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Jon Snow interview: ‘I’m a hack who wants to change the world’

It has been 25 years since Jon Snow first presented ‘Channel 4 News’, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing. Simon Usborne meets him

Jon Snow has been deposited on a slightly tatty sofa to talk about media in the developing world. The relentlessly charming journalist, whose bright pink socks show a smudge of bicycle chain oil, is less inclined to be reflective, however – not, at least,  when reminded that this Thursday marks 25 years since he first presented Channel 4 News.

“That would appear to be the case,” he says in the Channel 4 newsroom in Gray’s Inn Road, north London. “But I’m trying to suppress the matter from public consumption because once you say you’ve been in a place for a quarter of a century, they say, hang on a minute – isn’t it time you went?”

Snow, a youthful 66-year-old with “a mental age of 23”, has no plans to give up the helm of his evening news show, despite being surrounded by ambitious, slightly younger talent. “They’re queuing up! But the great thing is that two of us now present, which means everybody gets a shot,” he says. “It’s just that I have more shots than the others.”

It would be churlish for anyone to resent Snow’s longevity or top billing. The white-haired newscaster has become not only the face of Channel 4 News but its guiding spirit too, while also pursuing as many routes out of the studio as he has time for. He has earned more air miles than most newscasters, most recently broadcasting from Greenland, and is in perennial demand as a speaker and charity patron.

“It would be an intolerable period if all I had done was sit in the chair, which is what a lot of people do,” he says. “I think they must be bored to tears. You have to have a variegated existence. I think part of the strength of what we do is that we allow ourselves to be rounded individuals.”

Snow is also a willing interviewee. “I’ve got a huge ego,” he admits later, albeit while talking about the best way to deflate it (by cycling in London, of which more later). He typically dispenses harmless newsroom anecdotes but earned his own headlines earlier this year when he told the Evening Standard that “sex comes into every evaluation of a woman”. Was he taken aback by the considerable fallout?

“I was mainly struck by how many people agreed with me. It’s a biological fact and that’s the end of it.” But was he cross? “Not remotely. In some ways it sort of humanised me a bit. We don’t normally know much about anchors, and I don’t think anybody knows much about me. The socks, the tie, but what is that? The bike. These are all ephemeral things.”

Sober neckwear greeted Channel 4 viewers on 24 April 1989. Snow had stepped in after Peter Sissons had been poached by the BBC. He remembers being “a shambles” and speaking in “villy, villy clipped, rather public school tones”, adding: “Hopefully I’ve estuarised a bit since.” But a viewing of the bulletin shows neither thing to be true. His hair is thicker but all else is the same. He’s posh but not plummy, animated, twinkly and – above all else – very keen.

Snow is the son of George D’Oyly Snow, the Bishop of Whitby. He went to school at Ardingly College in Sussex, then St Edward’s in Oxford. A-Levels followed at Scarborough Tech, where he had an affair with a librarian, before taking up law at Liverpool University. He describes himself as “a man of limited intellect”, but adds: “That is the greatest quality you need in journalism, because then you cannot ask questions that simply cannot be answered by the medium in which you work.”

If not intellectual, Snow has always been political. His expulsion from Liverpool for skirmishing with a policeman at an anti-apartheid rally led him to two defining experiences: work at a centre for young homeless people in London (he still chairs the New Horizon Youth Centre) and, before that, a year of voluntary work in Uganda. “It was a completely transforming experience because suddenly I saw the world in a completely different way,” he says.

Snow bristles, however, when assumptions are made about his politics. (He has been described by the right as a “pinko liberal”.) “Look, there is no such as a neutral human being,” he says. “I’m not dogmatically or doctrinally or party-politically motivated but, yes, I am political and I think that the best journalists in the world are. It means being engaged in society, and wanting to change the world. I’m a hack who wants to change the world.”

That mission started at a local level. In 1973, aged 26, Snow became a reporter at LBC on the day of its launch as Britain’s first commercial radio station. He has exploited the freedom of non-BBC broadcasting since, resisting overtures from the corporation. He says a recent Channel 4 production neatly explains his loyalty. To celebrate the legalisation of gay marriage last month, the newsreader lent his singing voice to a couple who turned their nuptials into a musical produced by the channel. “They managed to get the registrar, a wonderful Afro-Caribbean woman, to sing the whole business,” Snow says. “I mean, it could only have been Channel 4 and it was one of the most moving pieces of television I’ve seen.”

At LBC, Snow remembers speeding on his bicycle to the site of IRA bombings in London with a Uher recorder strapped to his back, and editing with a razor blade on the pavement. “If you rode at the police tape fast enough and ducked, you could get right to the action,” he says.

He has been an early adopter of new technology since, but part of him pines for a time when a slower pace offered journalists more of a chance to engage with their stories. “You got to know people and breathe the air they breathed,” he says.

In 1976, Snow rode on to our screens as a reporter at ITN. Later, as a diplomatic correspondent, he was a reluctant replacement for Sissons, who left just weeks before the Berlin Wall came down. “It was the greatest hour of our reporting lives but, as the certainty into which we had been born suddenly became cinders, I was behind a desk.” Snow soon politely requested that he present the news from Germany.

It was an era of smoke-filled newsrooms, liquid lunches and rampant sexism. As a successful newsman at the time, does he feel as if he was ever part of the problem? “No, I always thought it was abnormal,” he says. “And it’s certainly much better now, although managements still need more feminising. We have still not yet accommodated pregnancy properly. Women progress less consistently once they start having children.” He points out a local exception: his colleague, Jackie Long, a mother of five who “more or less banged them out at yearly intervals and is a wonderful journalist”.

Snow has two daughters from a previous relationship. In 2010, he married Precious Lunga, 39, a Zimbabwe-born neuroscientist. They live in Kentish Town in London, from where Snow cycles to work. He is president of CTC, the cycling charity, and proposes drastic measures for the capital. “London should be blazing a trail,” he says. “We should be saying: look, sorry, but we don’t require cars in the centre of London. You won’t have safety until pedestrians are protected, cyclists are protected and motorised traffic is protected, and that can only be achieved by reducing some portion of that.”

Snow has no plans to reduce his workload. He has just signed a new contract with Channel 4, albeit an open-ended one. “They could sack me tomorrow or I could go on until I’m 100,” he says. Next month he presents the One World Media awards, which promotes media in developing countries. He and his team are still celebrating victory at the UN, where a vote required an investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, partly in response to Channel 4 News’s award-winning film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

“It is an amazing achievement,” Snow says of the film, which will be used as evidence. Jonathan Miller, Channel 4 News’s foreign affairs correspondent, happens to walk past and interjects: “It singularly validates our involvement in journalism.” Snow says, “I can’t pretend that I have really contributed to changing the world, but I still aspire to. And I get better every day. Every day I learn something, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Curriculum vitae

1947 Born in Ardingly, West Sussex.

1960 Attends independent St Edward’s School in Oxford.

1965 Spends a year as a VSO volunteer teaching in Uganda.

1967 Sent down by Liverpool University after protesting against its investments in apartheid-era South Africa.

1976 Joins ITN.

1983 Moves in with barrister Madeleine Colvin. They have two daughters, Leila and Freya.

1984 Appointed ITN’s Washington correspondent.

1986 Made ITN’s diplomatic editor.

1989 Joins Channel 4 News.

2004 Publishes autobiography titled Shooting History.

2005 Receives Bafta award for Best Factual Contribution to Television.

2006 Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year.

2009 Royal Television Society Presenter of the Year.

2010 Marries neuroscientist Precious Lunga on Mustique.

2011 Receives honorary doctorate from Liverpool University. Presents award-winning Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

2013 Jimmy Savile inquiry leads him to reveal he was abused at school.

Rhea Agard

Jon Snow is patron of the One World Media awards, which take place on 6 May