Jon Snow: Present and correct
He's a byword for journalistic integrity, and for the last 17 years the embodiment of Channel 4 News. But grandees don't come any less self-important than the bicycling Jon Snow. He tells Ian Burrell why, at 58, he still wants to tell it like it is
Monday 27 March 2006
Jon Snow stands on the sandstone steps of an Italianate mansion on the edge of Oxford - by no means the first British media figurehead to have taken in the view of the landscaped gardens before him.
For Headington Hill Hall is the former home of Robert "Cap'n Bob" Maxwell, who for 32 years leased this handsome pile from Oxford city council, describing it as "the best council house in the country", filling its shelves with dummy books and covering the walls in cinema-sized television screens. The corpulent one-time owner of the Mirror Group even commissioned a stained-glass window, portraying himself as Samson. When Maxwell's empire crumbled with the expose of his plundering of the Mirror pension fund, Headington Hill Hall passed to Oxford Brookes University - and Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, is its chancellor.
If media archives come to be filed in terms of respectability, Snow's entry will be about as far from Maxwell's as it is possible to be. Snow was last month named as the Royal Television Society's Journalist of the Year. He is the holder of Bafta's prestigious Dimbleby award. He has been at ITN for 30 years and has anchored Channel 4 News for the last 17. He is a trustee of both the National and Tate galleries, and has worked for non-governmental organisations throughout his career. When Piers Morgan and Matthew Freud wanted someone to host their cleaned-up British Press Awards last week, it was Snow who they turned to.
Snow says he was taken with the challenge of helping to improve the "slightly brash reputation" of the Press Awards. "For me in television, our awards I regard as of infinitely greater value than anything the state might ever dish out, and I think that must be the same for written journalists. Frankly, I think if it had failed this time it might well have been time to have a new one but I hope we've given it a new lease of life."
Addressing a ballroom full of newspaper journalists, Snow spoke of his respect for the written word, claiming that "most of us who work in television" have a "sense of inferiority when in your midst".
Away from an audience he had approached with "a degree of trepidation", he explains: "I am more proud of having written a book than anything I've done on television. I regard having encapsulated anything in the written word as a huge challenge and quite a conquest to have achieved it. At the end of the day there's something much more permanent and sustaining about the printed word. In television you do feel that you are here today, gone tomorrow."
Snow has not always been so approving of print journalism, suggesting last year that the press was "just desperate to have a privacy law inflicted upon them" and describing the Press Complaints Commission system as a "manifestly absurd process".
Regulation of the press, Snow believes, would be a good thing. "I think the reason that Britain has some of the best broadcasting in the world is that it's extremely well regulated; Ofcom is a modern miracle. It's extraordinary that in the late 20th century they were able to invent a system that not only works but has improved the situation. If it works for broadcasting I'm not quite sure why it wouldn't work for newspapers. If the playing field were levelled by decent regulation we wouldn't get some of the more extreme and absurd stuff that brings society low."
The Channel 4 presenter, whose father was the Bishop of Whitby and who was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, is at pains not to be seen as taking a morally superior position. He prefixes his comments about the Press Awards with: "As somebody who's just cut a track with an avante metal acid rock band I can hardly be more unrespectable and I felt rather flattered to be regarded as somebody capable of respectablising anything."
The bit about the rock band is true - a day earlier he had appeared on Richard & Judy as a vocalist for the group Suitable Case for Treatment, alongside guitarist Jimmy Evil, bassist Rex Diablo, singer Liam Ings-Reeve and drummer Pete Ward. The band had performed "Cow" live the previous Sunday in the Boston Arms in north London.
Of his performance on the daytime chat show he says: "They had a real whiff of The Who and the Floyd but with a good lacing of Johnny Rotten. I was distressed they wouldn't let me sing. I was only speaking."
Snow, who is 58, is noted for his independent spirit. He cycles everywhere, shunning the car that is on offer to take him to and from the ITV News building on Gray's Inn Road. It's an attitude that causes some consternation among his bosses. Snow says he spoke to the C4 News editor Jim Gray after his latest rock-band escapade. "He told me: 'Shall we have a long period where you don't make a fool of yourself?'"
But Snow has earned himself a little fun. His RTS award was recognition of his dedication not just to presenting but old-fashioned story-getting and frontline, eye-witness journalism. "The jury felt that for Jon this had been an exceptional year even by his incredibly high standards, with outstanding reporting and a significant political scoop marking the high points," read the citation. "His reports from Hurricane Katrina were thought by the jury to be definitive, and in bringing the British Attorney General's advice on the Iraq war to light he broke one of the most important stories of the year."
That last scoop saw Snow waving the leaked advice aloft at the top of the programme. "It might have felt a little bit triumphalist, but it's very difficult on television to make a piece of paper important - it's not very photogenic. I felt it needed a bit of an Equity card job."
The scoop itself required some delicate negotiations on Snow's part. "It was a sensitive thing which nearly surfaced several times before it actually did," he says. "It wasn't deliberately timed to happen during the General Election but the fact that it did made it all the more explosive."
He admits that Channel 4 was "a tiny bit late" in leaving for New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and when it did the team were "so ill-prepared". Having equipped himself in a branch of Walmart, Snow - who some in television news feel is wasted as an anchorman - filed some memorable first-hand reports. "I had no idea of the hardship it would be just technically surviving. There really was no food, no electricity, no air conditioning, nowhere to actually be," he recalls. "In the earthquake in Pakistan we stayed in the most luxurious Marriott hotel in Islamabad and helicoptered up to the ghastliness every day. In New Orleans, you had to live amongst it, very insecurely. We literally corralled ourselves in a car park with a Primus stove, plastic sheeting and tins of spaghetti. It was amazing to be in the United States living so basically. It was reminiscent of El Salvador in 1981 amid a civil war."
Snow was also instrumental in C4 News's decision to base last year's coverage on the G8 summit not at Gleneagles, where it was taking place, but in Africa, subject of much of the discussions. Snow, whose political views were shaped as an 18-year-old teacher with VSO in Uganda, after which he was rusticated from the University of Liverpool for his involvement in anti-apartheid protests, says he was intrigued to know whether anyone in Africa knew that Gleneagles was going on. "Had they heard of Bob Geldof?"
At Snow's behest, the programme was broadcast from Namasagali, the Ugandan village on the banks of the Nile where he had taught almost 40 years earlier, and where depopulation and malaria had become rampant. "You never found anybody who had heard anything about the G8 and certainly nobody knew anything about Live Aid or Bob Geldof."
Earlier this month, C4 News upped sticks to Iran for an unlikely week-long series of broadcasts from one of the states in George Bush's "Axis of Evil". The delicate project had been more than a year in the planning and no foreign news organisation since the Iranian revolution had managed to secure so many visas to work in the country.
"It is both an oppressive regime and also a fantastically zesty, thriving society with extraordinary science and education. The only bit we've really been concentrating on is the bit that fits the various propaganda and political constituencies - the nuclear one. But there's so much more to the place."
Snow says he was particularly moved by the experience of standing outside the US embassy building, from where he had reported during the hostage crisis of 1979. "I realised that, 25 years on, absolutely nothing had changed in terms of the relationship between Iran and America, for which you could obviously blame both sides. The way I saw it was that America had never come to terms with what had happened - having their embassy seized, 52 diplomats held for 444 days. The utter humiliation of the failure to rescue them has left a sort of unbound wound, and you feel it."
Snow himself found it "uplifting" to be in Iran and concluded that it was inconceivable that the West could go to war or bomb it. "Interestingly, that is something that [Jack] Straw and the other EU foreign ministers have also signed up to. [Whereas] those people who see the ingredients of an 'Iraq' coming to a head, I think are wrong."
During his time in Iran, Snow was not only presenting news bulletins but sending out his "Snowmail" e-mails to thousands of subscribers and recording audio podcasts and video blogs (vlogs) of his experiences too. "I felt the most fully stretched I've ever felt on any assignment."
His attitude to technology is a complex one, embracing iPods and the internet but not sharing the enthusiasm of colleagues for the latest studio gadgetry. "As a journalist I think technology where it advances communication is plus, plus. Technology that merely inflects whizzbangs of information I think merely tends to get in the way of it. I'm against virtual reality, for example, because I think there's nothing virtual about the reality of the news. But I'm absolutely in favour of blogging, vlogging and podcasting. My only anxiety is that there genuinely is a limit to what the individual journalist can do without beginning to degrade the quality of what they do."
The tone of these internet-based communications is very different from that of the bulletins. "It's more irreverent. I call it thinking through the mouth."
In the past, Snow has criticised ITV News for dumbing down, saying it had forfeited its right to be called a public service broadcaster. But after a difficult year in which the 24-hour ITV News Channel has been axed, Snow is sympathetic to the strategy.
"I think it was the right decision. I don't think there is a tremendous future for large numbers of news channels in Britain. It's moving so fast to the web, and their numbers - all the news channels - are so pitifully small. Increasingly, if there's a major news development you are going to the web first to find out what's happening there and then. In the long-term there isn't a great future for 24-hour television news. It's going to have to be much more bound up with web access."
The BBC would not agree with Snow's views, having just restructured its news operation to give greater resources to News 24. "The BBC is such a huge organisation that I guess you can make more sense of having News 24 because you have so many outlets supplying into it. But I don't think there's any evidence of a huge hunger for News 24."
Then there is the "tragicomedy" of BBC World. "It's a fantastic shop window for Britain... but frankly it just isn't good enough. You can see it's absolutely threadbare of resource. There are times when it's positively embarrassing watching it. You wonder what on earth people in Namibia make of Jeremy Clarkson on top of a green hill in the Lake District with a Range Rover."
Snow has never worked for the BBC and says he thinks he would have been "lost" in a larger organisation and "probably trodden on as well", although he notes that corporation stalwart Charles Wheeler "survived the BBC" despite being "no shrinking violet".
When recently watching the George Clooney-directed film about McCarthy-era TV journalism, Good Night, And Good Luck, Snow was struck by the esteemed US presenter Ed Murrow's language. "He said things we would find very difficult to get away with. He described a politician as hysterical. I noticed that quite a lot of the language and even the opinions were things we'd have difficulty with, even on Channel 4 News."
The recent departures from the screens of famous American anchors such as Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings is symptomatic of an international demise in such journalists who, seemingly, have seen and done it all, says Snow. "Technology has moved at such a pace that the capacity for the correspondent to be at events in the way they used to be has moved on. What that means is that there are inevitably fewer and fewer people coming up who have been exposed to the sort of variety of news events and experiences that we had in the old days. That's not to say the old days were better, just to say they were different."
This process is exacerbated by the substitution of "sausage factory" composite reports in place of the more traditional eye-witness contributions of a single correspondent.
The Iraq war is the best example of this, Snow says. "In Iraq it has become too dangerous for people to venture out of the Green Zone. Some organisations are inside the Green Zone and are continuing to try to report Iraq. It gives an almost dishonest sense of what's happening because people think, 'They're standing up there quite safely, so things aren't as bad as we think'."
Snow notes that "acres of footage" is being shot of bombings and killings by Iraqi "teachers and doctors" but the human connection to the viewer is lost in the distance between the filming and the studio-based voiceover. "The result is it becomes like very bloody wallpaper. The war as a political issue begins to dissipate because people have become bored with it."
Snow certainly bears comparison with the great American news anchors of the old school. He has interviewed a string of Prime Ministers and US Presidents. He reported first-hand the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He forced the civil war in El Salvador on to the news agenda, and won awards for his dispatches from the carnage of the Kegworth air crash in 1989.
But in spite of his youthful grasp of the latest technology, his rock 'n' roll instincts and his desire to stay at Channel 4 News for the rest of his journalistic career, he acknowledges that even he is dispensable. "People exaggerate the roles people play in the media arena. There was a time when people thought Channel 4 News without Peter Sissons would never be Channel 4 News. I rather shared that view. I'm infinitely fireable."
For this to be even a remote possibility, Snow would have to announce a world tour with Suitable Case for Treatment.
ON PUBLISHING HIS BOOK
Encapsulating anything in the written word is a challenge - I regard it as quite a conquest
ON HOSTING THE PRESS AWARDS
I felt flattered to be regarded as someone who could respectablise anything
ON THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL SCOOP
It wasn't timed to happen during the election, but the fact it did made it more explosive
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