At times over the past three decades, viewers of Channel Four News probably made informed guesses about the personal views of the main presenter. Now, with Jon Snow retired from news presenting duties and unburdened by the legal requirement to observe “due impartiality”, they can find out from his new book exactly what he really thinks.
Some of his opinions will not come as a surprise to them: “From beginning to end, from top to bottom… Brexit has been a complete scandal.” “The Iraq War was fought so that we might continue our abuse of the atmosphere by bolstering the companies at the sharp end of the petrochemical business.” As Jon’s one-time producer, then editor, and eventually regulator, I was still surprised at this declaration: “It’s my belief that eventually there will come a true democracy – a society in which all the people, all the time, are represented. In which Britain is owned and run by its people.”
What readers of The State of Us won’t discover is how this ambition can best be achieved or how exactly a nation “owned and run by its people” would operate, previous versions of such a model having disappointed. But then, that’s not what Jon Snow does best. The reason his journalism has been an inspiration to many young people (when he once arrived unannounced in my lecture theatre at City University London, the students gasped in shock and admiration) is the breadth of his vision of a fairer society, rather than the mechanics to bring it about.
His commitment to help people in difficulty was further demonstrated in moments of personal bravery. Which other reporter would have swum across a waterway during the Iran-Iraq War to help rescue people on a stranded British ship? There was an early version of Snow’s “followers”, those who signed up for a daily Channel Four email called Snowmail, where he provided his perspective on the news of the day. Once Twitter began, he amassed 1.4million followers. So undoubtedly there is a supportive audience for his advocacy of a more equal society, for those at the margins of our society, for more diverse newsrooms, for freedom of the press, and for “an environment in which we can live and breathe”.
The central thread in this book is the symbolism Snow attaches to the Grenfell Tower fire, calling it “the essence of inequality horrifically exemplified”. He emphasises the emotional effect on him of discovering that a talented 12-year-old girl he met at a debating competition days before the fire had subsequently died in the tower. While some might analyse the underlying cause of the Grenfell fire as a failure at a national and local political level to enforce proper building regulation, Snow sees it as the rich inflicting “the most appalling suffering” on the poor.
This prompts a checklist of his own role in an unequal state: a “posh” upbringing as the son of a bishop, “growing up on the wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present-day society”, and his current financial comfort. Offsetting that are his early years as a volunteer teacher in Uganda and running a charity for the homeless in London. Here, it seems, he formed his world view as a child of the 1960s.
Much of the subsequent half century that he has witnessed and reported on so well appears to have confirmed that view. As an outspoken critic of its impacts, he never seemed to me to be that interested in how exactly capitalism worked. It was enough to conclude that it didn’t. Against that background, what might surprise Snow’s loyal followers are the many positive mentions in his book of Margaret Thatcher, “always a woman of commitment and conviction”.
He even credits her with a housing policy that for every council house that was sold, “you must build a replacement”. That apparent commitment by her will surprise many who could not find any such obligation in her Housing Act of 1980. As the only TV presenter to have interviewed every prime minister from James Callaghan to Boris Johnson, he enjoyed his encounters with Thatcher “hugely”, finding them “both combative and seductive”. He finds it “impossible” not to contrast her with Johnson, who “never struck me as a serious and professional politician”.