Jon Snow, synonymous with Channel 4 News for decades, is leaving. Caitlin Danaher discovers what he has enjoyed the most.
Speak to anyone who has worked in the same post for 32 years and you might find them struggling to muster much gusto. Yet Jon Snow still speaks of his daily routine at Channel 4 News with the boyish enthusiasm of one who has just landed their dream job.
“It’s fantastic. It’s the best programme you could ever work on,” he says of the news bulletin he has helmed since 1989. “You don’t have to be in until 9:00am – I mean, unless you’re abroad. But then you toil. The climax is at a very climactic part of the day, when most people have got home, at 7:00pm. It’s all over by 8:00pm, and you’re back home in time for supper. Actually, it’s the perfect day.”
At the end of December, Snow will present his last Channel 4 News, having spent 45 years working for its producer, ITN. Over his career he has reported from the front lines on some of the world’s biggest stories: the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in Afghanistan. Not one to be confined to a studio, he’s been stopped by a death squad in El Salvador, visited war-torn hospitals in Gaza and nearly drowned in a boat alongside Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s. The highlight of his reign at ITN? “Survival,” he nods.
As the titan of broadcast journalism sits down beside me in the café at ITN’s Gray’s Inn Road HQ, I admit that I’ve been suffering from pre-interview nerves. At 74, Snow is 50 years my senior. As for his heavyweight status, well, his response to my confession of nerves is that he, too, felt wobbly before interviewing Nelson Mandela. It’s reassuring, then, that Snow reveals he “knew nothing about television at all” when he was taken on by ITN in 1976. He began his media career three years earlier at LBC Radio, soon after its launch.
Back then, says Snow, more than half the job of being a television news journalist was mastering the technology: shooting on film two inches wide, spending three hours processing it, editing by hand with a razor blade. “It was a very, very slow, cumbersome process. In contrast with today, when you can have a bomb explosion in the City, [you can] cycle down there to beat all the traffic jams and film it, come back and get on air in minutes,” he says. “Of course, it did give you time to think about the story. Now that it’s so fast, almost instant, sometimes it’s less easy to get hold of all the facts.”
Despite his analogue beginnings, Snow is by no means a digital dinosaur. He prefers to read his papers (the FT, The Guardian and The Times) online and is also very active on Twitter. “The digital age is an absolute boon to journalism. I think it has improved us all,” he enthuses. “It has been a revolution and I’ve been on deck for it.”
While traditional news outlets grapple with the impact of social media, Snow remains confident that traditional TV news will survive: “I don’t think everyone believes everything they see on the social network. I mean, there’s a danger that an awful lot of people do, but I think you need someone who, at the end of the day, will provide some authoritative source to check that all this stuff you’ve read online is true. So, I don’t think we’ll ever go out of business because social media has usurped us.
“Interestingly, our audience figures have not really changed in this period of vast expansion for social media,” Snow continues. “The biggest threat [to journalism] is that people will come to believe in some way that it can all be done without a journalist. That would be very, very worrying indeed.
“I do think you need someone who can process what’s going on, who knows how to check things, contact people, cross contact other people to check that what you’ve been told is true. It’s not a straightforward trade.”
With the departure of Sky’s erstwhile political editor, Adam Boulton, at the end of the year, and Andrew Marr leaving the BBC, it’s undeniable that change is afoot in the world of television journalism. Some believe the age of social media has brought about the death of the “voice of God” TV news anchor. Yet the turbulence of the past two years has shown that the relationship between an authoritative news presenter and their audience has never been more valued.
"The digital age is an absolute boon to journalism. It has improved us all"
What sort of relationship does Snow have with his audience? “Quite a trusting relationship, and I hope I’ve honoured that trust,” he says. “I hope that I am a seeker after truth, and that I represent a mouthpiece of a very dependable organisation.”
Indeed, many have written to Snow to say that he and his fellow Channel 4 News presenters have become part of the family. “They sit down for a bit of supper or to watch telly at 7:00pm and we’re always there,” he says. “The viewer can depend on the fact that we will be there at that particular time – you sustain a relationship.”
With characteristic self-deprecation, he adds: “People have even written to me saying they’ll miss me. That’s a hard thing to believe, isn’t it?” It is not hard to believe at all: alongside the flamboyant ties and socks, Snow stands out as a journalist because of his displays of humanity. When reporting on the Grenfell Tower fire, a story he describes as “one of the most distressing stories that I’ve worked on domestically”, his evident emotion endeared him to viewers rather than alienating them.
By contrast with his contemporaries, the “rottweiler” John Humphrys or the “bullish” Andrew Neil, Snow’s interview style has been described as “tenacious” and “firm” but also “twinkly” and “mischievous”. He even managed to charm the Iron Lady.
“I got on really well with her in a funny sort of way,” he reveals. “Ideologically, she thought I must be quite suspect, but I think she liked me, in fact.” In his office, a picture hangs over his desk of Thatcher alongside a young Jon Snow, which he’s captioned “Maggie and me”.
Snow will be the first to admit that, as a public-school-educated white man, he’s not exactly the picture of cultural diversity that Channel 4 likes to promote. Praising the diversity of his news team, he says, “We’re certainly not all the same, by any means. I’m probably the nobbiest. I’m the poshest.”
Gesturing to Cathy Newman as she exits the building, he jokes, “There goes one of my co-presenters, you should ask them what they think.... ‘He’s an absolute arsehole!’”
Is he part of the Establishment? “If I am, I’m part of the anti-Establishment Establishment,” he responds with a quick smile. “I mean, I should think I probably am part of the Establishment. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not critical of the Establishment or keen to diversify and make us all as representative of the people we serve as you possibly can be.”
With the threat of privatisation hanging over the broadcaster, Snow fears that the economic demands of Channel 4 News would be unjustifiable in the eyes of a commercial owner if one were to acquire Channel 4. “The very considerable team and the regular commitment that Channel 4 News represents would be seen as uneconomic in the private sector. So, I would worry for it,” he says. “I just don’t see that they would a) think it was worthwhile and b) think that it was the way to generate popularity… in the nicest possible way.”
A staunch defender of the “wonderful institution” that is the BBC, Snow believes that any government looking to inflict major changes on it does so at its peril. “I think we’re incredibly lucky to have the BBC,” he says. “If there was ever a threat from anyone to the BBC, there’d be a lot of trouble with the voters.”
Snow believes the diversity allowed by two state-owned public service broadcasters is crucial for guaranteeing truth. “I think the current mix is pretty damn good. And I don’t know any other country that has as good a mix as we have. We should certainly preserve it,” he says.
"Use your own qualities to understand the world you’re reporting on"
As for the potential “Foxification” of British news that the arrival of GB News might signal, Snow isn’t losing any sleep over it. “I’ve not seen GB News. I haven’t met anybody who ever has,” he says. “I don’t lie in bed at night worrying about GB News. I think probably GB News worries itself about the future of GB News.”
While he may be stepping back from his duties on Channel 4 News, Snow is by no means retiring. Alongside writing another book, the journalist hopes to make some documentaries looking at inequality for the channel.
“I don’t regard myself as retiring at all. I’m still locked into Channel 4 for one more year – I guess to ensure that I didn’t go off and work for someone else,” he says with a wry smile. “But, yes, I’m still part of the Channel 4 furniture. I might even try to challenge Bake Off for an audience.”
Snow is a keen Bake Off fan: ‘Not because I’m interested in cooking, but because I’m actually interested in what it reveals about human beings. You find yourself laughing quite a lot, especially when things go wrong.”
Would he ever take part in the show? “I think it’d be an unwise move. If I’m reasonably good as a hack, I would definitely be terrible as a cook,” he jokes.
As a “reasonably good hack”, the advice he offers to young journalists is this: “Stay original, be yourself. Don’t desert yourself. Use your own qualities to understand the world you’re reporting on, because you’ve got lots of qualities.”
Snow has said that, to be a journalist, you have to be an optimist. In a year that has seen the pandemic rage on, a climate crisis that appears insurmountable and the refugee crisis worsening, is he still an optimist? “I am, absolutely, 100%. Definitely. People are really good, fundamentally,” he affirms. “I think the pandemic may leave people thinking more about the people they live among – I hope so.”
As more than three decades in front of the camera at Channel 4 News draw to a close, what will he miss most? “I think it’s that community, not the product, not the time, not the diary, but the people. And I’ve never worked in a place where there are more rewarding people to be among,” he says. “It’s a family, and great-grandpa is about to step off.”
Picture: British journalist and presenter Jon Snow photographed at the Royal Festival Hall Thursday, 23 January 2014 (Credit: Rebecca Reid)