Jon Snow: ‘I’m just a tawdry old creep’

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In a cramped room at the Soho Hotel in London’s West End, a small cohort of journalists was gathered to grill the stars of Ralph Fiennes’s Shakespeare-inspired directorial debut, Coriolanus. I am here, however, not to ingratiate myself with Hollywood’s finest, but to chat to the owner of the largest collection of lurid socks and ties on television, Jon Snow. “When they re-jigged the studio at Channel 4 News years ago, I became the most boring thing on it and so I thought I’ll have to liven up in some way. And I’m not going to spend a lot of money on bright red suits,” Snow explains. Although a household name for his role as anchor on Channel 4 News, Snow appears to the public in Coriolanus as a news reporter. Regular viewers of Snow will be a little surprised by his delivery, particularly when he tells cameras, in iambic pentameter, that the Volsci are descending on Rome. Snow himself is the first to highlight the contrast between being a news reporter and acting as one.

“I never actually think about what I look like, or what I’m doing. I only think about what we want to find out, or what we want to say.” This preoccupation with content rather than presentation, Snow tells us, became apparent to him during his previous venture into acting. “My last role was as a woman. I was fifteen, and I thought I was too old to play a woman. The extraordinary thing is that in the interval, the audience found out that Kennedy had been shot. I realised then that I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to find out what was going on in the world.

Snow starts by drawing parallels between the film and recent events. “It’s about the Arab Spring, it’s about the Tottenham riots,” he tells us. This is pretty apparent, even, to the most unobservant viewer. The film opens with scenes of discontented citizens protesting to their unheeding rulers, demanding bread outside Rome’s central granary. But the interesting thing is that the film was completed before any of that stuff took place. Shakespeare, Snow opines (or at least tells us that Fiennes opined when he interviewed him), was writing about similar events that were taking place in 1607, and that are permanent fixtures of human experience.

While he confesses that he is no Shakespeare buff, Snow does have strong feelings about the arts and the importance of maintaining funding. “I think arts funding is incredibly important and is a priority. I’d put it above defence.” Pausing, he adds as an aside, “there’s your headline.” Continuing in earnest, he tells us that “the thing which enriches Britain is multiculturalism without a doubt, and I think the arts are what bind it together.”

His real interest seems to lie in the Middle East however. Prompted to share his thoughts on the prospects of 2012, Snow gives his impression of a region made up of powers competing via proxies. But he doesn’t think that anything will take place to ignite this volatile part of the world. “I don’t think anyone will bomb Iran — I could be profoundly wrong — but if they do, it would be an act of complete insanity.” I ask him whether that’s based on a personal opinion about the likelihood of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon. “I don’t see, in the end, how you can build a relationship on whether somebody does or doesn’t have a nuclear weapon. Life is bigger than that.” It seems that the man who is tasked with regularly updating the nation with the latest developments across the globe has very strong opinions of his own. Does he think that this compromises his ability to convey the news objectively? “You can’t deny who you are and what you think. But you’ve got to try to be fair, and try to offer a balanced account of what’s going on. But when you’re asking questions, you’re bound to some extent to come from your own quarter. Fundamentally, you can’t desert who you are.”

Is he required to be politically neutral? “There’s no such thing as a neutral human being,” he responds, dismissing the notion. And he confesses to having his own strong interests, chief amongst which is Iran. He was there for the Islamic revolution in 1979, and has been back every year since. So, while he tries to be unbiased when his job requires him to be so, he concedes that those things which particularly interest him prevent him from being entirely so. “There I suppose my bias would come out”, he remarks. “But it’s only a bias of information. I’m not saying Ahmadinejad is the greatest man that ever lived. Indeed, I am first to point out that there are plenty of problems with the Iranian leadership. But, it’s a very complex story Iran — immensely complex.” Snow continues in this vein, warming to a topic that clearly engages him. His “bias of information” means he thinks that there could be a relationship with Iran, if the United States recognised the Islamic Revolution and subsequent government, and engaged with a people who “were devising alphabets and numbers when we were on our bellies in the caves”.

Snow’s idealism has clearly permeated his work. “I think people become journalists to change the world for the better”, he says. “That’s what motivates me”. This is in contrast to a young Jon Snow, whose ambition was to become a Tory MP. It was a gap year spent in Uganda that “radicalised” him, as he puts it. Although he jokingly says that he’s now just a “tawdry old creep”, his journey there quite remarkable. After his so-called radicalisation, he got himself kicked out of Liverpool University for participating in a student protest. He now recognises that it’s the best thing that ever happened to him as it led him to eventually become Channel 4’s main anchor in 1989.

Asked what he regards as the best thing he’s been a part of, he contemplates for a short while. “One of the most titanic things would be being at the gates of the prison as Nelson Mandela walked to freedom, and then interviewing him later. Fantastic. I mean amazing. Who could emerge from that and talk about forgiveness?”

Just as he has reported on a changing world, Snow also acknowledges the changing face of journalism. Social media has been conspicuous in its increasingly important role in giving impetus to popular movements.  Snow thinks that things are changing “both excitingly and dangerously. It’s very easy to get things wrong. A tweet which says that X has happened, and you find it hasn’t, is a tricky number.” As a religious user of twitter himself, he notes that it is rapidly maturing as a medium. “I now see it very much as leading people to water. More than anything I link people to articles that I’ve seen, and think are good.”

I ask him whether he thinks that, in contrast to the evident significance of free-flowing information in the developing world, the importance of the media is still tangible in the west, where freedom of speech is taken for granted. He deals with the question briefly — “I think it is a very significant cultural player” — before discussing the issue of the role that the media plays in going beyond reporting on issues, to actually influencing the way people think and act. “I’m not sure whether it shapes people’s understanding of how our society functions. I think this is the golden age for information. People are getting material from more diverse sources than has ever been the case before. That’s exciting. It’s much harder to brainwash the population than it’s ever been. In many ways the Arab Spring speaks to that, because they were brainwashed for years into thinking that Mubarak was a good man. He was an odious toad throughout.”

But he’s also aware that with an abundance of information comes uncertainty about the source. The fact that more established sources have proved themselves questionable — he points to Murdoch here — only further entrenches the concern.

The interview draws to a close, and Snow laments the fact that we aren’t getting an opportunity to talk to the rest of the cast (“what a disappointment!”). Our conversation has focused heavily on changes, from Snow’s changing ambitions and roles, to the changing face of journalism. But there are some things which aren’t about to change: student journalists don’t get access to Hollywood A-listers, and our TV screens will keep on beaming out images of those garish socks and ties.    

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