Jon Snow is best known for his role as presenter of the Channel 4 News, and in fact is the longest running presenter to date. He was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship in 2015 and nominated for an OBE, which he turned down, for his work as a journalist, both in print and on television.
On Tuesday 27th February, the MDX Journalism Society were granted the honor of hosting Jon Snow in the newest installment of their MDX Journalism Conversations. He answered a handful of questions on topics ranging from the importance of university, to the level of access into journalism in our modern society, and a few current news topics were also discussed.
“The greatest qualification a journalist can have, beyond a degree, is actually empathy. Empathy is by far the biggest issue; it’s the capacity to work your way into trying to understand the circumstances from which the people you are trying to report about have come.”
Interestingly, Jon Snow did not complete his University Degree. He lightly joked that he “was in university when you didn’t have to pay, so you could afford to knock around and do a bit of politics.” And he did get heavily involved in the politics of the time, specifically the issues surrounding the apartheid in South Africa and the discovery that it was “a racist state”. In retaliation of this, a lot of students were involved in a very successful sit-in to protest their university’s involvement. Ten students were picked up on this and punished, Snow being one of them. After being ‘sent out’ for a year, he decided not to return.
This never affected him on his route to becoming a journalist; however he acknowledges that the environment now is different to that which he was in when he was a student. The media has, he argues, “joined the elite” and become an institution where it is almost essential to have a degree now, although it is debatable if this is the best thing for the media, as by getting a degree “you have separated yourselves from the people that actually you have to broadcast to and about.”
However, he does not completely disregard the importance of a degree. Snow acknowledged that you can learn a lot from attending university, not just from the classes, but from every aspect of uni-life. He jokes: “I didn’t learn a lot of what they wanted to teach me, but I learnt a lot. And, of course, university is actually about both: learning a lot, and learning a lot about what they want to teach you.” If he had the choice again, he states later in the discussion, he would go to university.
This topic was touched several times during this panel discussion, and Snow had some very clear and precise views about it. Of course, it would be unprofessional for him to have voiced his personal opinion on a lot of the details of the event, but that didn’t stop him from indicating what his opinions were.
He made a very interesting comment on the dissociation between the journalists that covered the event and the people involved. Previously, he noted, such a disaster would have been covered by the local news outlets, who would have a much greater understanding of the types of people who were affected by this.
“Facebook’s advertising allure has essentially closed most of the local newspapers, including the one at Grenfell Tower. And so, unlike other events where you turn up at a crisis or disaster, there were no local journalists who knew anything at all… fundamentally, there was not a lot of common ground and we weren’t well placed.”
As this was further discussed later in the conversation, the issue of how to cover a story like this was raised. Snow stated that to be impartial when covering this would be “doing this story a disservice.” When discussing the death of innocent people, you cannot be impartial, you must show empathy towards the victims and show some level of emotion in your cover of the story and the way you address these victims. This, he felt, brought on a much bigger question – “Is the truth impartial?”
ON HIS CAREER
Snow’s career started with him working for the New Horizon Youth Centre, a day center in London for “16-21 year olds in great distress” which was, he commented, “a very testing experience.” He originally intended to work there for six months before returning to university to complete his degree, but soon realized that he couldn’t leave the center, and actually ended up staying there for three years.
Just as he was starting to contemplate a career change, or “getting a proper job” as he put it, commercial radio started. This was in 1973, and LBC and Capital were the first two stations to launch as ‘commercial radio shows’. LBC aimed to become the first radio station to run all-night phone-ins, and this was the job that was given to Snow.
“They realised, if you ran an all-night phone-in, at about two-o-clock in the morning, there would be people who were too bonkers to put on air, or too pissed or whatever. So they wanted someone who could council the people who were too bonkers to put on air… It was a rather sort-of courageous and caring thing to do, but it was completely bonkers even in itself because the only people who called up at two-o-clock in the morning were too bonkers to put on air, and if you didn’t put them on air, you didn’t have anyone to put on air… So they said, as you’ve got a posh voice, you can read the news. So I read the news for a few days and then they made me a reporter.”
His career is fascinating to follow, and he has in fact, in working for LBC, the BBC and Channel 4, covered some of the largest news stories to occur in the past few decades.
It was particularly interesting to hear how he made his name. He explained how it was because he rode a bicycle that he was able to reach news stories to cover them for LBC before the other reporters even arrived. “You whizzed past the man from the Daily Express in a black cab,” he joked, commenting on how his bicycle allowed him to surpass traffic and reach the scene of the crime first.
When he began his reporting career, there were no mobile phones, and so instead walkie-talkies, which he called “huge bricks”, were used.
ON THE SYRIAN CONFLICT AND HOW FAIRLY IT’S REPORTED
Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, immediately the Syrian situation was compared to the situation in Iraq. He explained how ridiculous the situation had seemed to him at the time, commenting that it was “the worst action by a British Prime Minister, and indeed the British government… it was a bad thing, and we’re paying the price to this day.”
Instead of focusing on the precise nature of the Syrian situation, Snow explained that to report something ‘fairly’ was anyway almost impossible, especially when discussing topics of this nature.
“It is an enormous problem, because you form very strong personal views about what is happening, and you’ve got to sort of get rid of them… but at the same time, you must have everything for the people who are there, who are the victims. And that is not a question of bias, it’s a question of reality… and you’ve got to somehow prevent yourself from getting angry… Unless a journalist experiences genuine emotion whilst they’re reporting, they are denying themselves as human beings.”
He advised that journalists must discover the balance between honesty and emotion, and being intelligible to the general public. It’s clear from his stories that he himself has become very emotionally invested in a lot of the topics he has covered. He admitted, even, to crying on some of his broadcasts. However, as a journalist, one must always try to detach themselves as much as possible in order to be somewhat objective in their report.
ON MODERN JOURNALISM
Journalism has, unarguably, become more of an ‘elite’ field since Snow first started working. It has become almost essential for those wanted to work in this field to have a degree now. However, millennials, and those born in the late 90s, have “never lived in anything other than the digital age,” which in turn means that they are far more naturally equipped to take advantage of this recent shift in journalism into the digital world. Thanks to this digital world, broadcasts can now reach a much larger network of viewers, including those from abroad.
Despite the digital age, or perhaps enhanced by it, Snow argued that people demand “quality information”. So perhaps our methods of delivering this information will change, but the future of journalism is still strong and, he believes, not in danger of falling dead in this new age. Even Facebook is starting to understand the depth of this demand, and is proposing ideas such as allowing people to subscribe and donate to broadcasting channels, such as Channel 4, from the Facebook website.
His advice to young aspiring journalists now looking to enter this world is to “take advantage of the digital age and blog and tweet and Facebook, and draw people’s attention to things that you’ve read and value.” His advice seemed to follow the line of making a name for yourself, which is far easier to do now when you can go online and use these forms of social networking, than it was when he first started out.
“You can learn what you need to know about journalism in about three weeks, and then it takes the whole of the rest of your life to perfect it.”
Journalism, as Snow puts it, keeps you sharp, critical and alive. But it is essential that you understand that, no matter how much experience you have, you are always still learning how to do things. He is still learning himself. His perspective towards the future, it was commented, is immensely optimistic.
Find out more about the Journalism Society at Middlesex University by checking out the MDXSU Website, and you can keep updated with their latest news and events by joining the society on the SU website and following them on Facebook and Twitter.