The spiking of Mark Steyn’s column (see below) on Kenneth Bigley recalls an ignoble, mostly unremembered tradition in the British press. Toward the conclusion of his column Steyn invokes the spirit of Winston Churchill to telling effect, and I wonder if the underlying point does not in fact have some bearing on the fate of Steyn’s column.
I wrote the following this past February in the wake of the release of Lord Hutton’s report on the BBC’s false accusations against Prime Minister Blair. The history recounted may be timely again in light of the spiking of Steyn’s column:
His first career was in the British Army. His distinguished army service included participation in the British army’s last cavalry charge. His second career was in journalism, a field in which he achieved overnight celebrity as a war correspondent.
He wrote his first book in 1897 at age 24 and wrote 50 more. The books make out a literary career of incomparable breadth and distinction. They comprise works of fiction, biography, autobiography, history, oratory and journalism that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. (He also deserved the Nobel Prize for Peace, but that’s a story for another day.)
We should probably not forget that in the period between his first book and the Nobel Prize for Literature he saved the world. Never have so many owed so much to one man.
Over the past few months I have been rereading Churchill biographies focusing on the period of the 1930’s, of which William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Alone: 1932-40 seems to me preeminent. The great virtue of Manchester’s biography is its account of the life and times — its placement of Churchill in the context of the political and cultural currents against which he contended so tenaciously, so unsuccessfully, so heroically. Churchill’s opposition to the leaders of his own party as an isolated backbencher from 1932 to 1939, set off against our knowledge of his ultimate vindication and subsequent glory, must rank as one of the most dramatic stories of all time.
In rereading the Manchester biography and other volumes (such as Martin Gilbert’s) devoted to the period, one cannot avoid noticing Churchill’s greatness of character. He was an extraordinarily magnanimous man. He almost never allowed his frustrations and disappointments over the struggles of the day to be vented in a personal way, although the gentlemen against whom he contended never reciprocated. They treated him with small-minded contempt.
The single most striking exception to this general rule is Churchill’s comments on Stanley Baldwin, although I believe that Churchill did not indulge himself while Baldwin was alive. He reserved his frank evaluation of Baldwin until Baldwin’s death. The reason for Churhchill’s low opinion of Baldwin deserves an essay to itself and fortunately Richard Langworth has written it: “How Churchill Saw Others: Stanley Baldwin.”
Asked his advice on what should be done with Baldwin’s corpse, Churchill replied, “Embalm, cremate and bury. Take no chances.” But the comment that initially drew my attention to Churchill’s opinion of Baldwin was this one: “It would have been much better had he never lived.” Langworth shows, as you might expect, that much of the history of the British policy of appeasement can be drawn out of the story of Churchill’s estimate of Baldwin.
All of this is only a digression to note the following. The public disgrace of the BBC in the Hutton Inquiry has not to my knowledge occasioned the kind of historical examination of the BBC that it deserves. The Churchill biographies note mostly in passing that the BBC systematically barred Churchill from discussing his defense and foreign policy views during the 1930’s; Sir John Reith was head of the BBC at the time. Manchester states that “Reith saw to it that [Churchill] was seldom heard over the BBC…” Reith wrote of Churchill in Reith’s monumentally voluminous diaries, “I absolutely hate him.”
In 1938 Churchill was scheduled to appear on the BBC for a half-hour talk — on the Mediterranean. When the Czech crisis erupted, Manchester reports, Churchill asked that the program be cancelled. On the Saturday before Parliament’s debate on the Munich Agreement, Churchill agreed nevertheless to meet with (future Communist spy) Guy Burgess of the BBC. Churchill complained to Burgess, according to Burgess’s recollection, that “he had been very badly treated in the matter of political broadcasts and that he was always muzzled by the BBC.”
Why did Reith detest Churchill? In Reith’s eyes, Churchill was of course a warmonger, and Reith, not coincidentally, held Hitler in the highest regard. How little times have changed.