Ask Jon Snow about his vices and he says: “I talk a lot.” He certainly does. About politics, about sex, about a dread of working for the BBC – and about taking drugs. Mind-warping quantities of them. But the evening we meet, he’s sustained by a legal “high” – the adrenaline gained from live presenting.
Our interview takes place at ITN headquarters in central London, the glass-fronted statement building from where ITV News and Channel 4 News broadcast. One floor up in the vast atrium, Mark Austin can be seen preparing for ITV’s 10pm bulletin; down in the basement, that night’s Channel 4 News has just ended and Snow – in signature lurid tie of orange, navy and lime, with matching orange socks – is still buzzing.
“Live television is as exciting to me as ever,” he says, sprawled on a leather sofa in the programme’s open-plan office. “Absolutely nothing better. This is a brilliant programme, going into things in depth as we do. And I’m still learning, which is good, as I was very thick as a student. I started from dim beginnings, although I believe journalists on TV should have a limited intellect because then you don’t ask questions the medium can’t cope with.”
Within hailing distance of his eighth decade, he has no interest in stepping off the professional gas, helped perhaps since the format of Channel 4 News was remodelled in 2011 to accommodate two presenters. Does he never feel like slowing down?
“Only when my chain is sticking on my bike,” he says. He still faithfully commutes two miles by bicy – cle from the north London home he shares with Zimbabwe-born academic Precious Lunga, 40, whom he married in 2010. It followed the end of his 35-year relationship with human rights lawyer Madeleine Colvin, with whom he has two adult daughters.
“I’m a maverick, a rebel,” states Snow. “I question everything. Because I work at Channel 4, I have no fixed points to prevent me asking anything. I couldn’t do those things at the BBC. They’ve only ever asked me once, 20 years ago. They wanted me to anchor the One ‘Clock News. It wasn’t remotely difficult to turn them down – it was an incredibly boring programme.”
Does he think it still is? “I don’t watch it. Lunchtime news on every channel is a problem. They’re the poor relation, because everyone is aiming for the primetime bulletin. The thought of being strapped in a chair five days a week with no option to run about and find out what’s going on… I’m not just an anchor, I’m an activist.”
He wears the maverick label proudly and unlike many interviewees remains fiercely independent in both thought and deed. There’s an element of mischief about him as well. He agrees to this inter – view against the wishes of his PR minders. But then, hours after giving RT the exclusive on his dabblings with skunk – the stronger form of cannabis thought to be responsible for mental health problems such as paranoia and schizophrenia in 60,000 Britons – shares the story on his online blog.
A frustrating reminder that he does, indeed, talk a lot.
Still, certain politicians who have been skewered over the years by his forensic interviewing may now be chortling at the idea that – thanks to those skunk revelations – Snow is officially off his head… albeit specifically in the context of a scientific trial to be screened during Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial.
The programme includes footage recorded two months ago, when Snow was one of three volunteers with previous experience of cannabis (the other two being ex-Conservative MP Matthew Parris and former royal correspondent Jennie Bond) who took part in a closely supervised doubleblind trial under laboratory conditions.
They received doses of either skunk, cannabis resin or a placebo – double-blind meaning, of course, that any information that might influence the behaviour of the tester or the subject is withheld until after the test. Thus Snow did not know which of the three substances he would receive.
“It was so incredibly appalling, so horrendous, that I struggle even to describe it,” recalls Snow, 67, who estimates the effects lasted three or four hours. “I took the skunk in vapour form, not knowing what it was. I lost all control. It was devastating and the paranoia was overwhelming. You hear me describe that my soul had been wrenched from my body. There were no people in my life. I didn’t know who I was.
“When I was a student, I smoked the odd spliff six or seven times and felt mildly mellow. My only other previous experience of drugs was at a party where, unknown to me, a strawberry flan was laced with LSD. That was a bad experience, but nothing like as bad as this, because of the paranoia and the complete robbery of ‘me’ during the period I was stoned. Skunk is an entirely different part of the cannabis family to resin. For me, as an experience, it had no relationship to cannabis at all. It was utterly shocking. I would never, ever touch it again.”
It may be a scientific trial, but isn’t “Jon Snow on Skunk” just good telly?
“No, absolutely not!” he exclaims vociferously. “This is a trial approved by the NHS and the Home Office. I hosted a previous programme for Channel 4 in 2013 about ecstasy in which I didn’t take it, and then sort of regretted it because it would have informed me greatly.”
He firmly believes the trial in the new programme has value, and appears unruffled by those who say such broadcasts subtly advance the cause of decriminalisation. “I don’t know if I’m in favour of decriminalisation. But I would like to see governments debate it and work out if it’s worth the terrible cost in criminality, or whether it wouldn’t be better to spend the money on trying to stop people doing it.”
It’s very difficult to envisage the BBC creating a platform for one of its household-name news anchors to be seen stoned. But then Channel 4 really is Snow’s natural home. After stints as ITN’s Washington correspondent and diplomatic editor, he’s fronted Channel 4’s 55-minute flagship despatch for 26 of the 33 years the programme (and the station itself) has existed.
A new, high-profile recruit to Channel 4 is Jeremy Paxman, who is to helm the station’s general election coverage. “I didn’t know about his appointment before it was announced but I wouldn’t expect to,” shrugs Snow, pointing out that he rarely visits Channel 4 HQ, three miles south of the ITN building. “I admire old Paxo. I thought it was a real coup. I was thrilled. He is the very best thing that’s ever come along.
“We’re not mates, but we’re perfectly friendly. He’s part of the national iconography.” Snow says Paxman “got a bit bored” at Channel 4 News’s great rival, Newsnight, and misses him at the helm.
Asked if he prefers Paxman to his successor Evan Davis, Snow avoids answering. “I’ve very high regard for Evan Davis. He’s certainly very good on the radio.” Better there than on Newsnight? A long pause. “He’s going to need a bit of time to bed in at Newsnight.”
The head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband is slated to be co-hosted by Channel 4 and Sky News, but word is that both politicians are refusing to do it if Paxman is in the chair. “That doesn’t surprise me,” says Snow. “I wouldn’t say no to chairing the debate if they asked me, but I don’t expect to do it, and wouldn’t want to if they had removed Paxo.
“Paxo will chair a much better programme than I could. He’s just jolly good at that. He has a better brain than me. He marshals the ideas and thoughts. He’s original, and he’s fun to watch. I can’t say I can claim any of those things.”
Asked if he thinks the Prime Minister really wants to avoid a debate altogether, Snow replies: “He wanted them watered down. Politicians wouldn’t risk a real debate, but TV debates do serve a purpose. They were watched by 20 million people last time, and they’ll be watched by as many this time if everyone participates. Viewers will love to see Ukip in play.”
Snow is looking forward to “bombing about again” during the election, although the self-described “pinko liberal” is undecided where his own vote will go. Paxman described himself last summer as a “one-nation Tory”. Is Snow?
“I’m very attracted to one-nation Tories, and admire them, but I wouldn’t say I am one. I’m certainly political. Mine are the politics of confusion. You’ll find me quite conservative on some things.” With a capital C? “No. But I’ve voted for all the parties in my time. I vote for Steve Norris to be mayor of London. There! A Conservative. I thought it would be good to have a practical business head in the town hall.”
Norris lost, both in 2000 and 2004, to Ken Livingstone. Improbably, Snow says he “cannot remember” whether he voted for Boris Johnson.
Snow is rarely vague on anything. But he insists he did not say, as was widely quoted last year, that he thinks about sex whenever he meets a woman for the first time. “That was misreported by the Daily Mail and I’d certainly like to nail it on them,” he says, in an unfortunate choice of phrase – and in fact it wasn’t the Mail but London’s Evening Standard.
“What I said was that every time a man meets a woman he hasn’t met before, the thought goes through his mind: ‘Do I fancy her?’ That is a fact. Is she attractive? Is she someone I would like to spend time with? Then that thought is parked and gone.
“None of my female colleagues ever mentioned it. They just thought it was typical Jon. My wife? She would be oblivious to it. I do not think about sex every time I meet a new woman. That’s absolute crap. But heavens… What is the species? You’re a woman, I’m a man.”
What was that he said about his chief vice? Ah yes: “I talk a lot.” Yup, that’s about the size of it.
Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial airs on Channel 4 tonight (March 3rd) at 10pm