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Jon Snow: 'It was wonderful to talk to Nelson Mandela'

From chorister to Channel 4 News anchor, it’s been a blessed life for Jon Snow. And to think he was told at 16 he wasn’t very bright

Jon Snow at Grenfell Tower

2017: Speaking to local residents after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in West London Image: Dinendra Haria / Alamy Stock Photo

Jon Snow was born in Sussex in 1947. He is the cousin of former BBC television presenter Peter Snow. After winning a choral scholarship to Winchester Cathedral and spending five years there, Snow went to school in Oxford and Scarborough before going to study law at Liverpool University. However, he was expelled after an anti-apartheid protest.

While working with people who are homeless at the New Horizon Youth Centre in London, Jon Snow was encouraged by his cousin to look at journalism as a career and joined LBC, moving on to ITN, where he served as Washington correspondent and diplomatic editor. He became the main presenter of Channel News in 1989, a position he held until 2021.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Jon Snow, who has declined an OBE but accepted a Bafta fellowship, looks back on a life as one of UK television’s most familiar faces, and why he considers himself “blessed”.

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

By the time I was 16 I was well into my big school education; I’d been very happy as a Winchester Cathedral chorister until I was 12. I loved living in that intensively musical world in a massive cathedral – it was an absolute dream. I mean, at the age of eight, to be put through a voice trial, and to find that the organist of Winchester Cathedral decided I was good enough to be in the choir, that was a magical moment. Afterwards my mum and dad drove me into Winchester and said, you can have anything. I chose a pale blue Dinky Toys car transporter. It was a very brilliant day and I was very happy there. But that musical world was all over when I hit 12. 

I’d like to tell the 16-year-old me, who keeps being told he isn’t very bright and doesn’t have good prospects, that the people saying that to him are wrong. I’d say, don’t let them grind you down. I was, unfortunately, privately educated – my father was a public-school headmaster and believed in that system. My parents were very dyed in the wool. My father went to Winchester College. My grandfather was a major general in the First World War. They were absolutely establishment through and through. So I went to a school in Oxford called St Edward’s; a perfectly pleasant place, but nevertheless a public school. I did have good friendships there, it wasn’t a time of unhappiness. But I was regarded as a bit of a mess. 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. 

After I left school, I applied to go on a scheme called Voluntary Service Overseas. I wasn’t paid but I was accommodated in a school on the banks of the Nile in Uganda, a very remote place run by Catholic priests; my father was a Protestant bishop but that didn’t seem to get in the way. And I absolutely loved it. I loved teaching and I loved being with the students and seeing their hunger for information. I realised I’d had a very privileged start in life, and that despite my own failings, you know, I had something that I could impart and something I could do. I now knew I could survive in completely alien circumstances among people of a different race in a different town in a country that was very far away. I developed great strength of character and resilience and I think it made me the person that I became. 

Jon Snow and wife Precious Lunga
2015: With wife Precious Lunga after triumphing at the Bafta Television Awards in London
Image: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

I went to Liverpool University which was a very multiracial university. We had as our chancellor Lord Salisbury, who was regarded by a number of people as something of a racist. Many of us felt he was not a fit person to be the chancellor of a multicultural, multiracial university, and 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. 

I was really distressed when I was sent down because it had been a terrible struggle getting to university as my exam results weren’t the greatest. So to get there was a wonderful thing and I loved it there too, I had very good friends. I was shocked and scared for the future. 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. I went to Scarborough Tech, which was an absolute dream. 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.

After I got thrown out of university I had to find something to do. I ended up working at the New Horizon Youth Centre, a centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers in London. I realised part of our problem was not ever being able to reach the outside world to tell them what we were doing and to educate people about what was going on at the bottom of society. I was strongly influenced by my cousin Peter [broadcaster Peter Snow], and he inspired me to look at journalism as a possible career path. A great opportunity then arose because of the invention of commercial radio. At that time radio was absolutely dominated by the BBC. There had never been a radio station like LBC, an all-news talk station. Not everybody thought it would work. But it suited me. I was good at telling stories and good at cycling across London to cover London stories. 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 broadcasting at the scene as it happened. It was very exciting and I realised I had a knack for it. I knew then I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. 

I was focused on radio for a good while and I still love radio. In some ways, I think it’s the ultimate media. But when TV comes along, it’s very hard to resist. Even at school, I never had a problem being on a stage, so being on TV wasn’t a terrifying prospect. I was very lucky with Channel 4. Yes, I think I’d have made out OK at the BBC if I’d learned to behave properly. I think I could have fitted in. But I really loved working for Channel 4 News [Jon Snow became the main presenter in 1989]. I found it very rewarding. I’d always want to find out things for myself rather than simply assume that what everyone else was saying was right. I was inquisitive and questioning. I never wanted to simply turn up and say, well that’s what people are saying. I guess that’s probably right. It often wasn’t. 

Jon Snow and Nelson Mandela
1994: Interviewing Nelson Mandela for Channel 4 News Image: Channel4

I feel very, very blessed to have interviewed Nelson Mandela very soon after he came out of prison. Somehow I didn’t cry and I didn’t become emotional. But as somebody who had, through my involvement in activism, clashed with those who supported apartheid, it was a wonderful thing to be able to sit down and talk to him. That was one of the great high spots of my life. He was very affable, very avuncular, very… honestly, incredibly normal. I used to think about it a lot; was it because he’d been in prison, in solitary for so long, that he came out with such humility? He didn’t come out and say, I’m the king of kings. He came out very humble and very approachable and very interested in other people. 

If I could go back and relive any time in my life 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 Jon 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 will be released on March 2 (Transworld, £20)

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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