Jon Snow: ‘I’ve always been emotional and I think it’s a good thing’

·18-min read

Even before the pandemic, I used to find TV newsrooms, on the rare occasions I had cause to visit them, anticlimactic: hoping for (if not exactly expecting) the adrenalised mayhem of Network or Drop the Dead Donkey, their preternatural quietness always bemused me. But in the age of Covid, things have, it seems, moved up a notch. At ITV’s headquarters in London, the hush is almost eerie. Many people, if not most, still seem to be working from home. The building brings to mind some sleek new hotel in a city unpopular with business travellers. Lifts move silently up and down. The atriums are cold and empty. As I sit and watch and wait, only rarely does a human being cross the expanse of grey carpet.

But then Jon Snow appears, looking like a giant kingfisher in his suit of teal corduroy, and I cheer up a bit. Is he presenting Channel 4 News tonight? The crisp shirt and rainbow tie suggest that he is. “Yes, I am,” he says, though he can’t tell me what will be on the programme; uncharacteristically, he missed the meeting. “I went for a haircut.” A pause. “Not because you were coming. I booked it a long time ago.” His hand goes to his head, and then to the knot of his tie, which he waggles a bit before sitting down. At this point, two things strike me. First, there is his restlessness; he needs settling. Second, that it is very strange indeed that a journalist of his experience and standing should turn up with a minder. Will she be sitting in on our interview? Apparently, she will, and every so often, he will suddenly address a remark to her, rather than to me, his eyes sliding beyond my shoulder to where she sits on a sofa.

I can’t explain, let alone justify, the minder, but I can hazard a guess at the cause of the restlessness. At the end of this year, Snow will leave ITN after 45 years – he has been the main presenter of Channel 4 News, which ITN produces, since 1989 – and though this was announced last April, I’m not sure he is yet fully resigned to the prospect of retirement. “I think it’s very difficult to adjust to,” he says, his voice dimmed just a little of its usual enthusiasm. “They just sort of said we should probably think about it. I hadn’t really thought about it myself. It’s an incredible job. To be paid to interrogate the news; to have so much freedom; to be able to do something every day about what you learn is going on when you first wake up. Not being able to do that… it’s part of your whole life. It has been so extremely enjoyable.” Will he be able to function without the tick and tock of deadlines? Is there a danger he might just… collapse? He smiles. “We’ll find out. I’ll make sure there are plenty of soft furnishings to collapse into. But it’s so difficult to analyse what you do, and what effect not doing it will have. The main thing is not being able to help people understand a moment – a new moment. I don’t think I’ll be able to switch off completely from that.”

Four decades in front of the camera. It is, he says, an inordinately long time. He shouldn’t complain; he has been lucky. “And I’ve the compensation of a young son. Isn’t that amazing?” He and his wife, the epidemiologist Precious Lunga, had a baby, born by surrogate, earlier this year. “He’s eight-and-a-half months,” he says. Is he knackered? “No. My wife has developed a regime in which he goes to sleep at six o’clock for a couple of hours, and then he gets up, so that at 10, when we’re going to bed, he goes, too. He doesn’t wake up until the next morning.” Was he surprised, at the age of 74, to find himself a father again? “Well, I knew it was coming…” He laughs. “But, no, not really. I don’t feel any older than I did that last time I had children, 35 or more years ago [he and his former partner, the human rights lawyer Madeleine Colvin, have two daughters], and there is a naughty side to it, which is that you’re not quite expected to do so much as you absolutely had to last time.”

This country’s brilliance in publishing and in television is [down to the fact] that they’re well regulated

In the world of TV news, it’s all change, several big beasts now on the move: at Sky, Adam Boulton is going; Andrew Marr has announced that he is to leave the BBC. Snow thinks this is an entirely good thing; it’s possible that he has been guilty of the TV equivalent of bed-blocking. But unlike Marr, who has spoken of wanting to find his voice again after years of studied impartiality, he doesn’t see the future as one in which he will be unleashed. “I’ve never felt particularly leashed,” he says. “The number of times I’ve been carpeted… well, she carpets me occasionally [a grin in the direction of the Channel 4 News director of comms]. But in terms of the editor saying, ‘You just can’t do this’. No. I know people think I’m a mad, bonkers, lefty oddity, but I’ve never been to Ofcom.” Actually, this isn’t quite true. In 2019, for instance, Snow was cleared by the media regulator after saying he had “never seen so many white people in one place” while describing a pro-Brexit rally (this remark prompted thousands of complaints to Ofcom that his comments had been racist or offensive, implying a link between Brexit and white supremacism). Perhaps what he means is that he’s never been ruled against.

Jon Snow reporting from Grenfell Tower in 2017.
Reporting from Grenfell Tower in 2017. Photograph: Dinendra Haria/Rex/Shutterstock

Is news journalism in a better or worse place than it was, say, 10 years ago? “That’s a very interesting question,” he says. “It goes to the heart of what’s happening.” But he’s about to answer a different question to the one I’ve asked. “I do believe that Channel 4 News’s status is under discussion in ministerial circles because they don’t particularly like what we do – and that’s not a good idea. I think it’s better that we have an open debate – that the evidence is called, and if they’re dissatisfied after that, then they can say: time we sell it off [the government has proposed that Channel 4, state-owned but funded through advertising, be privatised – though no mention has ever been made of the role of its news output in this decision].” What does he believe to be the cause of this dissatisfaction? “I genuinely have no idea. It can’t just be about the money. It mystifies me. So many people tell me they like what we do.” Is he anxious for Channel 4’s future? “Who wouldn’t be? It’s healthy that there are two state broadcasters. I’m not asking for more, but I don’t think we can do with less.”

What about journalism more generally? Is it as robust as it should be? “That’s difficult. One can both imagine that things were better than they were, and that they are worse now than they are. I don’t think better or worse is a useful debate. The point is that this country’s brilliance in publishing and in television is [down to the fact] that they’re well regulated. Compared to other countries, we can hold our heads high.” Hmm. Some years ago, extolling the virtues of the “democratisation” brought by the internet, Snow said that he would not pay for content; that it should all be free. Has he revised this point of view since? Because regulation is neither here nor there if journalism is not well funded. “Did I say that? I didn’t say that.” Don’t deny it! “I’m not going to deny it. But I must have had a brain freeze.” So what does he pay for? “I pay for the FT and the Guardian and, obviously, if I get something at the station, I pay for it, too.” Well, phew.

What about social media? Has it degraded debate? Has it made people fearful and self-censoring? “I tweet a lot,” he says. He looks at his minder again. “Do I?” he asks her. And then: “To be honest, I have a very happy online life. I don’t feel criticised. People do occasionally offer abuse. I’m going to sound arrogant in the face of other people’s suffering [at the hands of trolls], but I feel there is still a lot of good out there. I don’t particularly want it to be regulated, but I can see that this is coming.” He’s the anti-Howard Beale (the character Peter Finch plays in Network, who’s “mad as hell”). He’s the Pollyanna Howard Beale.

My father wasn’t scary, but you wouldn’t confide in him

Are politicians getting harder to pin down? “They are more evasive, yes. If they can possibly not do it, they won’t. We work hard to find the right person, but often that’s the only person.” There’s responsibility involved in this – the quest for answers – but Snow isn’t pompous about it. In the moments before he goes on air, he doesn’t feel, Dan Rather-style, that he’s about to address an anxious nation. “It’s just about asking simple questions,” he says, the obvious question often being the best question. “I try, without much effort, to remain a perfectly ordinary human being. I think: what do I want to know about this?” Asking questions isn’t, he insists, the work of an intellectual, which is helpful, because he certainly isn’t one. “As you know, I’m not academically gifted. But when you spot something that doesn’t add up, you do owe it to the viewer to push it – and if they won’t give you an answer, you must also make it clear to the viewer that they refused.”

* * *

Snow’s place in our national lives is a strange one. He’s not quite a national treasure; for all that so many people like him, his splashy socks and his bicycle (he cycles everywhere). But nor is he fully the anti-establishment figure some people take him to be (those who describe him as such mostly belong, one can’t help but notice, to the establishment themselves; it surely takes more than turning down an honour, as Snow has done, to make one anti-establishment). Either way, in person he’s very likable and un-grand, even if his self-deprecation – again and again, he’ll talk of his academic failures; “I’m sure I’m being very boring!” he’ll wail, to the point where I’m compelled to tell him not to be so needy – is almost performative at this point. And beyond his slightly mannered vagueness, he is still, at heart, a reporter. His stories are well told: exciting, expertly edited, deployed with care.

Snow’s father was, famously, the Bishop of Whitby; his mother, who encouraged her son’s musical talent, studied at the Royal College of Music before she married. What did it mean to be the Bishop of Whitby? “It’s a two-bit diocese really, though probably one of the most beautiful episcopal holdings anywhere in the world.” Was he afraid of his father? I read that he was. “Well, he was a huge man, 6ft 7in, 8ft in his mitre, and then you think about the robes.” Like Darth Vader, I say. “Fortunately, he didn’t stalk around the house looking like that. He wasn’t scary, but you wouldn’t confide in him. He wouldn’t have found it easy to understand what you were getting at.” What about God? Not all leading Anglicans, one gathers, precisely believe in God. “Oh, he was [religious], yes. Even the staff – by which I mean the cook and the butler – would have to attend morning prayers in the dining room before we sat down to eat.” Did this feel extreme? “I didn’t know anything else. I presumed everybody did it. But there was an additional complication.”

I don’t know how they conjured up this system that shuts out half the people who populate the planet

His voice briefly trails off, and then he launches – I think this is the word – into another story, and it’s like a scene from a film or a novel. “I was very close to my mother,” he says. “But quite late on in my childhood… My father was driving along in our open-top Hudson Terraplane Eight. He used to drive around in it at furious speed, my poor mum in the front seat. But little did I know in the early days that her jacquard scarf was lashing down her wig because she suffered from alopecia totalis. I was about seven, I should think, when I found out. Us three [he has two brothers] were in the back. ‘Boys!’ my father said [Snow adopts a stentorian tone]. ‘I’ve got something I need to tell you. Your mother doesn’t have any hair.’” How did this make him feel? “It was a truly shocking and desperate moment. I burst into tears. My older brother said, ‘Ha! I’ve always known.’ But he’d had the disadvantage of having been at junior school at Ardingly [in Sussex], where my father had been headmaster, and where he’d been teased rotten by the kids who’d worked out that her hair was not her own.” Snow began this tale by saying that he and his mother were close. But now he amends this: “But not as close as I’d have liked to be. There was a sort of impenetrable wall. She was so defensive about it.” Thereafter, he and his brothers never talked of it again, and until the day she died, he never saw his mother without her wig. “Good Lord, no. Never, never, never. Because that was what she wanted.”

Was this the moment when the notion of truth, and its overriding importance, entered his bloodstream? Perhaps. But however “traumatised” he was by the revelation, he was a resilient boy – and resilience is also a necessary qualification for a certain kind of journalist. First, there was Winchester Cathedral, where he was a chorister, and extremely happy. “An amazing education. Not only was it about Bach and Handel and Wesley, it was about community and trust. Aged eight, you’d stay on for Christmas and Easter, and you were allowed to go out into the town, this extraordinary freedom – and you were lionised by those who came along to listen. They loved you, in your ruff. There were some fishy characters, who might have importuned you, but that only happened once or twice.” Then there was a boarding school in Oxford. “Even more [resilience learned] in the awful public school system, which I think for an adolescent is a terrifying experience. It was a nice school, but those are unnatural communities that produce all sorts of tensions.” He cannot believe how many privately educated people are “still at the top of the tree… it does not develop you into a truly understanding male creature. I don’t know how they conjured up this system that shuts out half the people who populate the planet.”

Who are those people, you’d think at road blocks in El Salvador. Police, or bandits? Should we stop, or drive on?

And so, we come back to it: his academic failure. Having flunked his A-levels, he was sent off to do retakes at Scarborough Tech, lodging with “Mrs Someone in a council house”. What the adult women in his shorthand and typing class made of him – he thought these skills might be useful – one can only guess, but for him, Scarborough was a pretty delicious prospect: “I was so innocent, but there was one particularly attractive librarian.” (She was nearly twice his age; they would sneak off together in her car in their lunch hour.) This time, he passed his A-levels – though his grades were poor – and having done so, went off to do VSO in Uganda. “Wonderful. One of the best things in my life. A very remote place on the banks of the Nile, 60 miles north of Jinja.” When he came back, it was to read law at Liverpool University, a place bagged for him by his father. “This is so terrible, but it speaks of how Britain was, and probably still is. My father was in his dog collar on a train, sitting next to a man who was a professor of law at Liverpool University. By the time the train pulled into Lime Street, he’d persuaded him to take me.”

But he didn’t last long. The chancellor of Liverpool University was a Lord Salisbury, a man many students thought unsound on race, and so it was that Snow, by now an active anti-apartheid campaigner and someone who also happened to “speak posh”, was deputed to meet this fellow from his train, and tell him he was not welcome on campus. When Lord Salisbury turned on his heel and helpfully returned to London, the university took a dim view. Snow was rusticated for two years, though he never went back. Again, however, a small miracle occurred. “One of the reasons I want to write a book about inequality when I leave Channel 4 is because I survived because of inequality.” His cousin, the journalist Peter Snow, knew someone who was working for Lord Longford, the social reformer, who in turn was looking for someone to run the New Horizon Youth Centre for the young homeless in London. Snow got the job.

Jon Snow and his wife, Precious Lunga
Jon Snow and his wife, Precious Lunga, at the British Academy television awards, 2015. Photograph: Danny Martindale/WireImage

His career as a journalist was almost as accidental. In 1973, LBC was just starting up. He got wind of this, applied for a post, and again because of his voice, soon found himself a newscaster. Three years later, he joined ITN and his glamorous, thrilling career as a foreign correspondent began. Where did he go? It would be easier to say where he didn’t. Vietnam, Washington, El Salvador. He was in Iran when the Shah fell in 1979. He was outside the Victor Verster prison in Capetown when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. The work was, he says, sometimes “redemptive” – desperate people were often glad to see the press – and occasionally frightening: “Who are those people, you’d think at road blocks in El Salvador. Police, or bandits? Should we stop, or drive on?” It was a strange life; it’s hard to be away from your family for weeks at a time. “And yet, if you weren’t rooted in their love, I don’t think one could have managed.”

How big is the icy chip in his heart? Did he have the necessary coldness for reporting war? “That’s why I am a bad journalist. I don’t see how you find out anything if you don’t get so far into it that you end up sympathising with, or loathing, whatever it is you’re looking at. I’ve always been emotional, and I think it’s a good thing.” The job presenting Channel 4 News suited him when it was offered; his daughters were teenagers, they needed him more. But he’s reluctant to differentiate between his kind of newscasting and reporting. What story did he miss? He wishes he’d been to China, and if he was starting over, that’s where he’d be. China is the big story now.

Jon Snow interviewing Idi Amin in Uganda
Interviewing Idi Amin in Uganda, 1974. Photograph: Channel 4 News/PA

After this, he takes me down to see his office in the Channel 4 newsroom, though he says he mostly prefers to be outside it with the rest of the team (and the dozens of awards that are lined up there in serried rows). I detect a lot of fondness when he appears: “I’m the one who tells him something is a mad idea,” someone says. But we can’t dally. There’s a programme to be put together, and besides, he’s eager to show me not his etchings but his watercolours, which hang on the walls of his office alongside several photographs of him as young reporter.

I look at these first. There is one in which he appears in a group of reporters in Downing Street with Mrs Thatcher, and another, in similar vein, with Jim Callaghan and Jimmy Carter; microphone in hand, he’s floppy-haired, eager, one of the gang. “What do you think?” he says, showing me his paintings. I consider them carefully. Done on assignment, they are, I think, very good; miles better than those of Prince Charles. There’s one of Aleppo in Syria that I’d quite like to steal. Still, it’s hard to picture him spending his days gently at an easel. His uncommon energy fills the room. Retirement or not, I predict other assignments, other adventures. I bet his passport is in his pocket even as we speak.

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