Swans Commentary » swans.com August 15, 2011  



Jon Snow's Big Society
(Part I of II)


by Michael Barker





(Swans - August 15, 2011)   In Britain, Jon Snow is one of the corporate media's most important purveyors of propaganda, situated as the main presenter of the flagship news programme Channel 4 News. Jon's servility to power was suitably demonstrated in 2001 when David Edwards asked him about his views on the propaganda function of the mainstream media and Jon indignantly said: "I would look to lazy journalism before I start to look to corporate interference." Yet despite this serviceable response Jon likes to view himself as a crusader for social justice and feels obliged to add that he is "a numero uno fan of [Noam] Chomsky." Such delusional statements befit a man who has internalized the ideology of capitalism and can espouse corporate ideas as his own apparently objectively held progressive values. This trick is what makes Jon so valuable to his corporate employers. By reviewing Jon's autobiography, Shooting History: A Personal History (2004), this article will demonstrate how otherwise intelligent individuals -- like Jon -- can serve as hacks for ruling elites while professing to do just the opposite.

First a good question to ask is: "Who is Jon Snow relative to the powers that be?" Well his background makes it abundantly clear that Jon was born as a central member of the ruling class. His father was "a master at Eton College in the 1920s" and in one anecdote recited in his book, Jon recalls how in June 1958 he "was summoned home from school to meet the Queen and Prince Philip." School, rather, boarding school for Jon, was the Oxford-based St Edward's, which by Jon's accounts provided the requisite mental preparation for up-and-coming imperialists. By way of an example, "bullying was institutionalised" at St Edward's, and "from the outset, [Jon was] importuned by bigger boys for mutual masturbation." As he recalls: "Fagging, or acting as unpaid servant, was almost as exploitative as the sex." Jon apparently did not excel in this brutal environment and left school with such poor academic grades that he had to spend a year at Scarborough Technical College to "redress the ravages of private education [on his] confidence" and to get enough qualifications to eventually enable him to go to university in Liverpool. (1)

However, before studying law at Liverpool University, Jon spent a year in Uganda with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). This placement further consolidated Jon's imperialist education, and in 1967 he set off to teach at a Catholic mission school with a fellow graduate from the public school system (David James). Jon notes: "Presumably I can thank the anachronistic imperial backbone instilled in me at school for the speed with which homesickness gave way to an enthusiasm for the whole adventure." Holiday time in Uganda provided a break from teaching and an opportunity to meet and mingle with other volunteers, and one notable member among his peers was Diana Villiers, whose father had been taught by Jon's dad at Eton and who was at that time "running one of Harold Wilson's new-fangled economic power levers -- the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation." (Of Diana, Jon adds: "Our next meeting would find us both in very different circumstances, with her married to the man running America's Contra war against Nicaragua." (2))

Jon returned from Africa in late 1968 to commence studies at Liverpool University, but not by the normal route; instead he obtained his university place as a direct result of a "chance meeting on a train" between his "father and the Dean of Liverpool's law school, [which] clinched an underhand entry to do legal studies." These were revolutionary times for university students and Jon "soon turned to revolt," as within a couple of weeks of beginning university he realized that his "small pre-Uganda ambition to become a Conservative Member of Parliament had given way to a much larger one, to change the world altogether." Here one should note that what Jon means by revolting in an "era of revolution" clearly did not mean the same as it did to many of his radical Marxist contemporaries, as he acknowledges: "I had little idea what most of them really stood for, save that they were hard-line and inflexible, and sold papers like Big Flame and Socialist Worker." His ruling class instinct to take charge and rule, however, meant that he quickly succeeded in winning "election to the Executive of the Students' Union as First Year Representative." (3)

After passing his "first-year exams with flying colours," Jon packed his bags for a road trip to India "courtesy of Comex -- the Commonwealth Expedition." Organized by Colonel Lionel Gregory, Jon writes that Comex "was a brilliant and idealistic way of attempting to give life to a new institution -- the British Commonwealth -- that already had an elderly, even patronising air of imperial legacy and UK dominance." Such imperialist cultural exchange programs were of course to play a similarly critical role in post-colonial Africa (see "The Ideology of Philanthropy"), and so ironically on his return to university Jon became involved in the campaign to "Divest from South Africa." Now engaged in peaceful activism in defiance of state injustice, Jon faced the heavy foot (or knee) of state violence, and at an ensuing protest he was assaulted by a police officer who kneed him in the groin and then charged him (Jon) with assault. Given his legal training Jon subsequently chose to defend himself in court and had the case dismissed against him by the magistrate. However, Jon recognized that he owed a lot to his elite pedigree as he acknowledged: "I knew that if I'd been a working-class lead he'd [the Magistrate] have got me -- after all, I most certainly had booted" the police officer back. (4)

In these "heady days" Jon remembers, "One of the most active [university] staff members was Robert Kilroy-Silk," whom he described as "a rabid revolutionary." Kilroy-Silk it turns out was actually an individual who might have been more accurately described as a careerist revolutionary who let down the students. Jon partly acknowledges this by noting how Kilroy-Silk ignored the students in their time of need and went on to "become a Labour MP, later to host the BBC TV daytime sofa show Kilroy, later still to be sidelined from it for making allegedly racist comments about Arabs, and still later to rise again as an anti-Europe Member of the European Parliament." (5) Kilroy-Silk's political metamorphosis is especially significant given Jon's own contradictory self-image as an independent social justice activist committed to changing the world.

Jon's elite background next came in handy when he was involved in a protest against the long standing Chancellor of Liverpool University, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, fifth Marquess of Salisbury. In Jon's words Lord Salisbury "was no friend to South Africa's black majority, and perhaps too much of a friend to Ian Smith's illegal seizure of power on behalf of the white minority in neighbouring Rhodesia." Despite the student's anger at Lord Salisbury's affiliation to Liverpool, at the time the university "refused to entertain even a meeting with the elected student body," so the president of the Student Union (Richard Davies) suggested that Jon should talk to Lord Salisbury on a one-on-one basis to persuade him to stand down. Davis apparently said: "He'll understand you better, with yer public-school accent. Anyway, yer dad's a Bishop, that'll appeal to him." He agreed with the student president and when Jon politely greeted the Marquess at the train station he found that counter to his image as a white supremacist the Lord "was charm itself." On recalling the encounter, Jon writes: "Where now was the rabid racist? In his place I had found a stooped old aristocrat." Jon informed the Lord that his presence in Liverpool "could ignite a riot" and was subsequently invited to his Lord's hotel room for tea and cucumber sandwiches. Then, apparently at the end of a long talk, Lord Salisbury said he would resign, saying: "I tell you frankly, Mr. Snow, I've never much liked coming to Liverpool anyway." (6) Jon then returned to the university campus; in his own words,...

... both depressed and elated. Depressed that I'd abused my roots, and been rude to one of those I'd been brought up to believe were my elders and betters. Elated because I'd scored a hole in one. Not just sent him home, but persuaded the old rogue to resign altogether -- although I couldn't pretend it had been hard. Here writ large were the conflicting loyalties of my old and new worlds. (p.58)

Despite Jon's ideological confusion, radical activism continued on campus, and as a part of the escalating disinvestment campaign 1,500 students occupied the university's newly opened Senate building. Jon recalls that the "formally ideological" were less than a hundred of this number, and although the "far left did their best to hijack the proceedings... [with Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn coming up to lecture] there were simply to many occupiers for any single sect to prevail." By all accounts the occupation succeeded for several weeks, but Jon notes that negotiations with the university authorities had been "unproductive" and with the Easter holidays coming up, Jon observed how he and others "called a halt to our small revolution." To be on the safe side, Jon worked hard to ensure that the students would "rob the authorities of a propaganda coup that we had in some way defiled the place." Thus Jon continues, "An epic clean-up lasting two days and a night preceded our exit." However, even after taking this precaution Jon and nine other students were brought before a "kangaroo court" at the university and while a "committed member of the Socialist Society" (Peter Cresswell) and an anarchist (Ian Williams) were expelled the rest were rusticated for either one or two years. These Marxists were seriously punished for their ideological opposition to the status quo, but Jon was no radical, and reflecting upon his political state of being at this time he remembers: "I wasn't even a member of any political party. I had no ideology that might provide answers to what I perceived to be the unjust and archaic actions of a supposedly liberal seat of learning." (7)

Activists (even liberal ones like Jon) tend not to be the type of people that the ruling class likes to send overseas on programs like Voluntary Service Overseas, which was something that Jon soon discovered, because after trying to seek another "overseas volunteering experience" he found that "no one would have me because of my student past." Therefore, determined to do-good elsewhere, Jon "set about trying to do something like VSO inside Britain." This something else fell into Jon's lap when in 1970 he "heard through the grapevine that Lord Longford [the former Leader of the House of Lords] was looking for a new director for his drop-in centre for homeless teenagers in London's West End." (In this instance the grapevine Jon refers to -- as reported elsewhere -- were his ties to Lord Longford's secretary "through a family connection.") Jon noted how "the old class connection chimed" as the seventh Earl of Longford had been taught at Eton by Jon's dad. Yet before being hired for the post Jon first had to meet a couple of the other members of New Horizon's management committee; these being Sir Matthew Slattery ("chairman of BOAC, forerunner of British Airways") and the disgraced ex-Minister for War, John Profumo "now working out his redemption at a settlement in London's East End." On the latter individual, Jon recalls: "I felt an immediate affinity with him, for I too intended to purge my sins [linked to his student activism] and work my redemptive passage." (8)

During his time at New Horizon Jon was to meet his long-time partner and human rights activist Madeline Colvin, who "would come once a week to give voluntary legal advice." Working with the casualties of capitalism -- the impoverished and often drug addicted youth of London -- during this time Jon could easily have come to recognize the role of capitalism in perpetuating such problems, but he did not. Thus with regard to the youth he worked with he was able to see that the "state had nurtured them for the refuse tip, or at least for jail," but he did draw the same political lessons from this experience that the working class might have. That said, Jon's inability to identify capitalism as a problem was not because of his lack of knowledge of the direct manner by which the ruling class benefited from the destitution of the poor. For example, Jon remembers one "male prostitute of sixteen, who looked about twelve" who "named MPs, a minister and a priest as being among his clients." Jon continues, "I had no reason to doubt him, he identified them so clearly." (9)

Rather than attempt to tackle the root causes of this systemic abuse of human life, Jon simply resigned himself to helping capitalists aid the broken souls that their very exploitative activities had created in the first place. Jon himself even recognized the key role played by non-profits like New Horizon in the privatisation of the welfare state. But this posed no problem to Jon, as apparently the state "was incapable of offering caring resource" and organizations like New Horizon were simply "better at it." He adds, "In the long run the state would start to provide us with significant funding to do the job ourselves." Yet this was not the only benefit that New Horizon provided, as Jon began having monthly gossip lunches with Lord Longford (which lasted until his death three decades later) at which Jon "learned a vast amount" about history, "about the British Establishment and, more than anything, about politics and government." Jon writes there "was almost no one in public life he did not know." Moreover, Jon adds, Lord Longford "was determined that I would go into politics." Jon of course recognized that his Lord was far from progressive, but nevertheless on the strength of their intimate friendship he gives him the benefit of the doubt, writing that Lord Longford "was really pretty broad-minded, despite his reputation, and seemed to me to have been hijacked by some early neo-conservatives." (10)

For Jon, working with the poor necessarily meant that he mingled with the ruling class: the poor needed money and aid, and the rich were there to lend a hand. To illustrate this point: "One day" while Jon "was sitting in the [New Horizon] day centre" he received a call from a "posh voice" who was Squadron Leader David Checketts, Esquerry to the Prince of Wales, who was calling to invite him to visit the Prince at Buckingham Palace. Although "instinctively suspicious" of Royalty Jon nevertheless felt an "inexplicable" pull to meet the Prince, who was soon to see him in the Palace with the Squadron Leader and "two other" individuals. The Prince had called the meeting to ask for advice and Jon recalls him saying, "I want to do something productive with my life, and I gather that you three are engaged in the kind of projects I think might make a difference." The Prince's Trust was thereby conceived and launched in 1977, a Trust that Jon tells us is "one of the biggest and most successful welfare funding movements ever established in Britain." (11)


[ed. Go to Part II.]


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Snow, Shooting History, p.16, p.24, p.28.  (back)

2.  Snow, Shooting History, p.33, p.35, p.38, pp.40-1. Jon is presently a council member of Voluntary Service Overseas where he serves alongside the likes of Jonathan Dimbleby; Baroness Blackstone; Baroness Warwick; Sir Tim Lankester; the former secretary-general of NATO, Lord Carrington; and yet another former secretary-general of NATO, Lord Cairns.  (back)

3.  Snow, Shooting History, p.44, p.45. According to Jon: "One of the most energised campaigns was in support of Biafra in the Nigerian civil war." (p.45)  (back)

4.  Snow, Shooting History, p.47, p.56.  (back)

5.  Snow, Shooting History, p.53. At this time he points out how Dave Robertson "was the most articulate student operative on the left" and the leader of the university Socialist Society, who "is now Professor of Politics at John Moore's University in Liverpool, but in those days he regarded me as 'a bloody public-school pinko liberal'." (p.54)  (back)

6.  Snow, Shooting History, p.56, p.57.  (back)

7.  Snow, Shooting History, p.59, p.60, p.61.  (back)

8.  Snow, Shooting History, p.62, p.63. "He was a considerable contrast from the wretched wreck that I had presumed a man who had suffered such public humiliation would have become. Lying to the House of Commons about an affair with a woman who had slept with a Russian spy may have shocked the nation, but it had also resulted in Profumo's coming to work for New Horizon." (p.63)  (back)

9.  Snow, Shooting History, p.66, p.67.  (back)

10.  Snow, Shooting History, p.68, p.69.  (back)

11.  Snow, Shooting History, p.70, p.71. Jon does not identify the two other individuals present at his meeting with the Prince of Wales.

The current chief executive of The Prince's Trust, Martina Milburn, is a former member of the BBC's Corporate Social Responsibility Board, and serves alongside Jon on the board of trustees of the Media Trust. The former chair of The Prince's Trust, Sir William Castell (1998-2003), is presently a board member of BP and General Electric; and the current chair, Sir Fred Goodwin, is the former Group Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc.  (back)


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Activism under the Radar Screen

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 15, 2011