, the ways in which the media covered his career were powerfully affected not only by what was technically possible but by news culture. Furthermore, Churchill was not merely the passive subject of British and global news culture but did much to help shape that culture, not least through his prolific journalism and his attempts to influence editors and reporters.
During Churchill’s early life the press was in the throes of an ongoing revolution. The production of news was becoming increasingly globalized. The telegraph was invented in 1833; eleven years later, the nomination of Henry Clay for US President became the first news to be transmitted by it. The first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858, and although it quickly failed another came into operation in 1866. The telegraph was crucial to the success of the new international news agencies, the first of which, Agence Havas, was launched in 1835. Globalization was an uneven process though and London emerged as a global news centre, in particular providing US news to Europe. By 1900 British companies owned 72% of the world’s submarine cable. In 1902 the so-called ‘All-Red [cable] Route’ was completed, linking the territories of the British Empire. Churchill was an inveterate sender of telegrams, both in his personal life and in his journalistic career.
As Churchill, who was fascinated by technology, would have been well aware, there were many other innovations besides the telegraph that contributed to the media revolution. One thinks most obviously of the telephone (invented in 1877) and the development of wireless telegraphy (radio) at the turn of the twentieth century. By the time Churchill became Prime Minister, and indeed well before, news could travel around the globe at speeds that bear comparison with today. For example, when Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Reuters picked up the early-hours broadcast of a proclamation by Hitler. Recognising its significance, the agency conveyed the news around the world at once, beating its more slow-footed competitors by a matter of minutes.
In many ways Churchill had the perfect credentials for politics in the modern journalistic age. The so-called ‘New Journalism’ was brash, populist and exciting, and as Churchill’s career developed he used the media to turn himself into a political celebrity. Like the press, he thrived on sensation, and the press thrived on him. It did not always give him an easy ride, though. Some papers complained that Churchill’s ministers were mediocrities and that the ‘paralysing influence’ of Neville Chamberlain lived on in his own government. During the autumn of 1940, he complained bitterly about what he saw as unfair newspaper criticism of his conduct of the war:
...an endeavour was being made to poison relations between members of the Government.
It was intolerable that those bearing the burden of supreme responsibility at this time should be subject to attacks of this kind.
If we want to understand Churchill, we need to understand the media culture with which he sometimes struggled but in which he ultimately thrived. The way he is discussed today has much to teach us about modern media culture too. When we consider how politics became obsessed with image, his story tells us much about the world in which we live with today. Many politicians attempt to follow in Churchill’s footsteps, generally with much less panache and literary skill. Whether or not he would have succeeded in the era of 24-hour rolling news is another question, but we may be sure that he would have been fascinated by its possibilities.Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.