Sacked by Churchill: the Man From the BBC

John Reith and Winston Churchill could not have been more different: Reith was tall, puritanical, Presbyterian, while Churchill was round, hedonistic and untroubled by religion.   Separated in age by some fifteen years – the wartime leader was fifteen years the elder  − their paths first crossed in the Great War, though Churchill was unaware of it.  An officer with the 13th Hussars, he was eating what was undoubtedly a damned good lunch in a hotel in France, dressed in khaki.  Reith had just been to the dentist.  Subsequently he wrote: ‘I could not know that a quarter of a century later my fate was to rest in his hands.’

They went their separate ways: Churchill metamorphosed from soldier to government minister; Reith was wounded (it left him with a deep scar on his left cheek); lived for a while in Canada, and eventually applied for the Managing Directorship of the newly devised BBC.  His measured and supremely confident letter of application is dated 22 October 1922.   From the moment when the BBC began broadcasting in 1923, the two men’s paths were on a collision course.  Reith was on a career trajectory to the stars, it seemed, while Churchill would soon enter his wilderness years through the 1930s.

In time, the positions would be reversed: Reith would leave the BBC for the last time in tears and spend the rest of his life reflecting on what might have been, and bitter about missing out on the preeminence he felt he was owed – a poisonous  kind of regret – while Churchill emerged from the shadows just when it seemed his time had gone.  Given their fundamental differences in personality, their separate outlook on the world, and their places on different sides of the political divide, a simmering antipathy was always likely.  In the event, Churchill thought of Reith as ‘Wuthering Heights’; the tall Scotsman thought Churchill ‘a horrid fellow’ and ‘a bloody shit.’  When the war was over, Lord Reith of Stonehaven, as he had become, embarked on a correspondence with the former Prime Minister which bordered on the pathetic.  That it should come to this!

The General Strike of 1926 began the feud.  The BBC was exercised by the challenge of maintaining impartiality.  Reith believed that Churchill, as the responsible government minister, was trying to treat the BBC – his BBC – as ‘an offshoot’ of The British Gazette, the government sponsored newspaper designed to fill the void left by the country’s strike-hit newpapers.  The minister had tried to flatter the BBC man: ‘He said he thought I had about the biggest job in the country.’  Reith was programmed to warm to such words: he did not lack self-belief.  Indeed, before the outbreak of war in 1939, he believed himself fit to be ‘dictator of Britain’.

Reith was not a man it was easy to warm to: he admired aspects of Nazi efficiency and, once he had left the BBC, he believed he had ‘lost caste and gone down in the world’.  He was dismissive of many in this country with whom he dealt: Ramsay Macdonald was ‘very gaga’; Kingsley Wood was ‘a bally crook’ and a ‘self-seeking little cad’; Hore-Belisha showed ‘such conceit’;  Beaverbrook was ‘a dreadful man’.  For his own part, Reith was never popular – ‘a self advertising ass’  thought Sir John Simon; the diarist Chips Channon did not like him, while Harold Nicholson resented the fact that Reith had terminated his contract with the BBC because he had praised James Joyce’s Ulysses

Later, the dispute centred on India.  Churchill furiously opposed any suggestion of Indian self-government; Reith thought his views too political to be trusted to the radio waves – and the result was that Churchill resented the fact that Reith had ‘kept him off the wireless for eight years’.  The two men were on opposite sides during the Abdication crisis in 1936.  Churchill supported Edward VIII (as Roy Jenkins put it, ‘he was responsive to the new king’s boyish charm’), while Sir John Reith was on hand to soothe and calm the stuttering King George VI before his first nerve-racking broadcast to the nation, a looming presence checking the microphone and offering avuncular advice.

As war approached, Reith found himself cast loose in a troubled new world.  On 3 June 1938 he was summoned to 10 Downing Street to be told that he was ‘to go to Imperial Airways as chairman and “tomorrow” at that.’  The airline had been subject to a damning report by a government inquiry, and Reith was seen as the safe pair of hands to sort out the mess.  He was deeply unhappy, exchanging his plush BBC office for a scruffy, down-at-heel pad over a furniture warehouse near Victoria Station.  So this is Head Office!  His gloom was compounded when the first decision he was required to make in his new role was authorising the expenditure of £238 on passengers’ lavatories at Croydon Airport.

Never enthusiastic about his role at Imperial Airways, his time there was fraught, not least because the much vaunted Empire flying boat fleet was regularly decimated by crashes and mishaps.  Trouble always seemed a moment away.  Just before the war broke out,  Reith was in Canada with his family and, while visiting the World’s Fair in New York, he was summarily presented with a subpoena in connection with the ongoing court case about the loss of the flying boat Cavalier which had crashed into the sea near Bermuda  Soon after, with the war about to start, Reith left his family on the quayside in New York and sailed back alone across the Atlantic in the Aquitania.  He agonised about whether he was doing the right thing and ‘knelt down in the bathroom and asked God to show me the way’.  The war had already begun when he arrived in England, and civil aviation was virtually dead.  So therefore was his job.  Later in the year, and against advice, he returned across the Atlantic to bring his family home.

Reith became a member of the Chamberlain government (as Minister of Information), was parachuted into a safe seat (Southampton, unopposed).  He fumed at what he saw as the decline in his fortunes.  This would-be ‘dictator’ had dreamed of Cabinet status.  At other times he had seen himself as Ambassador in Washington, governor general of South Africa − even Prime Minister.  When Churchill came to power in May 1940, his fate was sealed.  ‘They tell me you’re difficult to work with,’ Churchill said.  He survived for a while, shunted into Transport, but eventually he was sacked on 21 February 1942, by letter brought by a courier on a motor bicycle (‘I am very sorry to tell you…’).   His reply was terse, eloquent in what it left unsaid.  ‘I wish,’ Reith concluded, ‘I could have been of more help to you personally in your tremendous and splendid task.’

When the war ended he wrote to Churchill a much longer letter which spoke of his huge sadness at the way he had been treated.  Churchill was conciliatory – ‘I am unfeignedly sorry for the pain which you felt,’ he wrote, reminding the grief-stricken Reith that he himself had been out of office for 11 years.   Reith, however, was inconsolable: ‘Here’s someone who worked faithfully and well for you, but whom you broke and whose life you ruined,’ he wrote.  He even regretted his pre-war career: ‘I am sorry I ever had anything to do with broadcasting.  And I am sorry you have disliked me.’  His letters, written in the throes of bitter regret, give a rare insight into the wounded heart of a man who could not forgive the world for giving him less than he believed he deserved.  Churchill, no doubt would have shaken his head, refilled a glass and blown cigar smoke at the ceiling, without a glimmer of doubt that he had treated Reith fairly and honestly.

Richard Knott is the author of ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ and ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’.  This article is the first of a planned series focused on the men Churchill fired during the Second World War.