Broadcaster Jon Snow with event host Lady Val Corbett

A rare news man with a heart full of compassion

Jon Snow, one of the most recognisable faces in British television news broadcasting with 30 years hosting Channel 4’s main evening news programme, was the guest speaker at Lady Val’s women’s networking lunch on June 27th.

If I was expecting a hard-nosed, cynical news hack or jaded newsman, I could not have been more surprised. Not only was he a playful and amusing speaker, but he came over as a deeply sensitive, loyal, humble and caring man. 

What was it that caused him to open his speech with a very moving personal sharing of an incident in childhood about his mother? Was it the audience of all women that encouraged him to dig deep and reveal so much of himself? I don’t know but the anecdote about being told by his father that his mother suffered from alopecia seems to have had a profound effect on him as he acknowledged it as being a big event in his childhood. He has remained interested in the condition through his life, and disclosed how he reacted to the news about his mother. While his older brother aged ten merely laughed he burst into tears, which is not surprising when you are only six years old.

His early singing talent, guided by his musical mother, pointed towards a more artistic career but his father arranged for him to study law.  This career never got started after he was ejected from University for taking part in the anti-apartheid pro-Mandela student demonstrations in the 1960s. Moving on from being a ‘rebellious student’ he found himself steered to Lord Longford who was seeking someone to take over a Day Centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers in Soho.  At just age 23 he became the director. He had already served with the VSO organisation in Uganda so he must have developed some life skills to handle the many challenges thrown at him. He mentioned that experience of living in Uganda as a minority, one of only three white men in a black community, has had a lifelong impact on his sensitivity as a journalist. 

He gave the Day centre charity 6 months but it appears his loyalty and compassion held him there for 6 years .. he said it was so demanding, he did not think he could leave. And it appears he never did as he actually continued to be associated with this New Horizon day centre becoming the chair and remains a patron to this day, almost 50 years after stumbling into the organisation. It came over that Snow is not one to walk away from need. 

His route to becoming a broadcaster, which did not involve any ambition or planning, happened through the development of commercial radio when it was deemed that the BBC Radio needed to have competition. 

It was the early 70s and LBC was starting out. They were looking for someone to filter calls coming in for the night-time radio phone-ins.  Even though he had been educated as a teenager in North Yorkshire, he still retained his southern plummy accent so he was soon asked to read the news. In those early pioneer days of local radio he was then despatched out onto the streets to find the news. And so his illustrious media career began.

He worked with various news organisations and enjoyed the adventurous nature of the job with global travel. Rather like Forest Gump, he seems to have been a witness to several major moments in twentieth century history which he shared with us. He was in Rome, twice, while new Popes were elected in 1978. John Paul I was the Pope who reigned for just 34 days. Snow may not have managed to interview him in that short window of time but he did speak with his successor John Paul II, and conducted the Polish Pope’s first interview in English.

Snow shared, through his personal recollections, how he brought great sincerity and compassion to his news reporting. Standing outside the prison gates on the day that Nelson Mandela was released, he reported live for ITV. He said it was “An unbelievable experience .. huge crowds. Nobody knew what Mandela looked like”.   They were all working from a picture that was 27 years old. At last when Snow saw him, he simply stopped speaking and burst into tears, declaring it “such a moving moment.”

These are not the kind of stories you expect from a TV news journalist, such was the gentleness and insight we experienced from Jon Snow as he shared his life stories over lunch. When questioned about the leadership of today, and of course that question was asked in the light of the current Brexit Tory party leadership challenge, he reflected on past leaders he has had the privilege to meet. 

He interviewed Margaret Thatcher twenty times travelling everywhere with her overseas as diplomatic correspondent. He often waited long hours for his interview slot which sometimes came at 2am. Always polite and welcoming, Mrs Thatcher also managed to intimidate him at the same time. He might not have shared her politics but he admired her as a leader. “Thatcher had a tremendous tenacity, she knew who she was and the job that had to be done. She was intolerant of challengers … she provided certainty. With her you knew who was in charge and that she would do what she thought was the best thing, even if it was wrong. You would not have had feelings of being adrift like we have today.” 

Contrast this to his interviews with Prime Minister Theresa May, and he was somewhat surprised to find he was never invited to take a seat to speak with her while she remained seated …. his own sense of respectful behaviour prevented him from just taking a seat but the PM’s aide would eventually make a gesture for him to sit. There would follow an “unspeakably unrewarding” interview that was hardly worth broadcasting. What an interesting peak into history and two different leadership styles and individual women. 

He recounted another behind the scenes political vignette when he was standing behind Mrs Thatcher at the door of Number Ten, on the day she became Prime Minister. He was looking over her shoulder, a view, he later discovered, that was captured in a news photograph by the FT. He noticed she had a small yellow post-it note in her hand with the key words ‘hatred’ and ‘hope’. He recognised them as coming from the St Francis of Assisi prayer “Where there is despair, let there be hope…”. She obviously wanted to be sure that she got the key words the right way round. He included this anecdote in a book he wrote. Years later, when he was investigating the Thatcher archive in Cambridge, the curator thanked him for the favour he had done by including that piece in his book. He explained that they had retrieved 58 handbags from Mrs Thatcher (she kept absolutely everything) and in one of the bags was this little yellow post-it note!  The actual one from that day!  “Hatred …Love ..” the curation team wondered what the words meant. Snow was in that rare position of being able to fill in a moment of history where a leader showed she was not infallible and needed to be reminded of important notes.

Snow remains at the helm of Channel 4 News and talked about the responsibility of media in providing accurate reporting. He agreed that there had been a lack of research during the Brexit vote campaign with false claims that were not investigated deeply enough. There is clearly a duty to keep the population informed and to sift untruth from truth. Channel 4 News is an hour long show and they have the space to try to explore stories more deeply. Previously they have been watched on television with a viewing audience of about one million. Now, they are one of the most watched news entities in Europe … with viewers joining them online. In 2018 they had 1.6 billion minutes viewed on Facebook with a high proportion in California … about 16%. He stressed that there is a hunger for in-depth analysis of current events. Even he craves that and has started to read the Financial Times every day because it explores news stories in much greater detail than has been available before.

Snow appeared relaxed during his talk and Q&A then had to leave quite promptly to return the news desk where stories of great impact were being made ready for that evening’s broadcast. All potentially stressful but Snow maintained his calm. I was left with the impression of a sensitive and humble man with a keen intelligence that he has quietly used to further great goodness in the world.