Jon Snow: Interviewing Margaret Thatcher was a pseudo-sexual experience
After 32 years, Jon Snow is ‘stepping down’ from Channel 4 News. Before he goes he spoke to The Big Issue about his career, the importance of empathy in journalism and why he hasn’t interviewed a prime minister in a while.
Jon Snow. Image: Neale Haynes/Contour by Getty Images
With his twinkling eyes, snazzy ties and gentle but authoritative delivery, Jon Snow is like the best boss you ever had. Or the kindest, coolest teacher at your school. Maybe he is your dream dad.
To the left, he is a hero: almost the last bastion of fearless, empathetic TV journalism who insists on addressing stories from a doggedly human perspective. To the right he is ‘Jon Snowflake,’ a pathological liberal who betrays the neutrality of good journalism by wearing his bleeding heart on his sleeve.
To the dismay of the former group and the delight of the latter, he announced back in April that he was ‘stepping down’ from Channel 4 News after 32 years as the main anchor.
His announcement was followed by other big beasts of TV news withdrawing from their roles: Adam Boulton at Sky and Andrew Marr at the BBC. Maybe it’s a coincidence. But some have called it a “winter cull” of the “stale, male and pale” generation, who will make way to allow for more diverse voices in newscasting.
So when exactly did he make the decision to leave? “I made the decision when they [Channel 4] made the decision,” he says, looking rather surprised at the question. “It all came as a terrible shock, to be honest.”
He is 74. He and his partner have just had a baby son. Wouldn’t it have been natural to retire at this point? “But I’m not retiring,” he says. “I mean, life is not about septuagenarians telling people what to think about the world but I will still be a gun for hire if anyone will have me.”
He has been accompanied at our meeting by someone from Channel 4’s press office. It’s usually only Hollywood stars who turn up with corporate back-up. Why would a savvy pro like Snow need anyone around to protect them from a tricky reporter? I soon get the sense she might be there to keep more of an eye on him than on me.
“You are still contracted to Channel 4 for a further year,” his minder interrupts. “Ah yes,” says Snow with a wry smile. “To work on other projects. But I suspect that’s just designed to keep me out of trouble.”
Snow might be known as a nice guy. But you don’t become a legendary journalist by being too scared to say the things you’re not supposed to. His PR looks a bit nervous as we begin the interview. Perhaps she’s right to be.
You didn’t take the conventional routes into journalism of Oxbridge and the BBC. Is that why you’re a bit anti-establishment? Well, I had all the ingredients of being quite right-wing. I went to a private school but I was very stupid. I got a C, a D and an E in my A levels. I’m not particularly bright, which has been a blessing as a journalist: it means I tend to say things as I see them.
Is that why people perceive you as left-wing? I think my persona was shaped by the life I’ve lived. Before I was a hack I ran a day centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers. I did voluntary service in Uganda, which gives you a sort of access in life. You’re not frightened of Black people, which helps. I envy the journalists who can turn up at a serious road accident and just look at the facts. I can’t help but see the human side of those stories. But then people say: “Oh, you’re interested in human beings? You must be a lefty!”
A lot of journalists start out with a human approach but become jaded. How have you avoided selling out? I think it’s the experience of having smelt the world before I got into the media. That’s important.
In the early ’70s I worked at [the homeless charity] New Horizons and there was a drug-addicted teenager who had a baby. We managed to get her housing. One Sunday night she called me for help, I could tell she was in a state so I drove straight over to her flat. I was worried about the baby so I ended up having to break into the house. I was only 22 or 23. I took the baby away because I could see it was at risk. I went to the hospital where it was born but they said they couldn’t take it. So the local authorities got involved and found the child a home.
It’s amazing to think that they are now probably in their forties, walking around, not knowing about my role in their life. That sort of experience was an education. It’s what speaks to you when you’re confronted with all sorts of other stories. It means you look at things with a certain amount of empathy. I have to admit that’s why some people think we are a bit floppy on Channel 4 News. Because I think they are not sure if they really like too much empathy.
They want to call people wastrels, scroungers, whatever. They don’t want to hear that maybe these people had a very unfortunate start in life.
Do you think good journalism is currently under threat in this country? No. I think we need broadcast journalism more than ever. And we are awash with great journalists here [at ITN, who produce Channel 4 News] and at the BBC, which remains a great institution.
But haven’t the government got their knives out for the BBC? I think every government of every hue has had their problems and complaints about the BBC. It is always the way. There might be some members of the current government who are being a bit noisier than we are used to. But I don’t see it as being under threat.
There would be far too much resistance from the public to any major attack on the BBC.
How has interviewing political leaders changed over the years? Well, I used to interview Margaret Thatcher when she was PM. That was a pseudo-sexual experience.
She enjoyed being a woman and I enjoyed being a man. It was flirtatious. She sought to prevail and I found it fun because I knew what she was up to. I may not have agreed with her politically but she was happy to be interviewed by me. She had conviction. And she was unapologetic about it.
Some of her successors just seem to have made their views up on the way to the studio. I haven’t interviewed a prime minister for a long time now. They wouldn’t touch Channel 4 News with a bargepole these days. I mean, Boris Johnson is himself a former journalist and yet he wouldn’t ever consider coming near us for an interview.
Why not? They are terrified of us. The great advantage we have at Channel 4 News is that we are not the BBC. We are actually paid to be different. We are supposed to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily get a voice in other places. The truth is, we are a very diverse team on Channel 4 News. In our politics, our backgrounds and our ethnicity. It’s terrifying enough for [the government] to want to allow the private sector to take it over and turn it into one of the other rubbish channels.
Is that a real concern? Absolutely. We have to preserve what’s good and I believe we [Channel 4 News] are good. But we are currently part of a public service TV channel. In the hands of the private sector, there’s nobody – no matter how deep their pockets – who’d spend the amount of money it costs to put out an hour of quality TV news every night.
It’s a wonderful blessing that the country has Channel 4 News. Fuck anyone who wants to screw it up.
So you think the government want to privatise Channel 4 because they don’t like its news show? I do think it’s one of the elements that they don’t like [about the channel]. And they seem to think that if they privatise the channel they will rid themselves of it.
Maybe it’s you the government arescared of? It’s going to be a terrible burden to carry if they were planning on getting rid of the channel just because of me!
Perhaps the channel calculated that? Well I don’t think so. Although I didn’t see any flags go up in Whitehall when it was announced I was leaving.
Did you receive any nice messages from the political fraternity? I can honestly say not one. But maybe that’s an achievement.
You’ve covered war, revolution, natural disasters: has the job impacted your mental health over the years? It was never a problem. Not in war or in peace. But leaving has been worse.
How have you been coping? Well, it’s an upheaval. It’s been 32 years in this job. You know? I’ve been making that same cycle run from Primrose Hill to the studios and back every day. It’s a bit of a routine and I will miss that and the incredible people I work with.
Have you thought about what’s next? I’ve not thought much about next year. I just want to get through Christmas. But I have a new baby and fatherhood is delirium. It’s different to when I had my older children. At my age I am a bit more observational and patient. I absorb more of his development.
Some would call you a national treasure. How do you feel about that? I feel very honoured. But I’d have to disillusion them and tell them, you know, I’m just another guy.
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