Living History: Jon Snow on his Life and Career

One of the UK’s most respected television journalists and the longest running presenter of Channel 4 News, Jon Snow spoke to the Hungerford Historical Association on Thursday 19 October 2017 about his life and career.

Jon kindly gave me to permission to video so please see below his fascinating talk which includes his chequered academic career, the incredible experience of witnessing Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the challenge, as a journalist, of trying to address who our real allies are, the reason why the Grenfell Tower tragedy affected him so deeply and the importance of having a diverse life outside of journalism.

Here is a transcription of the interesting Q&A session that followed.

Question: What do you think about twitter? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

Answer: Well I think it’s good, bad and indifferent. I enjoy it but I’ve been taking a Twitter holiday for the last few months but I’m usually very active on it. It’s useful in terms of journalism because I think that you get a whiff of something happening. But you can’t trust it. You then have to check and see if what you’re looking at is true.

It’s very good also for linking people to things that are worth, perhaps, picking up on online. For example, you might have an article in the New York Review of Books which you wouldn’t necessarily normally get hold of. There’s a very good story in Sweden for example in that magazine about four generals who are trying to contain Trump and losing the battle. It’s a very good article.

The problem with Twitter is that people follow whom they want to follow and so get all their own beliefs consolidated. The tweets coming in are from people who tend to confirm their own point of view. It’s a natural human instinct isn’t it?  Although I admit I do follow Donald Trump – that’s not because I like him, it’s because I feel I have to know what he is saying.

The great tragedy with all this Trump news, and all the Brexit news too, is that it’s hogging time that should be spent on other things in news bulletins and in newspapers.

Question: Is news more about entertainment now, do you think, than actual news?

Answer: I don’t know, because news is evolving. The methods of picking up news are changing all the time. I am a great radio man, I listen to Radio 4 a lot in the mornings and I pick up most of my information at the beginning of the day. And then of course there is Facebook and Twitter, which isn’t news but it’s a hint of the news.

Is it entertainment? I think it’s always had an element of entertainment. You’re probably too young to remember Reggie Bosanquet who had a wig, a very bad fitting sort one. And he also drank a lot. I remember passing his dressing room when the makeup artist was tugging at the aforementioned thing on his head, trying to lift it up above his eyebrows. So there was entertainment then too. I think there always has been. In fact, there used to be a funny story, like a cat stuck up a tree, that would end the news so people would go to bed with a smile on their face. I think it’s much the same as its always been but there’s more of it, and there’s probably more than we really want to know.

Question: How difficult is it to emotionally control yourself when you’re reporting live?  I did see the Grenfell coverage. It was very difficult, I could see it was straining all three of you. How difficult is that to control?

Answer: I think that, live, it is very difficult and fortunately it doesn’t happen too often. But to be close to a tragedy, the whole environment is utterly shocking. And then the grief that comes from the people that have survived and the knowledge of the people who died. And I had a personal connection, as I knew Firdaws Hashim, the remarkable 12 year old girl whom I selected to receive an award from Bill Gates at a debating competition just two months before she died in the tower fire.

You do get emotionally involved, but I try to put the emotions to some practical use. One interview I found really difficult to remain composed throughout was with the young man Farhad who carried his mother from the top floor  of Grenfell Tower right the way down. He spotted an air pocket on the way down which saved their lives. They laid there in the pocket and drank in as much air as they possibly could before continuing down. The way he described his hand feeling his way down and finding the chest of the fireman coming up was an amazing moment.

I spent a great deal of time with Farhad and his mother Flora and discovered that Farhad was a mechanical engineer at Kingston University. I asked him what he really wanted to do and he said to work either in the motor or the aeronautical industries. I suddenly remembered we had interviewed the week before the head of one of the biggest motoring organisations anywhere in Europe so I just had to write to him. It makes me emotional now as I can’t believe what happened. The CEO wrote back an amazing, sensitive letter, in which he said, first of all we’ve got to recognise that Farhad has got to look after his mother, so, that will take time, and he’s got to recover himself. And secondly, that he has to relocate to somewhere else in Britain if he’s going to be part of what I have in mind for him, which is that he will come into our organisation and have three months of evaluation to determine what he wants to do. He will then be posted to what he wants to do and he can work and there will be a job at the end of it.

This was incredible – the chief executive of one of the biggest motor industries in Europe has bothered to think his way through how to deal with my request to take on this emotionally wounded young man. Now they’ve assigned someone who’s going to look after him because he’s definitely not ready yet. It would probably be in the New Year: they don’t mind, they’ll make sure it works. I think that speaks volumes of how valuable the journalist can be and the value of the human spirit that resides within people like that remarkable chief executive.

So yes, you do get emotionally involved but you have to channel it into trying to do something about what it is you’re dealing with. The survivors of tragedy are remarkable people and so are the people who are trying to bring them through. I don’t think you can say it’s the public authorities that are leading the way, it is ordinary men and women.

Question: Peter Dennis wrote a book called ‘How to Get Rich’, didn’t quite work for me but it was very entertaining, and he quoted the saying ‘assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups’. I’ve been watching Ken Bone’s series on Vietnam, when it was clear that the American government were talking out of the back of their heads and hiding everything from the people. Does that still go on in today’s news media do you think?

Answer: That’s a very good question. I lived in America myself and was a Washington correspondent for four years. It’ss an intoxicating experience to live and work in America, in certain places. I covered the Trump campaign this last year and it took me to an America I’d never been to before, even though I’d lived in the United States for close to four years. I met the Americans I’d never met, and they  represent a very large swathe of America, which is not to be found in New York or in DC or Miami but more like North Carolina, South Dakota and Alabama. I love America, I could live there for the rest of my life but it’s a dysfunctional society. There’s no question that the overhang of slavery still hasn’t been combated and there is an absence of a welfare state, or at least a relative adsence. Obamacare was a great start but it’s not comprehensive and of course Trump is doing all he can to smash it up.

In truth America, hasn’t won a war since the WWII so it’s very hard to see where their military ability really succeeded. Maybe they played a critical role in disposing of IS, but things never end cleanly. I think the huddled mass of people needing to escape the troubles and tribulations of Europe, coupled with the ingress of slavery and the rest of it, have made quite a complex society. I think in Trump we are seeing someone who has connected with people who despaired of change. And are we going that same way? I don’t think so, no. But I think we’re going through a very difficult and very dividing time ourselves and who knows how it will end.

I haven’t answered your question, which was a very sophisticated question, but I’m not a very sophisticated person. Maybe you can answer it.

Question: Do you think there’s an absence of news analysis bearing in mind the contrast of news headlines about Saudi Arabia?

Answer: I think it is true  – we’re so capable of retrieving superficial information and dishing it out that there’s never any room for anything more. One of the good things about Channel 4 News is that there’s breathing space and you can, if you want, devote a quarter of an hour to one subject if necessary, with interviews and the rest of it. In the end, though, I don’t think we analyse things enough. And who are we to analyse them? We need to turn to people who’ve studied these things for a lifetime. You sometimes hear it on radio, but very little on TV. It’s a challenge,  an endless challenge to try to do justice to what’s happening in the world around us.

Question: We’ve all seen some terrible pictures of the Rohingyas who are undergoing the most terrible persecution in Burma. But the western world, the world in general seems to be paying no real attention to it or forcing the Burmese government to stop what they’re doing. Have you any inside knowledge to comment on that?

Answer: I must admit that Burma is a country I’ve not been to. But that doesn’t in any way reduce what I’m fully aware of, which is that it has been condemned by the UN as ethnic cleansing by Burmese nationalists. Sadly Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of one and appears herself to be one herself. She’s in a very difficult position because she doesn’t really run the country. Nonetheless she could have used her moral authority to say more than she has. In that she hasn’t, I think you have to conclude that she doesn’t feel too strongly about it.

It’s an absolute tragedy – half a million of Rohingyans have fled into Bangladesh, a poor country which has enormous problems of its own. It’s a lovely place, I went there last year for the first time. It is the country in the world that is at most risk from global warming – which Donald Trump doesn’t believe in – and it’s awful that they’re trying to wrestle with this as well. I know a lot of aid agencies are there and are doing as much as they can but the trouble is  that the Burmese have torched absolutely everything the Rohingyans ever had so any plan of getting them back home is not going to happen. Given that Bangladesh is already bursting at the seams with 150 million people, in a place much smaller than England, this is a huge problem.

I don’t have any sort of answers, except that to keep awareness high is very important. It is the humanitarian crisis of our time.

Question: How do you choose what to report in the news? Are you influenced by ratings or by what you think are the most important stories?

Answer: Good question. I’ll give you an insight into how our day works. We have a couple of people on duty from about half past six in the morning, raking through all the news feeds and Reuters to see what’s happened overnight. And there’s quite a lot of planning the previous day on things that are moving, deploying people to be in the right place and that sort of thing.

And then at half past one, most of the reporters, presenters and producers all sit down together in a very democratic sort of sofa quadrangle and  for half an hour we rake through what we think are the most important things. A sort of consensus does start to develop.

We can’t cover everything but it’s quite a fertile sort of discussion. There’s no hierarchy, although it is the editor at the end who has the say. But you do have a very healthy discussion, after which you get a reasonable picture of what we feel should be covered. That sounds awfully wishy-washy but it works and I contrast it with my experience of other broadcasters where you literally just sit there and are told what was going to happen and then you go and do it. We don’t like to do that – we try to engage everybody in the project, however senior or junior.

Question: Do you have a lot of choice about how much you go abroad?

Answer: Well it depends what the circumstances are. If it’s a rushed thing, it’s either obvious you should go or you shouldn’t go. But you do get a bit of choice. I go less than I did – you know I’m about 105!

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If you have found this interesting, I recommend Jon’s autobiography Shooting History (which is available from Hungerford Bookshop) and following him on twitter or facebook

The next meeting of Hungerford Historical Association is 7,30pm Weds 22 Nov: “The Oldest Profession in Aldbourne? Warrening”– Alan Heasman

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