Winston Churchill: A Life in the News
- By Richard Toye
- Oxford University Press
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Dean Jobb
- October 16, 2020
An intriguing look at how the seminal statesman managed — and often manipulated — the press.
It’s fitting that Winston Churchill, a young man with a craving for adventure and a nose for finding trouble, celebrated his 21st birthday in 1895 by being shot at. He was in the jungles of Cuba as a freelance journalist covering the insurrection that would soon explode into the Spanish-American War. “The bullets whistled over our heads,” he told readers of London’s Daily Graphic, as the Spanish patrol he accompanied traded gunfire with Cuban “incendiaries and brigands” fighting for independence.
The article was one of the earliest publications by the man who dominated the first half of the 20th century — a man who was a prolific writer, to boot. Before and after taking a hiatus to save Britain from the Nazis and defeat Hitler, Churchill wrote more than 30 books on war, history, and politics. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
With battalions of biographies and historical studies already in the field, British historian Richard Toye has opted in Winston Churchill: A Life in the News for a fresh take and zeroes in on one aspect of Churchill’s life and career: How he made and shaped the news.
“As an instinctive showman, and one of the first politicians to be a true global celebrity, he exploited the media…to spectacular effect,” notes Toye, a professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of three previous books on Churchill.
Toye attacks his subject on three fronts: Churchill as journalist, as newsmaker, and as a shrewd, image-minded politician who did what he could to influence and control media coverage. “Until now,” the author asserts, “there has been no thorough and comprehensive assessment of how Churchill’s own media life intersected with the wider issues of press freedom and political iconography.”
And no wonder. The task is monumental. There are extensive archival collections of press clippings on his words and deeds and countless additional articles preserved in yellowing newspapers. Toye also dove into digitized news archives but makes no claim to having read it all. No one could. And, as improbable as it sounds, he uncovered a number of items Churchill himself wrote that were previously “unknown to scholars.”
Toye documents his subject’s inexorable rise from swashbuckling war correspondent — the role that first catapulted him into the public eye — to high-profile, often beleaguered politician. Churchill courted, cajoled, and manipulated the press, opting for whichever approach best served his goals and interests.
When the Germans sank a battleship early in World War I, during his tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill stubbornly refused to allow British papers to reveal a loss that was soon widely reported in the foreign press. But his media savvy could not save him in 1915, when he shouldered the blame for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and was forced to resign.
He was back in the cabinet for most of the 1920s, making himself once again a magnet for controversy and press attention. And it was the press, of course, that kept Churchill in the spotlight — and disseminated his dire warning of German rearmament — during his years in the political wilderness before World War II.
The Fleet Street alliances and goodwill he garnered helped him to meet the formidable challenges of fighting a war and imposing censorship. Faced with press criticism after wartime losses and setbacks, his authoritarian streak resurfaced. At one point, he purportedly condemned the newspapers in the harshest words he could muster: as “worse than the Nazis.”
Churchill’s frequent claims of media mistreatment, including assertions he was the victim of “fake news,” find echoes today. Toye alludes at one point to our time of political and media dysfunction and concludes, thankfully, that the great statesman “was no Donald Trump.” Britain’s robust political institutions, tradition of press freedom, and Churchill’s own respect for history reined in his “autocratic and repressive instincts” toward the press.
(One wishes the acerbic Brit were here today to offer one of his trademark biting comments and cut Trump down to size.)
Toye never loses sight of the bigger picture and carefully traces Churchill’s complex and evolving relationship with the press within the broader context of a media landscape being transformed by technology, by the power of press lords, and by changing journalistic standards.
“Churchill was a master of publicity who cultivated a new form of political celebrity” and “thrived in the heat of the media battle,” the author writes. This meticulously researched and engaging book shows how the consummate statesman did it — how he created his public image and why his fame and accomplishments have endured.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception, the true story of a master swindler who scammed the elite of 1920s Chicago. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter at @DeanJobb.