‘I have a theory’ wrote Hunter S. Thompson, ‘that the truth is never told during the 9-5 hours.’ One wonders what Thompson would have to say of the current situation the Western World finds itself in, stuck in the middle of the furious ‘post-truth’ maelstrom. For what it’s worth, though, Channel 4 News doesn’t get on the telly until 7PM, so must surely be given the benefit of the doubt. It’s curious that at the time it has become fashionable to decry the prevalence of ‘old white men’ in our society, of the many treasures to stand out in our broadcasting, notable for the genuine, heartfelt respect for them from great swathes of the British public, the majority are old, white and male.
Nobody embodies this better than Jon Snow. Not as terrifying a prospect as Jeremy Paxman, but as brutal an interviewer as ‘the weapons-grade sneer’ ever was. Never mentioned as a ‘national treasure’ before David Attenborough, but never not mentioned in the same breath. Not as poised or clipped as David Dimbleby, but far more imperious, and if nothing else, Victoria Richards ties have always been more exciting than Gresham Blake.
He is the University of Liverpool’s most famous alumnus, though the manner of his departure cast them in a very negative light. “They had me back a few years ago to speak”, he told me when I met him for the first time, at a Channel 4 News filming in Norwich during the referendum, before adding, with a wry smile, “they even gave me an honorary doctorate, all is forgiven!”
That was where I met him, in the chaotic aftermath of recording in Norwich Castle, and where he very kindly agreed to give me an interview for The Sphinx, and even agreed to a deeply unflattering selfie. Then Brexit happened. Then Turkey happened. And then Nice, and then, of course, Donald Trump. The delay, however, left me with the wonderful opportunity to re-read his autobiography, Shooting History, which reveals just how remarkable a life he’s really led, and available from all good booksto… Amazon. From VSO in Uganda as a teenager to returning, years later, to interview the brutal Idi Amin on multiple occasions, the title of his book does not do the breadth of his experiences justice. And he is still going strong.
On the train to London and ITN, I resolved that, if all else failed and I made a fool of myself in front of a national icon, I would at the very least get him to sign my copy. That would be the consolation if this, my first, massive foray into journalism, ended up going the way of Snow’s law degree.
In the foyer, I found myself lodged between a revolving door and a gaggle of teenagers on an open day. Rather flatteringly, the receptionist clearly thought me young enough to be one of them; certainly, she didn’t look at all convinced that this scruffy student-type could be here to see Jon Snow. Yet she dutifully ‘rang upstairs’, and had the news confirmed. “You ARE here to see Jon Snow!” she said, putting the phone down with a newfound enthusiasm. “He’s on his way down to get you.” She leant forward with an air of conspiracy. “He’s such a nice man, I love him!”
He really is a tall man. You see him walking towards you well ahead of time. “Benedict?” He offers his hand. “Jon. Shall we?” and with that, he leads me into the lift, and downwards towards a sort of canteen. Before we get there, though, the cheerful newsreader finds himself pleasantly taken aback to find he isn’t the tallest man in the slowly descending box. “Good Lord, how tall must you be?” he asks the giant Irishman whom, somehow, neither of us noticed until the lift doors closed.
“Seven foot” comes the slightly bashful response from this bearded titan who, I realise, is just as taken aback to suddenly be confronted with Jon Snow as we were to meet the Mountain’s body double.
Downstairs, Snow buys us coffee and a croissant each, and finds a table. I move the recording device closer to him on the table, to ensure I don’t miss a syllable of whatever he might say. He leans in closer.
“This is the BBC home service” he starts in his most avuncular home-counties accent. “This is Germany calling.”
Ice sufficiently broken, I clear my throat, and ask, as casually as I can, “so Jon, how’s it going?”
“You’ve caught me at a pretty grim moment; a combination of Brexit and Trump certainly is a wallop in the solar plexus. It’s been a very, very unusual year; there’s a global rebellion on, and it’s a rebellion against globalisation. It’s a wake up call to those of us students and workers alike that there are people who have had a very rough time as a result of globalisation, which we tend not to think about. There’s absolutely no question that for Trump read Brexit, for Brexit read Trump, they’re absolutely the same, and they involve a sense of alienation engendered by automation, digitalisation and a failure of the state to recognise what was going on, and a political situation in which the state is very unwilling to respond with state financed and driven measures, like, for example, massive investment in education, especially re-education for people coming out of bankrupt industries. I was in Detroit during the election, and there is a city where they were the greatest car manufacturers in the world, and I was standing in a factory that was 25 times the size of Goodison Park. And it’s a wake up call. I don’t know how the world will respond, but at the moment it’s responding by isolation.”
“Well,” I thought, “that was a nice, easy start.”
I shouldn’t have expected anything different, really. Here was a man who had spent his vast professional career getting people to talk. To be a journalist of any calibre, you need to have it in your repertoire to turn a monologue into a conversation, and vice-versa. Jon Snow has been in the game longer than almost anyone else. He knows the game better than I ever will. And Jon Snow, clearly, after years and years of night after night of getting other people to talk, had plenty to say. Who was I to deny him? This was what I’d come for, even if it would make for massive blocks of text to wade through later.
Did you ever have any sense of this unrest? Did you ever get a sense that this sort of resentment was bubbling under the surface, on this scale?
“Maybe not on the scale, but I certainly was aware of it. I mean, UKIP is a perfectly good signal. In many ways UKIP was ahead of its time; they were pre-Trump ‘Trumpists’, and spotted what was happening. But because of the anachronisms of our parliamentary system, they didn’t win even though they got 4 million votes. Even though Hilary got millions more votes than Trump, he’d worked out how to play to the electoral system, which UKIP never managed to! Anyway, there it is!”
Is Europe as a good vehicle for progress?
“Potentially, it could be.”
Your views have changed somewhat…
“I was anti-European! I voted against joining, I had come back from VSO in Uganda and I was concerned what was going to happen to trade with developing countries, even countries like New Zealand and Australia. I was mistaken, because in fact globalisation was underway. I missed that, and we needed to be part of it, and I’m now a passionate European…”
He pauses, suddenly looking a little tired, and not because it’s early in the morning.
“You know, I felt with Brexit that a part of my identity had been taken from me. I’m a Londoner, but living in Europe, and the thought that my children will not be able to go to 27 different countries to live, love, work any time they want, is devastating, because you know, modern technology enables you to do that, both to communicate, principally, but also to travel; high-speed rail under the channel is going to become virtually redundant!” he adds with a twitch of a smile that could easily be a grimace.
Do you think there’s any chance of it being reversed, or do you think that the cat is out of the bag? It’s a foregone conclusion, of course, but I feel I have to ask. This is a topic he is far from done with.
“I’m mystified by the referendum!”
Why it was called?
“Well, that was to try to patch up a hole in the Tory party, but I’m mystified by the fact, given that we have no written constitution, that an advisory vote has led to an absolute and adamant demand that we leave Europe, and we leave it now, and we leave it hard, [he drums his fist on the table] and that seems to me to be illogical. You know, the law is doing its best, Parliament is doing its best, but we’ve got… a crew in, who have an agenda.”
Are we being let down by the two main parties? I mean, especially given how Labour have responded…
“Certainly. For the first time in my lifetime, politics is in real trouble. But not only in this country: virtually in every country. I mean, Trump is a testament to a complete… no, in fact, Trump and Clinton, are a testament to a political system that has run out of steam. I mean, if you really cannot do any better than go dynastic, and go for a Clinton, or go out of politics altogether and go and find a relative lunatic businessman, who even businessmen don’t regard as especially good, let alone politicians…”
They’re the thoughts you often suspect the Jon Snows of this world hold, but are never allowed to reveal so openly. Of course, they are also the views so very many of us hold. There is no mistaking the tone of his voice: having witnessed all of this firsthand, he is completely exasperated.
Do you think the EU can survive?
“I think it’s possible the Euro may not survive, though it is hanging on in there. I think there was a mistake made during Mrs Thatcher’s time, which was the sort of panicked reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union: ‘Oh! We must lash them into the Common Market! Into the EU! And we must let them be full members!’ They didn’t need to do that. They should have given them associate membership and let them do what is logical in any club; sign up, work your passage, and eventually you become a full member. But to suddenly impose 27 members on an organisation built around 12 was not clever.”
His manner is not that of the television presenter we all know. He is different even to when I spoke to him after that show in Norwich. There is slightly less of the old man. For some time now, it has crossed my mind, when he stumbles on a line or misses a cue that age is catching up with him. But I noticed, that evening in front of the cameras several months earlier, a spring in his step, an energy, and a poise one suspects isn’t something one can ‘put on’ for the cameras. And now, sitting here, he hasn’t really tripped over a single sentence. This isn’t scripted, but there is, behind the weary expressions, steeliness in his eyes. Not unfriendly, but very, very assured.
Do you think that the way migration has been dealt with in the EU could have been handled better, given that it has provided a very convenient scapegoat for a lot of the anti-European sentiment?
He leans back, an eyebrow raised.
“I think you may be asking the wrong question.”
I laugh. What is the right one?
“I think you should be asking what should have been done about Syria.”
I was coming on to that.
“I think that pre-empts it. The problem with the Syrian situation was that, as soon as you get a wave of humanity moving across any continent, there will be others who will join it; once they join it, the whole thing is out of control, and you have what we have now. There should have been a UN intervention.”
Which was what the Turkish government asked for at the time.
“The Russians wouldn’t have sanctioned it, but I think we should have called their bluff, and sent it anyway, and said ‘you’re gonna have to attack us’. I’m not arguing for military intervention, but a humanitarian one in which – morning darling!” he calls cheerfully as a beaming woman walks past, “one in which safe havens were set up, and no-fly zones. So you could ask ‘was migration correctly handled?’ but I don’t think anyone had the wherewithal to deal with it correctly. Sure, it would have been nice to have correctly handled it, but I don’t think the possibility existed given the antecedence of what had happened.”
A pause, as I, awkwardly, realise I have lost my place in the notes I am hastily scribbling down, having been so engrossed in his answer. The anchorman smirks knowingly at how useless an interviewer I am proving.
Do you fear there is a threat to Europe’s eastern borders if the US scales back commitments to NATO?
“I think the West has responded very badly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that we should have considered Russia’s security, from the very outset. Anybody looking at a map, anybody looking at history, anybody looking at any aspect of ‘Mother Russia’. Take for example Crimea: Crimea’s Russian! Let’s just call a spade a spade!” He chuckles. “Almost immediately after the wall came down we should have said ‘right, there’s now a new situation’. The Russian’s accepted they’d lost the Cold War and had lost all those eastern European satellites: what a great moment to say ‘we’re not going to take all of it, in their hour of need, we’re going to give Ukraine what it needs, but give Crimea back to the Russians’. It was Russia until 1954 anyway. That was a stupid mistake.”
So it’s understandable, Russia’s attempts to reassert itself, its national identity?
“Well, I think it’s understandable they are where they are. I mean, they’re not the same threat they were in the Cold War, as much as people want to paint Putin as Stalin.”
I realise, looking at my notes, that my line of questioning has jumped horribly out of sync. I decide to plough on regardless.
Going back to the US election, the suggestion is that the Black Community didn’t come out and vote for Hilary Clinton in anywhere near the numbers that came out for Barack Obama, and on top of that the Hispanic community, many didn’t vote Democrat or didn’t vote at all. Would you say that the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner, that if they don’t select minority candidates they run this risk of perpetually being blindsided?
“I don’t think it’s a race thing, I actually think it’s a class thing.”
In terms of actually getting minority demographics out to vote?
“I think however well you get the minorities out to vote, if you’ve lost the Working Man and Woman, you’re in real trouble. I mean, the Blue-Collar worker used to be the absolute bedrock of the Democratic Party, and the Democrats have now become the elitist party of America. Very nice people, but they are going to have to completely rethink themselves.”
Should Hillary have adopted Bill’s old ‘it’s the economy stupid’ slogan?
“Hillary shouldn’t have run at all.”
He almost spits the words. The animation of talking Russia has vanished. He looks thoroughly disgusted.
Ok, but as she did, should she have run on the economy, rather than ‘nasty-nasty’ Donald Trump?
His eyes are steely. “No, she shouldn’t have run at all.”
You’re going to stick with that?
The beginnings of another smirk appear. “I think if Biden had run he’d have won, he was a Rustbelt politician, he wavered, and that was a bad thing. I think he would have won.”
Do you think Bernie would have won?
He pauses, and looks into the middle distance, really giving his answer some thought.
“No… I don’t think Bernie would have won. I think, given the present circumstances, Hillary had demonised him to the point that it was amazing that he did as well as he did.”
She did the same thing with Obama, of course, in 2008.
“Yeah, I mean, I think we can safely say that Hilary Clinton was not… well, she was cold, charmless; perfectly capable I accept, but very hawkish on Israel. There were plenty of reasons to disqualify her.”
Almost by magic, we are somehow back on topic, onto something anyone who has ever watched Channel 4 News knows is something close to their collective hearts.
It’s funny that you mention Israel because that’s the next thing. Something that’s really stood out for me was your coverage of Gaza. Can you describe what that was like?
“The majority of the population of Gaza is under 20. Any conflict is bound to involve children, it was very, very, very nasty, and a horrible, horrible thing to behold. And after all, basically, in common with the occupied territories, the Israeli siege and occupation of Palestine are illegal, and unfortunately, it seems to be caught saying that is to be regarded as anti-Semitic, and that’s a clever ruse, as no one wants to be an anti-Semite. I’m not, and I’m fortunate enough as a reporter to have been to Israel in much sunnier times, when kibbutz was thriving, and the kibbutz was an amazing experience. There’s something pioneering and wonderful about the idea of Israel; what’s wrong with it is that it expanded into territories that it has no right to be in, which belong to somebody else. Of course, that sets up an instant international problem in which you become demonised.”
What impact will Donald Trump have on that process?
“Well as far as I understand it he’s never said the words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’; all of his references have been to Israel. In fairness, neither candidate would have been any good, but you know, Europe’s had some impact on Israel, they have called a spade a spade. But the real clout comes from the United States.”
I feel it only right to say, now, that the next part of the interview was heavily self-indulgent. On my gap year, I had travelled to Kenya to teach English, and I knew from his book that Snow had done a similar thing, in neighbouring Uganda, a country that had also been the subject of some of his more interesting forays into recording international affairs. But as fascinating as it was to me, I understand the idea of two ex-public schoolboys reminiscing about their ‘gap yahs’ in East Africa Isn’t for everyone, so feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two.
Tell me about your time teaching in Uganda?
“The Land of Freedom?”
During my gap year I went to Kenya to teach, you see.
“Oh did you? Well, I was there pre-Amin, although he was the commander of the armed forces. It’s a very, very beautiful country, and a very verdant country, where you could stick a walking stick in the ground and it would bear fruit the next year. I had never been on a plane, I’d never been out of England. I’d never even been to Scotland; my father said all it did there was rain all the time, so we didn’t go there. It’s hard to imagine now, but in those days, when I was a kid, it wasn’t axiomatic that you went to Spain or anything like that. You went to the seaside, and that’s what we did. So at 18, to fly, never having flown before, to a country as far away as that and as different as that was a massive thing, and the school that I taught in was many miles from any metropolis of any sort, on the banks of the Nile. Fifteen miles from the nearest post box on a mud road, no telephone, no means of communication, except blue Aerograms that used to come from Mummy and Daddy once a week. I would cycle to the post office to get my mail. I had a sort of girlfriend as well; hoped she would write, she didn’t often, but there we are! But it was a life-changing experience, and it radicalised me: I think before then I was vaguely interested in becoming a Tory MP! But I began to realise the kids you were teaching were absolutely… I mean, there were 70 of them in one class, so that was hard work; they had no books but all the brains you could ever need, and I just felt the injustice and inequity.”
I found the exact same. The thing that stood out for me was that they all spoke about four languages, English, French, Swahili, a lot of them spoke Arabic.
“African linguistic capacity is incredible.”
The resources we have in this country and how underutilised they are, there… there is a thirst and drive, they would be so much further ahead if they had our opportunities. It opens your eyes.
“It does. I think that’s what East Africa does to you, and I think that’s why I got thrown out of Liverpool. I arrived, there was the Biafra war, and we campaigned, wrongly I think now, for an independent Biafra. But there we are, we were wrong about a lot of things. I was wrong about Europe and wrong about Biafra. I’m often wrong, even to this day. But then when the apartheid thing really flared up, we really got aboard it. I think I was fuelled by having lived in Uganda and it took off, and ended my association with Liverpool University… for a time of course, they have now apologised and given me a doctorate!”
He laughs delightedly.
Talking about apartheid, what are your impressions of the Rhodes must fall campaign?
“It’s no longer about Rhodes; it’s about fees, it’s about… it’s basically a youth rebellion, every campus is affected. I went to an event at the British Museum the other day and sat next to the Vice-Chancellor of Johannesburg University, his university had been shut for six weeks! Libraries have been burned, books burned, it’s very underreported, and if we hadn’t all been concentrating on Trump, we’d have been down there at the time. I think South Africa… it’s very difficult. What is sad is that as in so many other countries liberated from British rule, the immediate response is to line pockets. Zuma is a very, very corrupt man, surrounded by very, very corrupt, tribally dominant Zulu operatives, and they are a grave disservice to South Africa. It’s amazing that they’ve managed to leave so many of the apartheid structures in place in terms of the commercial life of the country, line their own pockets, and do such a bad job.”
What are your thoughts generally on the debate over university culture in this country? The sort of battle between some sort of libertarian ‘free speech at all costs’ idea and the more authoritarian ‘progressive’ desire for censorship?
“You mean banning various people from coming to campus to address them?”
Yes, in Liverpool for example, ‘pro-life’ speakers have caused plenty of controversy. Do you think it has become more pronounced?
“I think it has always existed.”
Freedom of speech is why you were rusticated!
“Yes! I don’t know whether it’s worse but I think one should protect free speech at all costs. I mean, I’m not pro-life by any means! But I would defend their right to be pro-life. It’s not a crime.”
Do you think banning things because they might offend or harm sensibilities, is damaging?
“I read bits and pieces. I’m aware that there are authoritarian and repressive forces in play who support themselves as left-wing radicalism, but to be honest free speech is a complete fundamental, left or right, it’s inexcusable to prevent it.”
We are getting close to the end, and I realise, suddenly, that I have yet to talk to him seriously about the great reason for his granting me an interview. Sloppy journalism.
What are your standout memories of Liverpool?
“My standout memories are of the rock music! I mean, the union had just stunning concerts: The Who, Bowie came…”
They still have a few old black and white photographs of them tucked away, where the public can’t really see!
“It was absolutely staggering who came. The university circuit was fantastically fertile. They were really the only venues that were big enough, because nobody did football grounds then. They did campuses, they were heady days! Eric Clapton, all these heroes, strutted their stuff on our stage! That was big. But you know, just being at university is an absolutely incredible experience, especially if you’d only been to a single sex school like me, you…”
He trails off, thinking hard.
“…it’s a complete revolution. And there were so many things you could do! Be politically active, musically active, play sport… I mean, I didn’t bother to do that but you could! You could protest!’ He laughs again, adding ‘well, within reason… but the fact that it was Liverpool was unbelievably important. I chose Liverpool because it was a northern industrial city and I didn’t think I’d ever live in one again, and I was absolutely right. Even then it was perfectly obvious to me that people would end up living in London.”
I went because I couldn’t bear the idea of going to university full of people I’d been at school with, frankly.
He laughs again. “Yes. There wasn’t anyone from my school! When I came here to ITN, the editor of the day asked ‘so tell me, what college were you at?” and I said I wasn’t at any college, I was at Liverpool, and he said “Oh, I didn’t know they had a university there!” He was so shocked he forgot to ask me what my degree was! I think if he’d heard I didn’t have one he might have thought twice about hiring me! I have very, very happy memories, lots of camaraderie, lots of things to bind us together. I mean the authorities back then were real ‘head in the sand’ people. There was no dialogue, nothing. You’re really lucky now you’ve got Janet Beer, she’s really… well, I was chancellor at Oxford Brookes when she was VC there, she’s very, very good.
“Nice plug for the VC there”, I thought.
Where did you live?
“I was in Derby Hall. Does it exist anymore?”
I was there as well!
“Have they knocked it down? I’d have thought they’d keep it!”
They’ve kept one of the old buildings.
“Well anyway, I was in Derby Hall, and then I lived in Mount Street. Which nowadays is amazingly posh, but in those days I lived there quite cheaply, opposite the college of art as it was then. Adrian Henry, the poet, lived two doors up. It was a really bohemian and interesting street.”
Yeah you couldn’t live there now! Where did you hang out? Did you have any favourite bars or pubs?
…Did you ever go to the Blue Angel, Mr Snow?
Another laugh. “No! But we went often to the one on campus… what’s it called again?”
The Augustus John?
“Yeah! We were there all the time… it’s probably not cool now! The beer was cheap, and it was right by the Union. The Union was very active, we had great debates and they’d be packed!”
Nothing like that there now.
“We would debate the great issues of the time!”
That’s how university is supposed to be, but I think there’s a bit of apathy about that sort of thing now…
I think a lot of people go to university now as just something to do. A lot go for the party atmosphere, and even if they do have strong opinions, its very much a minority that get involved in politics, debating, Model UN, that sort of thing. It’s why student journalism struggles; it’s a bugger to get people interested and committed to these things. Sticking your head above the parapet at these places is different to if you’re at Oxbridge, where that’s almost expected of you, else what are you doing here? It’s a different culture. The old debating chamber is now the entrance hall to the Guild of Students.
At this, he looks genuinely surprised.
“It was a great debating chamber, there were wonderful galleries either side, from where people shouted and yelled!” He raises his arms and clenches his fists at this, the memories still clear in his mind. “We got really good people to come and speak, too!”
Fancy coming to speak?
He laughs again at the hopeful request. “Oh no, no, I’ve already done it! I think now I’ve said quite enough!”
With that, the interview is over. We get up from the table, and he walks me over to the lift.
“Busy day lined up?” I ask, eyebrows raised. To this, he winks, and replies “Oh possibly, you never know!” Then, like the blasted millennial I am, I pap him for my Snapchat story. We shake hands, and off he strolls. I wander out into the street, and begin walking in the vague direction of the British Museum, well aware that the previous half an hour or so was, probably, going to end up being the high point in my journalism career. “What a way to peak early, though!” I think to myself, “no scoops, no exclusives, no frontline reporting for you, Ben. But you got to meet Jon Snow, and sat within inches of one of his famous ties without trying to steal it, so this could probably be considered a win.”
“Plus” I muse to myself later, meandering through the Assyrian Gallery of the Museum, running down the clock until my train, “you got him to sign your copy of his book, so that’s pretty cool.”
Except, of course, he hadn’t signed it. I hadn’t mentioned it to him. I’d forgotten all about it. It had never left my bag.
I doubt someone like, say, Jon Snow would ever forget such an important part of his brief. Some journalist I’m turning out to be.