The Oliver Observations

Not his finest hour: Winston Churchill and a free press?

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To the dismay of some of my friends, I’m unashamedly an enormous admirer of Winston Churchill.

Unlike Britain in 1940, I know I don’t stand alone in this, and it’s hardly an original enthusiasm. You could easily fill a library with books glorifying ‘the Greatest Briton’ – only a dozen or so of them written by Churchill himself.

A major part of the man’s appeal is of course his stirring quotations and how, in the words of Edward Murrow [or Beverley Nichols depending on which attribution of the quotation made famous by President Kennedy we favour], ‘he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’.
In short, I like a good Churchill quote as much as anyone.

However I did find The Sun newspaper’s use of a Churchill quotation on their front page today rather out of place.
The newspaper carried a picture of Churchill and the quotation;

A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other men that free man prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty the Press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.

The Sun front page

This neatly allowed them to use the headline ‘D-DAY’ referring to the showdown of MPs voting on alternative proposals for press regulation, which didn’t actually take place after the parties reached an agreement in the early hours of the morning, after The Sun went to press.
(At least like the original D-Day the battle was postponed due to unfavourable conditions.)

The quotation was then seized upon and repeated by David Cameron, wishing to portray himself as a Churchillian populist guardian of the free press, in the Commons.

[Incidentally, although I can find the quotation frequently on the internet, I can’t find a source or citation other than that Churchill said or wrote them, as The Sun says, in 1949. I had thought they might be from a Commons speech responding to the 1940s version of the Leveson Inquiry, the Royal Commission on the press which reported in 1949, but Hansard brings up nothing.
Perhaps it’s a quotation from Their Finest Hour the Second Volume of his history of the Second World War published that year?]

While I can understand why The Sun would want to feature Churchill as an archetypal defender of freedom, and then cast around for a suitable quotation to go with it, he’s an almost comically unsuitable bearer of their anti-press regulation message.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, to my mind, had many virtues, but being a staunch defender of a free press is not one of them.

I’m sure others have pointed this out throughout the day, but it’s worth a quick churning though some Churchilliana to show just want a misleading picture of his record The Sun’s front page paints.

Between January 1941 and September 1942 Churchill’s wartime Coalition Government banned the communist newspaper The Daily Worker (the forerunner of The Morning Star), and throughout the war all newspapers were subjected to Government censorship being prevented from covering news, including the bombing of schools or anti-war marches, thought likely to damage morale.

The suppression of The Daily Worker could not have come as a huge surprise given their staunch opposition to the war effort, rather dubiously ditching their previous anti-fascism in favour of attacking an ‘Imperialist War’, following the line from Moscow after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Even the then Manchester Guardian agreed with the ban, noting in an editorial how The Daily Worker had given ‘extreme provocation’ and concluding that the paper ‘did not believe either in the war or in democracy; its only aim was to confuse and weaken. We can well spare it.’

Churchill remained convinced of the need to censor the press in war time. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, a year after his eventual retirement as Prime Minister, he wrote his successor Anthony Eden a note, in which he identified the key problem that;

“We have a long delay when our intentions are known. The newspapers and foreign correspondents are free to publish what they choose. A censorship should be imposed.”

[This despite both himself and his son Randolph having made their careers as foreign correspondents.
‘Note, Private’ quoted in Martin Gilbert Winston S. Churchill, Volume VIII: Never Despair, 1945-65, London: Heinemann, 1988, pp.1203-4.]

Much less easy to defend are the events of June-July 1953, when a seventy-eight year old Churchill, mid-way through his second term as Prime Minister, was incapacitated by a stroke.

The public were not informed that the Prime Minister was desperately ill, or more seriously that their Government was essentially directed for weeks by Churchill’s staff and his son-in-law Christopher Soames.

As Churchill’s loyal Private Secretary, and dazzling diarist, Jock Colville recalled in his classic Diary account The Fringes of Power;

“I could not obey Churchill’s injunction to tell nobody. The truth would undoubtedly leak to the press unless I took immediate defensive action. So I wrote urgently and in manuscript to three particular friends of Churchill, Lords Camrose [owner of the Allied Newspapers Group], Beaverbrook [owner of The Daily Express & Evening Standard amongst other papers] and Bracken [publisher of The Financial Times & The Economist amongst others. Also thought to be a model for George Orwell’s Big Brother], and sent the letters to London by dispatch rider. All three immediately came to Chartwell and paced the lawn in earnest conversation. They achieved the all but incredible, and in peace-time possibly unique, success of gagging Fleet Street, something they would have done for nobody but Churchill.
Not a word of the Prime Minister’s stroke was published.”

Colville goes on to describe how ‘for the best part of a month’ ‘my colleagues and I had to handle requests for decisions from Ministers and Government departments entirely ignorant of the Prime Minister’s incapacity’…As Parliamentary Private Secretary, Christopher [Soames] was in a curious position…he was not in principles supposed to see Cabinet Papers or secret documents…However, in the unusual circumstances prevailing, it seemed to me that, whatever the rules might be, Christopher should be given access to many papers he was not supposed to see, including Cabinet papers.
Before the end of July the Prime Minister was sufficiently restored to take an intelligent interest in affairs of state and express his own decisive views. Christopher and I then returned to the fringes of power, having for a time been drawn perilously close to the centre.
For the next two years the distance between the fringes and the centre was far shorter than it had once been.”

[See Jock Colville, The Fringes of Power, Downing Street Diaries, Volume II: 1941-55, London: Spectre, 1987, pp.329-30.]

As Churchill’s biographer, the inexhaustible Sir Martin Gilbert, breezily comments how Churchill was helped by “the discretion and skill of three men, his Principal Private Secretaries, Jock Colville and David Pitblado, and his son-in-law Christopher Soames. It was Soames, the only Member of Parliament of the three, who, quite unobtrusively, took a hundred decisions in Churchill’s name, without once breaching the trust which such a heavy responsibility involved”.

[Gilbert, Never Despair, p.859.]

To paraphrase a constitutionally outraged Toby Ziegler, for a month that year there was a coup d’état in this country.

But luckily due to Churchill’s personal friendships with (literal) press barons it was never reported.

In short The Sun should save their gratuitous Churchill references for when they want to praise David Cameron’s vetoing of European Union treaties. I’m sure the man who advocated a United States of Europe would approve.

It’s fair to say Winston Churchill’s attitude towards a free press was at best inconsistent and not his finest hour.


One Response

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  1. The quote comes from chapter 2 of the Leverson report which opens with a quote which Leverson claims came from a speech Churchill delivered in 1949. To blame the Sun, as Adrian Bingham did here ( ) is thus wrong-footed. Not surprising. As the Economist editorial pointed out at the time, the Justice’s argument is so sloppy that ” Parts of it are a scissors-and-paste job culled from Wikipedia”.

    michael riordan

    March 18, 2013 at 11:44 pm

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