Go back for a moment to the 5 March 1942, with a cartoon in the left-leaning Daily Mirror by Philip Zec June 1929. It showed a torpedoed merchant seaman, clinging to wreckage, and included the caption: ‘The price of petrol has been increased by one penny – official’.
The cartoon was intended as an attack on people who were wasting fuel, but Winston Churchill – ever sensitive to media criticism – saw it as an attack on the oil companies. It was for him a kind of last straw: the war cabinet asked Labour’s Herbert Morrison to go and see them. And so it was that the Mirror‘s editor and chairman were told that the cartoon was worthy of Goebbels – Zec was Jewish – and that the paper could be closed down under emergency regulations – “for a long time”, he told them.
The affair of the cartoon was a low point in Churchill’s relations with the press. It is the pivot point of Richard Toye’s fascinating study of our most famous twentieth century prime minister and his dealings with the media – the first time that I’m aware this story has been told, as a narrative.
The press rounded on the government after Morrison’s threats and the Mirror survived – though the Daily Worker was shut down. It is Richard Toye’s contention that Churchill’s complex, up-and-down relationship with the press covered all of this and more, as he deliberately cultivated the press – and especially The Morning Post – to be that rare thing: a politician with a familiar image. Toye takes the story through to the end of his career in the 1950s, when he had begun to lose control.
More familiar is Churchill’s seriously fraught relationship with the BBC which is the only part of the story I have written about myself (see V for Victory) – when the BBC European Service was removed from control by the BBC and given, nominally to the Foreign Office, but in practice to the director of European broadcasts – an admirer of Churchill’s – who made a huge success of this enormous operation.
But even the leaders at the European Service were able to criticise Churchill’s approach to the news when he was at the Admiralty (“we are throwing dust into the eyes of the enemy,” he replied).
Toye’s book tells an extraordinary story as Churchill’s relationship with the brothers Northcliffe and Rothermere as these rose and fell. Some names keep on popping up – Scott at The Guardian, Cummings at The News Chronicle, Massingham at The Nation – and so do some of the accoutrements of a public image.
The famous V sign came from the Belgian section of the European Service. The big cigars were absolutely deliberate and there remains some dispute about his Edwardian image, wearing very small felt hats.
Toye has established with this book a new angle for Churchill research. It must have involved a great deal of time on the microfilm readers at the British Library or reading flaky old papers – but it was worth it because he has produced an excellent read.
David Boyle is the author of V for Victory: The Wireless Campaign that Defeated the Nazis.
Richard Toye is an author and academic. Winston Churchill: A Life in the News is his latest book.