Jon Snow has said he hopes the news industry will be “a lot better than it was” when it emerges from the coronavirus crisis, but praised the media’s “structural” role in relaying key messages.
At 72, Snow is in the vulnerable category for Covid-19 risk and so has stayed at home since the UK went into lockdown on 23 March, with Channel 4 News continuing to advise that he works from home.
Snow was one of the first journalists to self-isolate after returning from Iran, which had an early outbreak, in February. He spent two weeks indoors out of precaution, but showed no symptoms.
He has since tested negatively for the virus on two occasions.
When he has appeared on the 7pm evening bulletin it has usually been from his front room, although he has ventured out on a couple of stories recently, close to his home, and cycles daily around Regent’s Park.
It is from lockdown that he is fronting new series What Jon Snow Knows, which draws on his years of reporting – he first joined ITN in 1976 – and ITN’s archives to look back on the big stories of previous decades.
The first episode looks, appropriately, at epidemics, from Ebola to Bird Flu.
Snow said the coronavirus is the “biggest thing since the Second World War” and the biggest thing he has reported on, dwarfing earlier outbreaks and even recent wars, which “aren’t things that came to visit our homes”.
Snow said it had been essential to speak with medical staff to “have a source somewhere inside the process” in covering the Covid-19 pandemic. “The politicians aren’t the key, the medical officers are the key, and if they don’t like what the politicians are doing, they tell you,” he said.
‘Journalism, in the end, is a people job’
At Channel 4 News the majority of journalists are no longer based at its offices in London, but working remotely from home or, as key workers, out reporting on events. All editorial meetings are held via Zoom.
But Snow said reporting from lockdown is “sterile” and video calls could not recreate the “biological nature” of a news meeting.
“Journalism, in the end, is a people job,” he said. “You spark off other people in the newsroom, other people on the road.
“However much a journalist may pretend that they are loners, at the end of the day they depend on a lot of other people and they’re always ear-wigging, picking stuff up…
“It’s a much more collective operation than people think.”
He added: “The thing with journalism and newsrooms [is it’s] out of sight out of mind. You don’t get many calls [while working remotely], you have to do all the calling yourself. I don’t recommend it.”
Snow said the hardest part of lockdown was “unquestionably not rubbing shoulders with my colleagues because there’s great fertility, in terms of information and the rest of it, spending time with them on the beat”.
The often outspoken journalist said there had been a “fair amount of bullshit which needed probing” during the pandemic.
“There’s obviously been the question of [Dominic] Cummings and the rest of it, which needed proper investigation,” he said. “I think the media have done quite well. And I think they’ve also been extremely responsible messengers… I think the media has been structural in messaging.”
He went on: “I think we’ve uncovered quite unsatisfactory situations. Everything from testing to Cummings, it’s been the media that has exposed it.”
‘We’re feeding the beast’
Polls show trust in the media is at a low, despite its vital role informing people and holding power to account during the pandemic.
“I think people don’t really know the extent to which they’re dependent on the messaging that’s coming out,” said Snow. “We are, in the end, part of the messaging process. If we weren’t they wouldn’t bother to have any more of those press conferences at the prime minister’s abode.”
Just as online news websites have seen a huge boost in traffic during the virus outbreak, TV has also achieved record viewing figures.
Snow said the medium had had “a bit of a renaissance”, but added: “In the end we all know what we’re doing: we’re feeding the beast. We are feeding the online world and we are perfectly aware that we are consumed by far, far more people online than we’d ever get on television.
“But we’re absolutely tailor-made for doing that. We have enough space on air, because we’re one a one-hour programme, to do really significant and solid reports that fly very well online. There were nights when we might have 900,000 people watching, but online there could be 10m more.”
Snow added that social media companies were “having a free ride”.
Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear has previously criticised the “tiny” fee it earns for the content it shares on Facebook, which he said does not cover “a fraction of what it costs” to make.
‘We’ll do our job better after this’
Snow said he didn’t think the industry would change after the crisis, but rather “what’s happened before will go on happening, which is that people will do deals with the online world”.
He said, however, that he hoped coverage “will be a lot better than it was”.
“I hope that we’ve learned an enormous amount from this. We’ve learned that we have to ask really profound questions and we really have to mug up on things we know nothing about.”
He added: “I think, generally speaking, we’ll do our job better after this.”
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak Channel 4 News was caught in a spat with Number 10 having been repeatedly snubbed by ministers during last year’s general election campaign.
The Conservatives complained to Ofcom after its minister was not allowed to take part in a leaders’ debate on climate ahead of the December election, which the regulator rejected.
But Snow is stoical on the strained relationship between the broadcaster, which he has been the face of since 1989, and the Government.
“I think in the end, you have to build your own relationships with people and if they don’t want to build relationships with us, that’s their affair,” he said. “We’ll find other people who will talk to us.”
Snow faced a barrage of complaints in March/April last year, when Theresa May still led the country, after he said of a pro-Brexit rally: “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place”. Ofcom later cleared him.
Snow remains unmoved on the matter. “I reported a fact, that was it.”
Picture: Channel 4 News