Culture

Jon Snow: I was scared when I was thrown out of uni but I’ve been blessed

Jon Snow fought hard to get into university, but was thrown out after an anti-apartheid protest. It was a frightening time, he says.

Jon Snow

Looking back on his life, Jon Snow says he has been blessed. Photo: John Wright

As the longest-serving presenter of Channel 4 News, Jon Snow is one of the UK’s most highly-regarded journalists. But it was a fight for him to get into university. “My exam results weren’t the greatest,” he told The Big Issue, as he looked back on his life for his Letter To My Younger Self.

As a student at the St Edward’s School, a public school in Oxford, he was “regarded as a bit of a mess” he added. “I was in the D-stream. Not very bright. My father thought I was rather thick and made no secret of it. I knew I wasn’t, but I wasn’t clever in the way he might have asked me to be. I was bright and creative and I could write good essays, but my Latin and French and maths were not of the first rank.”

Snow said it was “a terrible struggle” for him to get into university. On his first attempt at his A Levels he didn’t get the grades he needed but he stuck at it, going to college and eventually achieving the necessary results to study law at Liverpool University.

Once there, it wasn’t his ability that was the problem, rather his politics got him into trouble with the establishment. “We had as our chancellor Lord Salisbury, who was regarded by a number of people as something of a racist,” he said. Conservative politician Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, fifth Marquess of Salisbury Lord Salisbury, was one of the principal draftsmen of the League of Nations Covenant. He believed in a world order determined by the white nations and successfully opposed a provision for racial equality among League member states. He was a prominent supporter of apartheid.

“Many of us felt he was not a fit person to be the chancellor of a multicultural, multiracial university,” Snow recalled. “Because I spoke posh I was chosen to go to Liverpool Lime Street station to tell him we didn’t particularly want him coming onto the campus. And he said, ‘Very well, I shan’t come, and I shall never come again.’ And he got on the next train and went back.

“Of course, the university authorities were utterly scandalised – they’d lost their one very senior knob. So there was a disciplinary process and 10 of us were sent down. And I never went back.”

Having been expelled from the university he fought so hard to get into, Snow said he was “really distressed”.

“I was shocked and scared for the future,” he said. “Oddly enough though, whatever my parents’ doubts were, they hid them well, and they were very supportive and kind. They didn’t approve of what I’d done, by any means. But they were very good to me and they made it easy for me to find further education.”

Snow found himself at Scarborough Technical College, which had unexpected advantages. “For the first time in my life I was sitting in a classroom full of women! I hardly knew anything about women, I was quite a sheltered sort of boy. But as I’d decided to learn shorthand and typing, I was the only man in the class. Oh my god. To some extent, I was extremely intimidated. But quite exuberant too,” he said.

Snow soon started working at the New Horizon Youth Centre, a centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers in London. It was there that he learned the power of storytelling to “educate people about what was going on at the bottom of society”.

In 1973, inspired by his cousin, broadcaster Peter Snow, he started his career as a journalist. It was the start of commercial radio and Snow became a presenter on the new station LBC Radio.

“I was good at telling stories and good at cycling across London to cover London stories,” he said. “There was a lot of IRA activity then, and very often you could get to the site of the bomb at almost the same time as the police. I remember being at the Balcombe Street siege, where IRA men were holding a family hostage in an upstairs flat and there was a big standoff with the police. I was there live, on the phone, broadcasting at the scene as it happened. It was very exciting and I realised I had a knack for it. I was only about 21 but I knew then I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Jon Snow went on to be a mainstay of the UK media as presenter of Channel 4 News from 1989 until he retired in 2021. Post “retirement”, he continues to write and his latest book The State of Us: What I’ve Learned About Politics, Humanity and Our World sees him continuing to use journalism as a means to challenge inequality. He also presents the weekly interview podcast Snowcast.

Despite all his professional achievements, Snow said if he could relive any moment in his life, it would be a quiet family time. “I would be sitting on the beach in the sun in Dorset watching my children running into the water as the waves come in. My wife is from Zimbabwe and that’s why my son [born via a surrogate in 2021, when Snow was 73] has a name which means ‘we are blessed’ in Zimbabwean. It’s a thought which often comes into my head when I look back at my life.”

The State of Us by Jon Snow is out on March 2. Read Snow’s full Letter To My Younger Self in The Big Issue magazine, on sale from March 6.

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