Jon Snow: “I’m really a reporter. I’m actually a rather poor presenter"
The Channel 4 News host says his real strength lies in bringing often harrowing world stories to viewers
Jon Snow is wearing a red tie and red socks. The face of Channel 4 News since 1989, he’s tall, friendly and emphatically modest. He’s known for carrying off outrageous ties while presenting cutting-edge programmes. But is he really a rebel? “If you asked people around here, they’d say I was one of the most conservative faces in the newsroom – that’s small ‘C’ – but there is a rebel in me.
"I’m wearing a bright tie largely because they told me colours on television didn’t work. In old-fashioned colour TV they would blow out a bit. I wore them deliberately.”
It’s late afternoon and we’re sitting in a glass office at ITN. The clock is ticking. At 7pm Snow will read the news to one million viewers. “I’ve probably done about 6,000 programmes and I love it. Every day is different and the challenges are great – sometimes very great if things happen just before I go on air, or while I’m on air.”
Snow was born in 1947 in Sussex. In his teens he wanted to become a Conservative MP. It wasn’t until he was “radicalised” in Uganda while working for Voluntary Service Overseas that his ambitions changed. “I was suddenly aware that I was dealing with kids who were just as bright as any kid I’d ever met but who had absolutely no books. I felt a sense of injustice.”
Despite a C, a D and an E in his A-levels, Snow took up a place at Liverpool University to study law. But he didn’t last long. It was, he says, at the height of the anti-apartheid era. “In my second year I was sent down for a year with nine others for organising a sit-in in protest against the university’s investments in South Africa.”
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Snow decided to become a journalist in a bid to return to Uganda. His first job was at a London radio station. “My first day as a hack was the very first day of LBC. Forty years ago this year!” He sees himself as the product of nepotism.
His presenter cousin Peter, ten years older, was already at ITN when he applied for a role there. “I don’t think he put in a word for me, but I think it was he who tipped me off [about the job opening] and they possibly thought, ‘Well, he’s a bit like his cousin, we might do well to see if he’s any good.’” Of course, today there is another Snow on screen – Peter’s son, Dan – and taken together all three make something of a broadcasting dynasty, although perhaps not one to rival the Dimblebys.
What does he think of the charge that nepotism is alive and well in broadcasting today? “We’re in a world in which who you know is very important. Our society is terribly rigid.” Earlier in the day Snow showed 30 schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds around the newsroom. “I came away from it recognising something very important – that if you open a window on something it could create an idea in their heads, something that will perhaps be a light for them to fight towards.”
Snow denies that Channel 4 News is left-leaning but says its role, “even constitutionally”, is to be different. “It should be other. It should be for those, perhaps, who have less of a voice anywhere else. I think there are a lot of people in minority communities who look to us for some reason and feel that we are more ‘on their side’. That may in part be because we actually have a very ethnically diverse presentation team.”
The key to being a news anchor, Snow tells me, is communication. “Can you engage with the viewer? Can you be who you really are? I genuinely think I’m exactly the same person off the screen as I am on it. Either the camera loves you or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t there’s nothing you can do about it. If it does, you’re very lucky. And if it loves you, you’ll love it. I love cameras and people coming up and doing selfies.
“A programme for me is an adventure. I feel the viewer – it’s only one viewer; I don’t think about the masses – and I go on a shared adventure. ‘Come on, let’s see what we can find out.’”
Television news is a crowded market. What, I ask, makes Channel 4 different from BBC News? “The BBC has an enormously important job that is – on our behalf, with our money – to tell us what’s going on.”
But with that responsibility, he says, comes huge institutional controls and caution.
“They survive all sorts of slings and arrows and seem to go on still being excellent. I think that in some ways we’re better than they are when it comes to long-form television news. We’re a little less cautious. We’re prepared to get stuck in and to take risks. Not with the truth, but with guts and just pushing it as far as we possibly can.”
Snow is not among those who see Newsnight as a rival. But there’s no doubt that the BBC2 programme has had a torrid year or so. Its reputation was damaged first by its failure to break the Jimmy Savile story, despite compelling evidence, and then its incorrect identification of a Tory political figure as a paedophile. And while Newsnight suffered, Channel 4 News was busy uncovering “Plebgate”.
Ironically, it was former Newsnight political editor Michael Crick who delivered the scoop.
Snow is just back from covering the Commonwealth Conference in Sri Lanka. His film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields was nominated for a Bafta and Channel 4 News has focused attention on the atrocities allegedly carried out against the Tamil population.
The programme had been denied entry to the country for more than four years. They were only re-admitted because, Snow says, it’s a condition of hosting a Commonwealth Conference that journalists are given visas.
“It was eerie. I’ve never been in a place where we have, so specifically, been declared the enemy.
We were actually described as Tamil Tigers. It wasn’t that I thought we really stood any danger from the state. I worried that once we were declared the enemy, some freelancer might just knock us off. You have car accidents...” The team returned home safely but they were tailed wherever they went. “There were visitations to rooms by thick-set security people.”
Snow describes Channel 4’s coverage of events in Sri Lanka as a “serious journalistic attempt to put the record straight and to bring about justice. That can be done within the journalistic norms, and has been.” He disputes that it amounted to campaigning, although he accepts “there are truths that you pursue which, in their pursuit, do certainly have the appearance of, and the commitment of, a campaign.”
Snow’s documentary did not spare the viewer the horrors of war. Even so, he’s seen things most of us never will. “Particularly with Sri Lanka, there’s an awful lot we’ve never been able to put out.” Have these pictures scarred him? “No, it’s not the images. It’s actually seeing it in the raw.”
He finds it very easy to cry. “I think you do have to – not on camera – but you need to allow your emotions to deal with what you’re looking at. It never revisits me. I never dream about it. This time round I came as near completely convulsing in grief as I’ve ever been because this extraordinary tidal wave of women, weeping and screaming, besieged us in Jaffna. There may have been activists pushing it along, but it happened – and the effect on me was very, very hard.”
Snow says he’d prefer to go down in history as a good reporter. “I’m really a reporter. I’m actually a rather poor presenter.” As an interviewer, he looks for the oddball question in an attempt to reveal something new about politicians.
He asked David Cameron about being a fan, “if not addict”, of Breaking Bad. “It’s about a gifted man who goes off the rails. I thought, ‘Interesting that a prime minister would want that as his escape. Who is he? How does he identify with the hero or anti-hero?’ He completely came to life and we got by far the best interview of the day.”
Snow turned down an OBE, which he thinks was for charitable work, because he doesn’t think journalists should take honours from people they are likely to deal with. And he’s not planning retire. “Obviously, if my features fall to pieces and become intolerable, or I become braindead, I’d pack up, but it’s still a fantastic adventure.”
When he’s not working, Snow loves escaping to the countryside. He paints – “I do rather bad watercolours but they all go to auction for charities” – and plays a lot of tennis.
When Snow was 12, his father, who had been a headmaster, changed careers to become the Bishop of Whitby. Today Snow goes to a tiny Saxon church in Berkshire – where he spends his weekends – once or twice a month: “I like the contemplation, the hour of peace, the hymns and the community. Dunno if that makes me religious. I believe in the collective power of the human spirit. Is that who God is? I don’t think my father would say so!”
It’s nearly five o’clock. With just over two hours before he goes live for the 6,001st time, he’s off for a pre-programme ritual: buying grapes and nuts from the local newsagent. “The real secret of a good interview.”