Jon Snow: the making of a national treasure

owards the end of a distinguished on-screen career, newsreaders can expect to get a CBE, OBE, or even a ‘K’ if they are lucky.

Jon Snow, who has presented Channel 4 News for 22 years, has instead become a national treasure. He would in any case refuse most of the official baubles offered; though his peers have honoured him with four Royal Television Society Awards and a Bafta (below).

Why has Snow been elevated to this exalted and unelected position? Primarily because he is trusted by many for his search for the truth and the sheer humanity he exudes. He demonstrated those qualities in a Coventry Conversation last week.

Snow has never lost the reporter in him – wanting to find out, tell and, yes, make mischief. Put him in any situation and he starts to tell stories.

British news programmes, following the US example, have taken to parachuting their anchors to the scene of big stories to host the show from there. So far this year, Snow has been seen in South Africa, Egypt, India and, most recently, Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. He was on a plane right away, via Shanghai, to Sendai, where he broadcast in the middle of the night from the carnage, using the lights from a car.

Writes John Mair…


“The biggest challenge with reporting the tsunami was the size of it,” he told his Coventry audience. Normally, anchors abroad are too grand to dirty their hands doing reporter packages. Not Snow: for the five or six days he was in Japan, he delivered quality packages for Channel 4 News, with the words sparing but carefully chosen to convey the grim mood of the time and place: “You have to write with respect for the dead – the use of words is the only way to convey this.”

Snow is the classic reporter, but one for the television age. James Cameron would recognise him as a kindred spirit. This is how Snow described his reporter role: “One person, one report, one cameraman – one pair of eyes. We were experiencing it ourselves – we didn’t just slash in other information. Journalism is one person, the reporter, communicating with another person, the audience. The individual journalist can voyage into terrible tragedies and witness people like this. They have nothing left of life, or aspects of their lives.”

He rails against what he calls “sausage-machine journalism” – a weakness of London newsrooms whose packages are assembled from a potpourri of sources, with the reporter becoming a mere voice. “There’s something different about being able to stand there amongst the action and report,” he says. “Any shots I transmitted were shots by me and my cameraman.”

News executives should learn from Snow and take courage to free their anchors from the studio more often. Listen to John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when he is allowed on the road. Quality!

This is the same Jon Snow who for 35 years has been telling stories from all over the world for LBC, ITN and now Channel 4 News. He has never lost his humanity, as have too many other older hacks. Some see him as biased to the left-of-centre. The man he succeeded as Presenter of Channel 4 News, Peter Sissons, was very judgmental in his recent memoirs:

“[Snow] maintains a high standard of impartiality but there are lapses which let him and the programme down… a presenter parading his politics could make the programme vulnerable to political opponents.”

Snow gave this short shrift in Coventry. He never sees a contradiction in a reporter or presenter having a position. Those colourful ties and socks are merely a disguise for a very sharp journalistic mind.

Like all great journalists, Snow always wants to connect, and is happy to give back freely. I helped make him the visiting Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Coventry two years ago. Since then, he has been a regular visitor, sharing his insights and inspiring students about the craft they are trying to learn. He always has time for an individual word and is always willing to give out his email address if they want to follow up.

Yet this is a man without a degree. He was thrown out of Liverpool University for political activity four decades ago. This year, they are burying the hatchet and awarding him an honorary degree.

John Mair founded and produces the Coventry Conversations. You can hear podcasts of Jon Snow and others at www.coventry.ac.uk/itunesU.

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