Reading the news with a conscience 7/11/15

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed/Dhaka Lit Fest DLF 7 November 2015 Jon Snow


It says much about Jon Snow, the acclaimed British television journalist speaking at the Dhaka Lit Fest this month, that at the age of 68, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Although the longest running presenter of Channel 4’s flagship ITN news program, he is far from drifting into a cosy retirement. His range of interests and involvement with numerous civil society organisations appear broader and more active than ever.

Never one to shy away from matters of conscience, he is highlighting the plight of Palestine in conversation with leading Palestinian poets as part of one of several DLF sessions in which he will be reflecting on world affairs.

Snow’s 2004 memoir Shooting History gives an insight into how his lifelong interest into what was known during his youth as the Third World has combined with his personal commitment to justice, to shape his left-liberal world-view and internationalist outlook.

As a television newsreader in the UK,  where broadcast news is institutionally required to strive to be fair and balanced, leaving it to the press to be partisan and biased, his news anchor role is rooted in objectivity, as it should be.

Hence, though he is candid in his books and numerous tweets and blog posts about his anger about global injustices and commitment to building a better world, leading him to be derided by the  Daily Telegraph as a “pinko liberal,” he is better known  to the wider British public as a friendly and familiar televisual presence, notorious only for wearing wildly colourful ties on the evening news.

Less of a stern authority figure or competitively confrontational interviewer than some of the big beasts of BBC TV and radio news, Snow’s laid back nature and engaging manner makes him an ideal figurehead of his television station, comfortable with guest appearances on comedy shows and complying with public demand to meet the actor who plays his Game of Thrones namesake.

It is perhaps unfair given his passion for campaigning journalism, that Snow is best known for the eccentricity of his ties and for being an ardent cyclist pedaling his way around corridors of power in London.

But there is no getting away from Snow’s background, which, as a highly engaging and self-deprecating writer, he refers to in his book. A public school educated chorister whose father was a Bishop and headmaster, mother a concert pianist, grandfather a First World War general, and whose cousin and nephew are prominent BBC current affairs figures, his present standing is arguably the epitome of a liberal member of the English Establishment.

The roots of Jon Snow’s interests in the world at large can be seen in his decision at 18 years of age to spend a year teaching in a school in Uganda. His views become clearer still by what he calls the “absolute watershed moment of my life,”  when as a law student at Liverpool University in 1970, he was expelled along with ten others for leading a socialist student campaign and staging a massive sit in to protest the institutions investments in apartheid South Africa.

His quaintly termed rustication became the spur that drove the young Snow towards a career in journalism and a public life supporting a wide range of charities and liberal causes. Aside from a brief period at a charity for homeless young people, he has worked since the 70s as a journalist and presenter for Independent Television News.

In true British fashion, Snow and his fellow expellees are now feted by Liverpool university with commemorative dinners, as befits the sea-change in establishment attitudes towards apartheid, which campaigners like Snow did their part to help bring about. Snow himself now has an honourary doctorate from the same institution and among his many voluntary roles, has been a university Chancellor himself.

Tellingly, Snow has latterly disclosed how, in 1976, he rejected a lucrative approach by British intelligence services to spy on his colleagues and certain “left-wing people” working in television.

It is characteristic of his open and independent stance that he chose to disclose this episode. As is the fact that he has publicly declined an OBE because he believes working journalists should not take honours from those on whom they report.

No surprise then given his global outlook, that despite being a long running news anchor, Snow devotes most of his memoir to his experiences as a foreign correspondent and reporter. As well as filing from war zones in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he spent many years covering  Africa and Latin America, and served as ITN’s main US correspondent during the 1980s.

What comes across most in the book is a strong sense of Snow’s empathy for the people he films and his criticisms of US foreign policy, which he convincingly argues as consistently failing to learn from past mistakes.

The book laments how western dominated global media has often historically ignored regions and stories that don’t fit an agenda for particular types of story. It is symptomatic, he believes, of a general western tendency to sideline or ignore the legacies of colonialism and imperialism which have blighted the global South.

As a grand old man of television news, Snow has certainly been doing his bit to extend Channel 4’s news coverage to a broader world-view.

Far from limiting himself as he gets older to the topical interviews which are the highlight for most news anchors, he has personally authored reports from Gaza and Haiti and presented an award winning 2011 documentary on war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war.

One gets a strong sense then that Shooting History merely scratches the surface of a rich and interesting life.

Even so, with its light touch and anecdotal nature, Jon Snow’s memoir remains an highly accessible and illuminating snapshot of life in British television news over three decades.

As an appetiser for those going to see Snow at DLF, it promises that his talks and reflections will be much like the man himself, open-minded, frank, passionate and well informed.

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