Richard Toye

 

On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021

Lastly

There are actually some similarities—though one should not overstate them—between current conditions and World War II. This might provide readers with a bit of distraction from the Covid situation. Then, people were desperate for news about the unfolding military situation, and they had to wait for hourly news bulletins that were often bland and uninformative. Today, we often find ourselves “doom-scrolling” through social media, and although news reporting is virtually instant nowadays, it can be just as hard as it was in the 1940s to find facts and analyses that actually meet our emotional needs.

I would also like the book to provoke thought about the relationship between the media and politics. There are many examples in the book of how Churchill overreacted to press criticism; during World War II, he was even getting close to shutting down the Daily Mirror. I don’t give these examples in order to suggest that he was a bad person or even especially unusual—he was under a lot of stress, especially during the war, and many other politicians were equally thin-skinned. The interesting question is why, when he banged the table and started suggesting that the press should be silenced, he tended not to get his way. I think it’s in part because there were robust institutional restraints and in part because different sections of the media stuck together. The Mirror was not much liked by many other papers, but they saw the implications, if one newspaper could be arbitrarily shut down—and rallied round. So, when we see politicians lashing out at the media, we should perhaps think less about condemning them as individuals and more about the collective steps we can take to help preserve press freedom.