SNOW AT THE SUMMIT
Jon Snow is now our best TV newscaster. But how does this classic media liberal stay cool in the face of Tory accusations of bias?
"LOOK, HERE'S WHAT YOU TELL HEZZA'S PEOPLE," shouts a Channel 4 News editor across the half-empty office. "EITHER HEZZA WILL DISCO OR HE CAN BUGGER OFF! What do you think, Jon?"
Jon Snow, the object of his enquiry, is jiggling around on his seat, bashing out some words on his keyboard, occasionally giving a little whoop and a quick clap of his hands to celebrate. Around him sits a group of six - copy-tasters, editors, directors - all studying their terminals langorously. "Well, I think . . ." says Snow. His pukka voice trails off. His concentration is back where it was, wrapped around an opening sentence that encapsulates the day's events in Northern Ireland. There is just over an hour to go before the programme hits the air, and still no one is sure if the Conservative Party will put anyone up against Labour's John Prescott for a studio discussion, or "disco" as they term it. The atmosphere is, I would say, a bit tense. This probably has less to do with recent Tory attacks on news bias than the simple fact of my presence, here to watch Snow go through his paces. Of course, he says, "you can sit next to me, see how we put the programme together, it'll be great!" After all, it's news season on Channel 4, and bash-the-news-team-time everywhere else after Jonathan Aitken's tirade against John Humphreys and political bias at the BBC. While Snow bounces around like a puppy, his colleagues, most of whom look as though they are about 20 years younger, seem very edgy indeed.
But at 47, Snow has perhaps earned the right to his exuberant confidence. Five years into the job as "anchor" for C4 News, he has matured into one of the most respected newscasters ("God I hate that word," he says) in the country - and also probably one of the last of his kind. Ask anyone in the news business and they will tell you that Snow's sort of committed, idiosyncratic approach to news and views values, backed by many years experience in the field, is a precious resource under threat not just from intemperate politicians but the whole sea-change in television technology.
Some certainly mistrust him for his politics - his committed work in the voluntary sector and his reputation for leftish-leaning views make a few of his hard-bitten peers rather uneasy. Others find his on-screen style sloppy, but nearly all agree that he has something, and has given C4 News something that is invaluable in the slick world of modern media. And that, for want of two better words, is moral authority. It is no coincidence that Snow's C4 News has emerged as by the far the best news programme on television at a time when politics has never been seedier.
"MY ROLE? WELL, I think I am the enemy within, really," says Snow. "I like to try and throw in the odd unpinned grenade, to see whether everyone has worked through all the options on the programme."
He is sitting, a very tall, tapering figure, hunched up in a little shoebox of an office behind the main newsroom. Behind us, another C4 News editor is typing furiously. His typing appears to become more furious with each of my questions. At one point, when he leaves, Snow leans across with a giggle and a goofy grin. "He is probably a bit cross with me for being self-revelatory," he says.
There is an old canard that news presenters should shun personal publicity. But Snow also has a reputation inside ITN for being hopelessly indiscreet. Evidently, it is well-deserved. Within five minutes of our meeting he has kicked over a real shoebox and unveiled the mock-up for a redesign of the C4 News studio that comes into effect tomorrow. It was supposed to be a secret. The rest of my week is filled with pleas from ITN begging me to play down what I had seen.
Many couldn't afford to make those kind of gaffes but Snow is so popular that he gets away with it. And this makes him something of an interviewer's - and interviewee's - nightmare. The soft pall of his likeability lies heavily over any dealings with him. "Snargs", as he was nicknamed by Private Eye, is also something of a sex symbol. "Jon? He is such a dreamboat to deal with, he's got no front, he's my heart-throb," says the personal assistant of one senior television boss I try to get through to. And that, more or less, is what everyone seems to say about him.
This is not really an advantage in the cynical world journalists inhabit but Snow is seen to have paid his dues. In a glittering career as an on-the-hoof TV reporter for ITN he risked his neck in many far-off places and in the process won just about every award going: a Golden Nymph (for Eritrea, 1979), a Valiant for Truth (El Salvador, 1982) - very big deals in television news. More than that he is regarded by his peers as probably the best writer-to-camera of his generation. "His scripts always look gobbledegook on paper, but are brilliant on screen," says one editor who recalls his reporting days. No one at the BBC ever wanted to be working against Snow on the same story. Indeed many in the business still think he is wasted in a studio role.
Of course, others still just rem-ember Snow as The Man Who Was Engaged To Anna Ford. "Do they?" says a mystified Snow. "I don't really think they do, do you?" No, he's right, I was just trying to needle him but Snow, all newsman's nous behind the blue-eyed courtesy, spotted it coming a mile away. That is part of his strength, of course. It comes back to the word moral, and why those who work with him think Tory pol- iticians have steered clear of sniping at him, despite what they would call his left-wing views.
He conforms to just about every stereotype of the concerned, north- London (he lives in Kentish Town), liberal, bike-riding, partnered-with- children, school-governing, Volvo man.
Actually, he does hedge his politics a bit. "It depends what you mean by left-wing . . . ," he says.
Left of centre?
"Well, where's the centre?"
Oh come on.
"OK. I regard myself as political but then I think that anybody who is going to be dealing with day-to-day life must be. Am I objective? I think you must remain objective but it is almost impossible to pretend to be neutral. For instance, I'm male - I must have a different position from a female. I have never given birth. But I am a father. All sorts of things inform and influence my position."
Likewise he tells me his partner, Madeleine Colvin, is not a radical lawyer (as clich has it), just a very good barrister. Colvin, by whom he has two daughters, works for the legal pressure group, Justice, which is headed by Lord Alexander, chairman of Nat West - evidence enough that it can't be too radical, Snow suggests. But it is well-known that Snow is friendly with the Foots and the Kinnocks, and if there is such a thing as a north-London, liberal mafia, you would expect him to jog around in it. He lends his name to good causes and it was Snow, for instance, who found neighbour Jill Tweedie a specialist when the journalist was struck down by motor-neurone disease.
Little surprise then, that Denis Thatcher once described him as "that pinko". Old friends like Anne Davies, vice-chair at the New Horizon centre for the homeless in central London that he helps run, laugh and say that Snow has mellowed since his youth, but not much. In the Eighties he was nearly heaved out of ITN for signing a pro-miners' family-welfare petition during the miners' strike (famously, he was also approached by the secret services to inform on his colleagues, which makes you wonder what planet our spies live on). With the current paranoia over news bias you can tell Snow is trying to be careful on the subject of his politics, but what he really wants to say is: "So what?"
"I never trust people who say they have no view and never vote and are neutral in matters. Some hacks tell you that and I think they are the less good for it. I think you must be driven, outraged by hypocrisy, by lying, by deceit and by corruption, and you must be prepared to be impressed and moved and able to cry and laugh and respect what's good."
Yet image is all these days and one of the sadder parts of the recent fuss over news bias is that it made clear, as one BBC insider put it to me, that the corporation probably couldn't afford to accommodate someone like Snow. The only reason the Tory McCarthy-ites leave C4 News alone, says an-other source, even though they think it is "pink from the socks up", is that its audience of one million is relatively small. They are missing a trick, of course, as Snow in interview has become one of the most effective harpooners of cant around.
WHAT DOES "inform and influence" Snow's position? Those who know him always mention the same bullet points: radical (that word again), son of a bishop, rusticated from Liverpool University for anti-South Africa protest, committed worker with the homeless who has a wider sphere of everyday experience than most working in the news cocoon. Out of all that has emerged a soft-spoken public-school rebel with a horror of deceit and hypocrisy, and a disregard of career prospects that at times has infuriated his bosses.
He describes the influence of his religious background, which friends harp on about endlessly, as over-egged. He was brought up in a big family, one of three boys (one brother is now a trade unionist, the other an architect), but was sent away to school young. Yes, his father was Bishop of Whitby (and before that headmaster of Ardingly) and Snow did attend Winchester Cathedral Choir School - he recently "outed" himself as a very happy choirboy in a piece for the Daily Telegraph. But aside from saying grace before breakfast, he doesn't believe his upbringing was religious. More formative, he says, was being chucked out of university after a series of protests against the Chancellor, Lord Salis-bury, who was a supporter of white rule in Africa. Snow, having done a year's VSO work in Uganda pre-university, was not. It was strictly non-violent stuff but the university decided to make an example of the ring-leaders. Snow found himself rusticated for a year and jobless in London aged 20. Looking for more VSO-style work, he persuaded Lord Longford to put him in charge of a day centre for young homeless people in the West End.
He never returned to Liverpool. Instead he ran the New Horizon centre for three years, building it up from being open a few hours a day to a seven-days-a-week operation, offering counselling, beds, art therapy, "all kinds of things". But eventually it got too much for him. "I realised I was not a coal-face operator. I had a flat next door. I had three or four sleeping on the floor, I would be driven absolutely mad, people would slash their wrists outside, it was too much to handle. You were too exposed."
He took a job at the new radio station, LBC, counselling off-air those in need of help who rang the late-night phone-ins. The station soon went bust and sacked most of its journalists but when it re-launched Snow was promoted to newsreading, because he was cheap and they liked his accent. Eventually he was sent out "into the field" - well, the streets of London on his bike - and then abroad, where his experience of Uganda got him a scoop on Denis Hills, the British businessman who got the wrong side of Idi Amin. ITN noticed, and gave him a job. The glittering career followed.
Something, somewhere, clicked with the viewers early on. Perhaps it was Snow's gawky Britishness, or his Boy's Own feats of derring-do (he once swam out to a freighter in the Gulf to arrange the rescue of some Brits under fire) or his boundless enthusiasm (evidently, like height, it's in the family genes: the BBC's Peter Snow, of Swingometer fame, is his cousin). Or it may have been his televisual good looks, for Snow reverses the normal processes of television. Most people look worse on screen. He looks better.
Whatever, his popularity has always been his best protection against those at ITN who found his corporate Bolshevism infuriating. "That's what's great about Jon," says one who used to work there. "He takes the piss out of himself but always rails against the management scumbags, of which there have been many at ITN . . ."
Others see it differently. "He does have a reputation for being a bit difficult to manage," says one ITV boss. During the financial crises there five years ago, for instance, Snow was constantly willing to tell newspaper journalists just what he thought of the people at the top. He survived because he was too valuable to lose. "You have to remember," says another ex-colleague, "very few TV reporters actually become famous. Jon is one of those few."
It enables him to take his "enemy within" role further than most. "I have always had a pretty robust but, ah, mutually accepting relationship with my superiors," Snow says. Then he pauses and grins. "There's a diplomatic form of words for you."
Now, as C4 establishes its own image in the cluttered media world, Snow has become an even more valuable commodity. No one doubts that the nightly news - commissioned from ITN, and, aside from Brookside, the only ever- present fixture on C4 - is the channel's flagship programme. With less attitude than Newsnight, and fewer tabloidisms than News at Ten, it is now the only terrestially broadcast news slot to run interviews, analysis and features at length.
Certainly it gets small ratings compared to News at Ten's six-and-a-half million viewers, but then it is up against Coronation Street and Eastenders, and anyway, ratings are not the point. This is Britain where channels have remits and C4 News, which has a staff of 101 and costs £17m a year to produce, helps Michael Grade's team fulfil its promise to offer something distinctive and of high quality.
Snow says he would not be interested in anchoring any other kind of news show - he is not a great autocue reader, indeed his early performances on C4 News after the immaculate Peter Sissons left in 1989 were terrible - and those at C4 say he fits the bill fine. "There is something very Channel 4 about Jon," says the station's commissioning editor for news and current affairs, David Lloyd. Which is what?
"It's indefinable but we like to think we are bolder than the opposition," says Lloyd. More vigorous, more inquisitive, more youthful. Perhaps. But really Snow is just the serious face of C4, the contrast to the station's better-known names like Rory Bremner and Chris Evans. His is a face which fits when others would not. There is something ever so slightly eccentric about Snow, like his horrible, painted ties.
"Don't you like them?" Snow says. He looks genuinely upset. We are sitting in make-up at 6.45pm, as Joan, the lady with the buffer, powders him up. Like all great broadcasters, Snow seems remarkably cool before going on set. Perhaps he just hides it well.
"Lots of people do like my ties. I am offended. How would you describe this one?"
Blue, green, red. With difficulty.
"Oh, I can see you writing this now," he groans. " 'Snow fingered his tie. It looked like amoebic dysentery. ' They are not hand-painted, you know. They're mass-produced." So what else does he spend his money on? He is widely presumed to earn upwards of £120,000 a year.
"Well, my mountain bike cost £800 . . ."
He'll have to do better than that. How about houses in the country?
"I've got a place in the Dordogne. We share it with four others. Then, um, there are holidays, I guess. I like travelling. France, Scotland, America, especially America." At last he is looking a little uncomfortable. Friends say it is an absolute mystery how Snow spends his money, although he probably gives lots of it away and his house is endlessly done up and extended.
On screen much of the boyish charm is subdued. Snow is a polite, hesitant but insistent interviewer, forever whirling his pen in the air as if he is in some donnish seminar. His mastery of the language of news is consummate: deft prcis, no plodding stresses. Stewart Purvis, chief executive at ITN and one of Snow's former news editors, says he is technically unsurpassed in his ability to switch tones between formats such as documentaries and straight interviews. This evening, though, it's wasted. The empty chair beside Prescott makes balance very hard to achieve. As Snow had acknowledged earlier, there is probably too much "West-minster" in the programme, but then these are "strange times" politically.
In the production gallery, the hub of the programme during transmission, a bank of over 50 screens confronts the director and her team. People shout instructions into ear-pieces, fiddle with fader-knobs, tear up running orders, slot pieces in at the last moment and rush in and out frantically. You realise what a juggle it all is. It is the flexibility, above all, that distinguishes C4 News. "I love it," says Snow. "Especially when the unexpected happens." He cites the evening Rajiv Gandhi was shot minutes before they went on air, or the famous four-minute interview with Ted Heath that went on for 13 after the former Prime Minister went "Vesuvial" over Mrs Thatcher. "The programme was in shards all over the floor," he laughs. Doesn't he lose his own temper? Once, he remembers, with the roads minister Robert Key, who he felt was avoiding the issue over seatbelts for children on schoolbuses. He regrets it now. And the awkward questions? He squirms. He says he hated asking the Bishop of London about his sexuality. "The problem was he sat down and started telling me about it . . ." (He had told him his father was a Bishop, thinking that would set him at ease.)
Yet that is no less than we should expect from a good anchor, especially as news becomes increasingly depersonalised. Gone are the days when reporters would be sent abroad for a week with a camera crew and do all the shooting themselves. Now reports are compiled from dozens of sources, and the main skill involved and needed is editing.
"It's different journalism," says Snow. "I don't think you can say whether it is better or worse. Both are a challenge. Now the challenge is that you are constantly urged to compromise your information in the interests of using up-to-the-minute material." But it does mean that television journalists with Snow's experience of on-the-spot, in-depth reporting just won't exist in 20 years' time.
LATER, AFTER he has finished the night's show, the whole team returns to the office for a debrief. There's disappointment that Hezza had refused to "disco", but there were good reports on the Albert Memorial and the Aum cult in Japan. Anyway, the team are much more interested in watching Rory Bremner's skit about News at Ten, a four-minute pastiche running straight after C4 News.
Bremner portrays Trevor Mac-Donald as a ratings-obsessed egotist, ranting from his desk to a Nurem-burg-style crowd. The whole team is in fits. Snow is laughing so hard he has sprayed the floor with a mouthful of peanuts. The News at Ten team have glass-walled offices adjacent to C4 News across the atrium. Everyone turns to wave. "Look, look," shouts Snow, waving at MacDonald, "He's watching it! You can see!"
Bremner, of course, has never done Jon Snow. C4 protecting its own? The liberal mafia? Not really, Snow told me earlier. Spitting Image had never done him either. "The thing is," he says, "I'm lucky. I'm too bland to be of much interest."
Is that hurtful? "No," he says. "In some ways it's reassuring you can paddle your canoe in the shadows and not be spotted."
The show over, he straps on his bike helmet and leaves. !
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