Interview: Jon Snow

By Louise Logan

As I speed through the doors of The Soho Hotel, a lady with a clipboard gives me a slightly alarmed look; ‘Disney channel?’ she asks. Though tempted to explore where answering in the affirmative may lead me, I tell her I’m not, and ask where the lifts are. She directs me to the right, and after much frantic bashing of the call button, I run into the lift, and press for the fourth floor. You see, I am (regrettably) not here for the Disney Channel. I have much more interesting, albeit less glittery, fish to fry, as I find myself in the miraculous position of being two floors away from an interview with Channel 4 News anchor and master of flamboyant ties, Jon Snow- and in the humiliating position of being late.

Snow has a small cameo role in Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus, and so, here I am, in the smallest room in the world with a handful of other student journalists, all squeezed into a couch and a few chairs, listening to a man I suspect we’ve all, as hopeful journalists, looked up to.  As often happens when I get nervous, I end up looking towards the floor, when Snow’s mythical neon pink socks catch my eye. Strangely, there’s something quite comforting about a man in bright pink socks, and so, after apologising for being late, I ask the question on everyone’s lips; how did a broadcast journalist end up in a Hollywood film?

‘I was rang up by somebody I know who works in film and she happened to be working for Ralph Fiennes who happened to be looking for a newscaster and she asked, ‘would you do it?’ and I said, ‘how can I possibly say no?’…I didn’t ask my employers in case they said no, but actually now they’re rather proud that I’m in it.’

When Snow unexpectedly pops up on the screen half an hour into the film, a slight ripple of laughter spreads through the audience; on screen, Snow is doing his day job, but instead of grilling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the Iranian leadership, he relays to the

Snow in action in Coriolanus

audience, iambic pentameter and all, that the exiled Roman general, Coriolanus, is descending upon Rome with the Volscian army. It sounds daft, but when you consider the dominant themes of Coriolanus, Snow’s involvement doesn’t seem so farfetched at all. The film deals with power and conflict, and despite being written centuries ago by old Bill, it is strikingly relevant to the current day. 2011 was a busy year for news- things seemed to be constantly happening, with the riots which spread through England in August, natural disasters, the phone hacking scandal, and the continuing Arab Spring, which saw uprisings across the Middle East. It was a year which showcased in incredible potential of people power, leading many to draw comparisons between scenes in the film and scenes played out on the news recently. When the people of Rome celebrate the exile of the hated Coriolanus in the film, the audience are reminded of familiar scenes of the Libyan people celebrating the death of Colonel Gaddafi on the streets of Tripoli. The film paints a vivid picture of a chaotic and changing world not unlike the one we find ourselves in today.

The journalist’s first venture into acting was not quite so glamorous, although arguably just as interesting;

‘My last role was as a woman- I was fifteen. The extraordinary thing is that in the interval, the audience found out Kennedy had been shot. I don’t know how they found out, because there were no mobiles, but somehow word came, and that completely detonated the whole thing. I realised then that I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to find out what was going on in the world- and really that moment was when I started to become conscious of the world outside.’

This led Snow to abandon his ambitions to become a Tory MP; an ambition which, he says, stemmed from a very ‘sheltered’ childhood, before a trip to Uganda which ‘completely radicalised’ him. He then began a law degree at Liverpool University, and was kicked out due to his participation in a student protest. He admits that at the time he regretted this;

‘I was absolutely poleaxed by it. I wasn’t very bright and I struggled to get there, so I really felt cut down and I thought ‘that’s the end.’’

He then began to work with the homeless before getting a job at ITN and becoming the anchor of Channel 4 News in 1989. He now describes his expulsion as ‘the best thing that could have happened to [him]’, adding that he ‘would have ended up a very tedious lawyer’. So, does his own history of student protesting make him empathize with those who have protested against the recent rise in fees and the ongoing education cuts?

 ‘I have seen some of the student protests as being relatively self-interested….I’m worried about student protests that are only about student issues- I’d like to see students becoming part of the community. Generally speaking, I’m in favour of student grants, and I think the Scottish model is a more defensible situation. I was sent down for a protest that wasn’t about students; it was about multiculturalism and fascism.’

Snow’s idealism seems to have stayed with him from his student days, and as the recent phone hacking scandals have led to many viewing journalism as a less than noble profession, it’s refreshing to meet a hack with good intentions;

‘Really, in the end I think people become journalists in order to change the world for the better, and that’s what motivates me.’

With the current economic, social, and political climate in Britain being less than rosy, and ‘making the world we live in a better place’ being top of the agenda, Snow is prompted to share his ideas on what we can expect from 2012, and explains that this will be a year in which ‘people power’ is once again crucial.

‘I don’t know how much of a role governments really can play – I think it’s up to us – do we want it to get worse or get better? If we want it to get better, we have to start connecting with our neighbourhoods, find out who actually lives next door…improve our own lives. I think communities are in trouble. I think the disconnection that the keyboard has led us to is something we need to address- I think we’re becoming more isolated even though we think we’re becoming more connected, so I think the challenge is for us, and if we get our lives right, the impact that government will have on them will be less.’

Snow’s concerns about the growing influence of technology are also relayed in Coriolanus. The film offers a glimpse into how the culture of technology is changing the face of journalism, with 24-hour rolling news reporting from the front line, bloody corpses filmed on smart phones, and Twitter breaking the news before any other source. Snow adds that the constant acceleration of technology has the potential to be both exciting, and dangerous. As a prolific ‘tweeter’, @jonsnowC4 adds that social media outlets such as Twitter are accelerating ‘both excitingly and dangerously. It’s very easy to get things wrong. A tweet that suggests X has happened, and you find out it hasn’t is tricky. Twitter in many ways is changing very fast. I see it as leading people to water. More than anything, I link people to articles that I’ve seen that I think are good.’ With the way we receive news rapidly changing, Snow describes this as ‘the golden age of information’, with the media having a greater influence on other aspects of daily life. Does he think this leaves public opinion open to influence?

‘I think [the media] is a very significant cultural player. I’m not sure whether it shapes people’s understanding of who we are or how society functions. People are getting material from more diverse sources than has ever been the case before, and that’s exciting. It’s much harder to brainwash the population than it’s ever been, and in many ways the Arab spring speaks to that, because they were brainwashed for years into thinking Mubarak was a good man – he was an odious toad, and throughout we all knew he was an odious toad…but they thought he was a wonderful father of the nation and all the rest of it, and generally speaking went along with it, so who were we to challenge him? He was the guy the Egyptians apparently voted for with 97.9%…’

As anyone who has seen any of Snow’s cut-throat interviews with Iranian diplomats knows, his main area of interest is the Middle East. Does he find it difficult to remain unbiased despite his enthusiasm?

‘It’s very difficult because obviously as a journalist you do become well versed in certain things- I mean I’m very interested in Iran, I was there during the revolution and I’ve been there every year ever since. When you meet someone who’s making very big decisions about Iran then I suppose my bias would come out, but it’s only a bias of information. I’m not saying Ahmadinejad’s the greatest man who ever lived, indeed I’m first to point out that there are many problems with the Iranian leadership, but it’s a very, very complex story, Iran.’

When asked if he feels he has to remain politically neutral when interviewing politicians, he explains that there is ‘no such thing as a neutral human being. You’ve got to try to be unbiased, and objective, if you can be, but I don’t think you can ever completely desert who you are. I mean, I’m very interested in human rights- I’m not going to deny them, and I’m not going to advocate that it’s a good idea to abuse them. It’s tricky.’

The interview begins to wind down, and Snow is prompted to share the highlights of his career in journalism;

‘I think if you wanted one of those titanic things it would be being at the gates of the prison as Nelson Mandela walked to freedom and interviewing him later. Fantastic- I mean amazing. Who could emerge from that and talk about forgiveness?’

With that, our time is up. Snow apologises for ‘going on a bit’ before asking who else I’m interviewing. He modestly apologises when I tell him he’s my only interviewee for the day- however, after listening to an account of a life even more colourful than his famous ties, I’m not so upset about not getting the Gerard Butler interview.if (document.currentScript) {