Jon Snow on broadcasting, terrorism, and freedom of speech

12 Mins read

1989 was a big year for journalism and freedom. It was the year that hundreds were massacred in a pro-democracy, student-led protest in Tiananmen Square.

The year that created freedom inside Germany, as the Berlin Wall fell and opened up the East to the West.

It was also the year that Jon Snow became the lead presenter on Channel 4 News; a passionate journalist and advocate for press freedom and freedom of speech, Jon’s one of the most respected presenters in news media (although he says he’s actually a reporter and a rather poor presenter).

[pullquote align=”right”]”A free press is really the core of any human existence”[/pullquote]Artefact caught up with him a week after the murder of ten Charlie Hebdo journalists to discuss liberty and press freedom.

Jon’s been the face of Channel 4 News for over 25 years – he’s a tall, towering man at 6ft 4in, but never daunting. With a laid back attitude and probably the best tie collection on British television, Jon’s also previously rejected an OBE because he doesn’t believe working journalists should accept honours from the government.

He’s a human rights campaigner and a political activist, famously kicked out of Liverpool University in 1967 for being an anti-apartheid protester. Jon is the news to many – a national treasure in terms of news media and free speech.

Beginning the interview, I ask Jon how he would define a free press, and why is it important for countries to have press freedom?

“A free press is really the core of any human existence, if you can’t talk to each other, if you can’t transmit information to each other, then the one thing that distinguishes us from all other animal life is absent. And what’s the point of that? So I think it’s a structural thing, it’s something that you understand when you see it, but perhaps it’s quite difficult to define,” he says. “Of course, the events in Paris were at the whole essence of freedom of speech. I didn’t much like the content of Charlie Hebdo but I absolutely defend their right to publish.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“I think journalists are intimidated by the sensitivities of some religions, and its not exclusive to Islam. Very often we have no idea what offence involves”[/pullquote]On January 7, the world’s attention focussed on Paris when religious extremists attacked the French capital and murdered ten journalists at the Charlie Hebdo office in the process.

The Paris attacks have highlighted the increasing targeting of journalists, but does Snow think these kinds of attacks intimidate journalists?

“I think journalists are intimidated by the sensitivities of some religions, and its not exclusive to Islam. Very often we have no idea what offence involves,” Jon says.

“It’s very difficult to know what is, and is not, offence. So for example, I have worked a lot in Iran where the image of the Prophet is not as guarded [as] where it is in Sunni Islam. In Iran, the Shia does have images of the Prophet so it can be confusing for someone who knows very little about Islamic practice and beliefs.

“Yeah, I think we are intimidated a bit by it, intimidated by the unknown, but not, I think, by the threat of death – I think that’s extreme and unlikely,” Jon continues. “You’re more likely to be run over in front of your own house just crossing the street than you are to be destroyed by a fanatic. But it’s less than that. You do feel a sensitivity partly because you know it but that’s not intimidation. But you feel a little bit of sensitivity about it yes,” he explains.

It’s easy to hear Jon say things like this, tucked up in the comfort of his ITN studios on Grays Inn Road, but even at 67 years-old, he regularly reports from conflict zones that many would deem dangerous. Following on from the Paris events, I ask what does ‘Je suis Charlie’ mean to him?

“I tweeted ‘I am Charlie, I am the Jewish shoppers, I am the Muslim policemen’ because I felt rather more comfortable with [that]. I’m probably not Charlie – in literal sense, I’m Jon! I don’t think Jon would have done what Charlie did but I defend the right of Charlie to do it. So that’s why I’m prepared to tweet and support for sure that I am Charlie. It means to me that I’m in complete solidarity with those who defend a free press, and that I think is the core of it.”

Jon wasn’t alone in showing support for press freedom and those who lost their lives in the attack. The hash tag ‘#JeSuisCharlie’ went viral online, with millions joining the unity march in the French capital and other cities.

The Turkish prime minister and Egyptian minister both condemned the attacks, joining many other world leaders in support for freedom of expression. This ignited anger globally as both Turkey and Egypt have some of the highest numbers of journalists currently incarcerated. I asked whether he thought this was all part of a PR stunt from countries with notorious reputations for press freedom?

“I mean there is no way that anyone can regard President Sisi of Egypt a defender of a free press. I mean it’s absolutely outrageous. He is actually one of the few world leaders who have locked up large numbers of journalists for doing no more than their job,” Jon says.

“It’s completely scandalous that he should in any way regard himself as somebody who can speak out about the events in Paris. It’s precisely his sort of antics that make information flow – understanding between nations – and understanding between citizens, so difficult. As for Mr Erdogan, the Turkish president, well he’s on some transit of some description, from a pretty good prime minister to a fairly dreadful president and he seems to have got ‘religion’ in a rather big and potential ‘marcap’ [market capitalisation] way.”


[Ben Palmer]

According to the World Press Freedom Index 2014 there were 180 countries across the world ranked on press freedom, with Finland ranked first. The United Kingdom was ranked 33rd and France 39th respectively.

The press freedom campaigners condemned the presence of certain world leaders with poor track records of a free press at home. This included Turkey, who came in at 154 and Egypt who ranked 159.

Saudi Arabia appear even further down – in 2014 they ranked 164 out of a possible 180 in the index, making them easily one of the worst offenders. I ask whether journalists felt uncomfortable with Saudi officials and other governments joining the unity march in Paris?

“I think certainly what’s happened after Paris is that hypocrisy has been the flavour of the day for many of these world leaders,” Jon says. “We’ve mentioned Egypt but Saudi Arabia really takes the biscuit. This is the country that exports radical Wahhabi preachers, and then is in some way startled when their teachings to vulnerable and mixed up kids is in the terrible events in Paris.”

“No, I mean the Saudi sympathy and understanding for what happened in Paris, I don’t think is acceptable. They have to put their own house in order before the rest of the world is prepared to listen to them expressing any kind of sorrow for what happened in Paris.”Jon explains. “What happened in Paris, ultimately, at least to some extent, can be tracked back to states like Saudi Arabia that foster this kind of extremist belief.”

Around 40 world leaders joined the unity rally in Paris following the attacks. Images spread of leaders walking arm in arm with each other in a secure and separate section of the march. This included the French president, François Hollande, British prime minister David Cameron, alongside leaders with records for poor internal press freedom.

Turkey, as mentioned above, is one of the worst globally ranked countries for press freedom and freedom of speech. Reporters Without Borders last month urged Turkey’s judicial system to reverse an Ankara court’s decision to ban media coverage of the questioning of four former ministers by a parliamentary commission, investigating major corruption allegations. A reported 70 journalists are held in Turkish prisons for doing nothing more than their job.



Our conversation with Jon begins to steer away from the attacks and rally in Paris. What occurred in the French capital will no doubt be one of the biggest headlines this year, but what about events from 2014? I ask whether the coverage of Paris has differed from the Taliban massacre on the Pakistan school in the Western media?

“Of course there has been much more access, which does have a big impact” says Jon. “If the Pakistani school massacre had happened in a European country then it would obviously have been a bigger event than it was. But I think both were pretty well treated. [pullquote align=”right”]”If the Pakistani school massacre had happened in a European country then it would obviously have been a bigger event than it was.”[/pullquote]

“I think we’ve got greater reason to be critical of ourselves for not doing more on Boko Haram in Nigeria, whom may have killed up to two thousand people whilst this Paris event was going on. But again that was about access. The fact is that you can’t get into Northern Nigeria to look at these people. There are no pictures coming out and television is about pictures. So to some extent the weight of the story is actually about access, rather than overall importance.”

This is hard to deny. Access does play a vital role in coverage. Some news organisations get scrutinised for only ever covering internal and European affairs. Perhaps some solely choose to focus on those matters.

Others don’t have the ability or resources to cover incidents further afield like the Taliban school massacre in Pakistan, or Boko Haram kidnapping children in remote corners of Nigeria and Cameroon.

Trying to cover stories further afield normally comes at a price. Reporting on the Taliban or Boko Haram could have huge implications on a journalist’s life if they are captured or caught in conflict.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 60 journalists were killed worldwide in 2014, and 70 in 2013. The group says the past three years have been the worst since records began in 1992. Is the increasing death toll damaging the freedom of the press?

[pullquote align=”right”]”Journalists have now become an acceptable target”[/pullquote]“I think there is no question whatsoever, and you feel it yourself when you’re in the field. Journalists have now become an acceptable target,” Jon asserts. “Certainly when I started 40 or so years ago, the idea of shooting journalists was not frankly mainstream. There was little of it – very, very little of it. You might die in an accidental spin-off from a bomb explosion or something, but the idea that you’d be targeted was not really there.

“But now with the spread of media penetration across the world, those tyrannical forces that wanted to extinguish information will kill journalists. So I’m sorry to have to say, but I think the figures illustrate a truth.”

The past 12 months have certainly put the vulnerability of journalists in the headlines. The beheading of American journalist, James Foley, was one of the pinnacle events that highlighted the dangerous climate foreign correspondents face in conflict zones. The United Nations reported that on average two reporters a week are killed while trying to bring news to the public.

The target and murder of journalists and reporters is the worst-case scenario in their line of work. While many escape death, they often end up captured or imprisoned for trying to report to the public. National Security Agency (NSA) whistler blower, Edward Snowden, is wanted by the United States for espionage after leaking many of the NSA’s most guarded secrets.


Edward Snowden [Mike – Flickr]

If Snowden ever returns to his homeland then it’s likely he’ll face a sizeable stretch behind bars. Jon previously interviewed Carl Bernstein (one of the whistleblowers behind the unravelling of the Watergate Scandal) about Snowden. So when does journalism turn into breaking the law? Should governments be taking greater measures to protect or imprison people like Snowden?

“Snowden is a very interesting and intriguing case. I think quite a lot of governments have been grateful for what they’ve learned,” Jon replies. “Unquestionably the Germans were absolutely horrified to discover that their own chancellor’s telephone was being bugged by the United States. I would argue that governments have an obligation to protect people like Snowden – there is a huge contrast between him and Assange for example.

“I think Assange is a much less clear-cut situation, but Snowden will go down as one of history’s great whistleblowers and I think that his whistleblowing was extremely responsible. There is no evidence whatsoever that anybody has died as a result of what Snowden disclosed,” Jon says.

“The idea that in some way security was so compromised that individuals in the field were all going to get killed just does not seem to be true. There is a lot of phooey about it all. Personally, I’d like to see Germany, or even ourselves offer some sort diplomatic protection to Snowden, but that’s impossible because we’re so enslaved to the American psyche. But I’d like to see Germany accord some sort of diplomatic protection to Snowden.”

Snowden is now a household name, although the world remains divided on whether he is a whistleblower or a traitor. Many regard him as a hero, especially amongst journalists who stand for a free press like Jon.

Maybe media organisations and governments together should be doing more to protect whistleblowers such as Snowden. I bring Jon to the attention of BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson describing the organisation as a ‘grotesquely managed’ corporation. Simpson also praised his personal video condemning Israel for bombing children in Gaza. I ask Jon whether he agrees with Simpson, and what makes Channel 4 different?


BBC Building [Klaxon – Flickr]

“Well I’m a huge admirer of the BBC, I have to say. I’ve lived my life listening to the BBC, I don’t watch so much of its output. But I think it’s a brilliant, wonderful thing that doesn’t really exist in such quality anywhere in the world,” Jon says.

“I would certainly fight hard to protect and preserve it. I don’t know anything of the bureaucracy, so it’s not for me to say whether it’s well or badly run. I have no idea. All I know is that the product is pretty good. All I know is that they won’t have me work for them, but that’s because I’m a bit of an oddball. But I think that it’s a great, great institution that’s preserved for all time.”

I ask whether press freedom has improved or worsened around the world since Jon’s early days as a journalist.

“I think that press freedom has increased vastly, and we’re grateful for the social network,” he replies.

“It’s extremely difficult for tyrannies to suppress information. You’ve got to remember that even when I started as a journalist you could be with five days between the moment the event happened and the moment you could ever get the footage that you’ve shot of it in the air.

“News travels fast, it really does. Faster than it’s ever travelled in history, and it’s having a huge impact. I think that the old concept of press freedom, that it was in some way respected to some newspapers and a radio station here and there – that’s all over. And its been detonated to some extent by the capacity to get around it; I mean to get round the authorities attempts to prevent you from spreading information. I think you see it very vividly in China.”

Freedom of press has stayed virtually static since Jon debuted as Channel 4 News presenter in 1989 – I ask him how journalism has changed since his first show, and what citizen journalists can add to press freedom.

“It’s been a revolution since then, and we’re still in the middle of the revolution. You know, we’re still trying to balance online activity with what we put out on television and people consume it in such varied ways.

“Nobody knows really how people consume the information that we are putting out every night. Is it on an iPad? Is it simply downloading the odd item or what? We have no idea. Certainly not that many are sitting in front of the television and watching a whole hour of news at any one moment,” Jon says.

“As far as citizen journalists are concerned, I think they can add an absolutely amazing amount, but they won’t get paid for it, so that’s the problem. It’s monetising what you can do – if you can write, if you can film, if you can edit, then you have a terrific future.”

[pullquote align=”right”]”It’s monetising what you can do – if you can write, if you can film, if you can edit, then you have a terrific future.”[/pullquote]”The problem is can you earn money from it? Well the answer is yes. If you’re good enough and if you’re clever enough in placing it. I actually think there is more opportunity through citizen journalism than there has ever been from full-blown acts,” Jon explains.

The world is a changing place. We’re still in the middle of a media revolution, as experts continue to predict what the future holds for newspapers, radio, television and news media.

It’s difficult to predict trends and there are new formats for picking up news and information appearing all the time. I ask Jon what he believes is the clever way to consume news in a world of social media?

“I suppose to be honest, pick and mix, kind of a bit here and a bit there. I think all of us now pick up stuff from Twitter, from Facebook, from telly, from the radio so I think the main thing is to use every possible methodology of receiving information,” he says.

“We keep talking about a free press, freedom of speech and the rest of it. The freedom to pick and mix from these assorted sources – masses of sources of information – it’s a great blessing and also a bit of a curse, as you might miss something.”

We live in a world of mass information. It can be a dilemma picking and choosing where to access your information. There’s plenty of high-quality journalism available from both media organisations and citizen journalists, but there are also sites that flourish by publishing false information.

The rise of spoof and satire sites, driven by social media, has created a new era of false reportage and news. Free speech and expression has risen to the top of global agendas following the massacre in Paris.

These are principles we should be fighting for everyday, not just because extremist attacks have made the evening news.


Featured image courtesy of: Chris Terry – Channel 4

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