Swans Commentary » swans.com August 29, 2011  



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


by Michael Barker





[ed. Read Part I.]


(Swans - August 29, 2011)   Jon Snow never returned to university, and after working for New Horizon for three years he moved into the world of journalism, joining more than a hundred new recruits to run "Britain's first commercial radio station, the London Broadcasting Company (LBC)." As ever, Jon's elite contacts helped immensely: "I suspect that I secured an interview purely on the basis that Peter Snow, by now established as a correspondent at ITN, was my cousin." Subsequently, Jon's initially "embarrassingly upper-class vowels" first aired on October 8, 1973, when he delivered the news of the Yom Kippur War; and "[a]mazingly," a year later, he found himself co-anchoring the British general election. Jon was evidently astounded at his own success: "Only one year in journalism, and I was already interviewing politicians from both front benches." Yet such privilege was hardly surprising, as he recalls that after the election there "were suddenly people in government that I had worked with at New Horizon." Of course, here he is not talking about the homeless youth of London, instead he meant people like David Ennals (who became secretary of state for Health and Social Security) who had served alongside Jon on the board of trustees on the Campaign for the Single Homeless (now known today as Homeless Link). (1)

Needless to say, Jon liked to see his successes as a series of happy coincidences, and with shock he writes: "My contacts were growing, and rather against my will I found myself creeping onto a lowly rung of the British Establishment." As if to compensate for what Jon appears to see as a new phenomenon in his life, Jon follows this comment by noting how he simultaneously railed against elites by voting for Britain not to join the European Community "on the basis that [he] saw Europe as a rich man's club that was bound to end up screwing the Third World." The irony, of course, is that Jon's eventual transfer to ITN -- which runs Channel 4 News -- relied on the old rich-man's club. Thus Nigel Ryan, a man "at ease in the British Establishment" one day asked Jon the name of college where he had studied. Ryan was apparently "startled" to hear that Jon had not been at Oxbridge, but luckily Ryan didn't actually enquire as to whether Jon had completed a degree. "To this day," Jon recalls, "I often wonder whether he'd have employed me if he'd known." (2)

Living in London with Nick Browne, a university friend who had become a barrister, Jon began work at ITN in March 1976 -- giving his notice to LBC in January. However, January 1976 was to mark another eventful moment in Jon's life as it was the month that he received a letter from the Ministry of Defence inviting him to become a spy while acting as a journalist. As before, Jon felt the pull to power and "figured that [he] should at least check the thing out," so off he went (on his bike) to visit the "epicentre of Britain's spy network." Jon subsequently turned down MI6's lucrative job offer, and with regard to his speculations for why he had been contacted, he noted: "MI6 clearly felt I was a good prospect -- a chap with radical beginnings who had seen the error of his ways, and was moving up the Establishment -- perfect!" (3) Although not noted in his book, just prior to this invitation, the aforementioned Nigel Ryan had been one among many high-level journalists to attend informal breakfast meetings (organized secretly by MI6) to encourage British entry into the European Economic Community.

Once at ITN Jon was dispatched to report on Africa for the next part of his career, initially based with "a pretty select band" known as the East African Correspondents' Association -- who in their downtime lounged around the pool at the Nairobi Intercontinental Hotel (in Kenya). From this vantage spot Jon gallivanted around Africa misreporting the news. In one incident he recounts how in July 1978, while in Eritrea, he "witnessed the bombing" of a children's hospital ("a salutary account of Russian colonialism in action") and after returning to London to narrate his story live in the studio he received a message that he should call the multi-billionaire oil profiteer Paul Getty, Jr. Getty had evidently been watching his Eritrea story and asked if Jon could come and visit him at his London home on the Chelsea Embankment. Jon subsequently popped over to see the "charming" billionaire who asked him what he could do to help the poor in Eritrea; and on Jon's suggestion this led Getty to ship "two state-of-the-art field hospitals" to Eritrea. Yet again the rich had come to the aid of the poor: "Only the extraordinary and spontaneous philanthropy of one man served to lift the gloom suspended over a region sporting all the hallmarks of perpetual war." (4)

Later, Jon's war-torn reporting for ITN would take him to Central America (in 1981) where he would report from El Salvador with his "greatest ally of the time," the New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner. Within bounds, Jon like Bonner, was critical of the US-backed slaughter on the people of Central America, and won awards for his reporting, but Jon's employers still hoped that he could win a hit for the U.S. in the Cold War. Thus after US secretary of state Alexander Haig highlighted the so-called communist influence over the Salvadorian guerrillas, Jon writes with due scepticism that:

ITN wanted me to penetrate the Salvadorian guerrilla lines -- to "put the record straight" that this was no war between rich and poor, but a concerted attempt by Russia to undermine and penetrate America's vital sphere of interest. "Find those Russkies and Cubans," my editor David Nicholas had telexed, only half jesting, from London. So here we were doing just that, on the prowl for Cubans and, less probably, for some very ill-at-ease Russians. (p.188)

As one might expect, Jon did not find any evidence to support this nonsensical propaganda line, although while on his mission he notes:

While we were with the rebels I copied down the serial numbers from a couple of automatic weapons carried by them. I wanted to see if Al Haig was right, and they had come from illicit sales in Vietnam. In the event we were able to track them right back to America's own arms bazaar in Miami, Florida. (p.190)

During this phase of Jon's life his reporting duties also took him to Nicaragua, but it was in Honduras that his VSO past would come back to haunt him in the form of Diana Villiers, the wife of the US ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte. Jon was intent on exploiting his valuable contact who was now married to the man "leading the Contra war strategy from the front," so he gave Diana a call and she promptly invited him to lunch at the US embassy residence. Much like the rich men Jon had been well acquainted with his whole life Diana also liked to help the poor. "She was, as ever, fully engaged in voluntary projects, bringing aid and succour to the suffering people of Honduras." Jon adds: "I like to think she had no idea what sort of stuff was passing across her husband's desk when they were apart." (5) Jon, however, wouldn't dare to check whether she knew about her husband's long-running commitment to murder in case he lost his contact, thus while at lunch with Diana and Negroponte -- whose "war was beginning to reach full throttle" -- Jon enjoyed a "loverly spread of freshly baked rolls, Chardonnay and smoked salmon."

I was on my best behaviour; he was such a nice man, and Diana remained the English rose I'd always known. We were all utterly charming to each other, I learned very little, and eventually departed wondering how anyone who was involved in what was being inflicted upon Nicaragua could sleep at night. It was a question I never dared to raise, for fear of losing so valuable a contract. (p.196)

Moving onwards in Jon's relentless career, in August 1983 he moved from being a "roving reporter" for ITN to becoming their Washington correspondent. Jon, however, emphasises that this promotion apparently demonstrated ITN's willingness to challenge the system, as the other close contender for the position was Trevor McDonald, an individual who was "regarded as 'a safe pair of hands'" by the media establishment, while he (Jon) was "regarded as a very unsafe pair of hands, but [one that was] likely to file more stories." He adds: "So unsafe was I seen as being that a new job was created for a 'producer' who would keep his or her eye on my 'content'." In reality it turns out that ITN needn't have overly concerned itself with the safety of Jon's hands. Indeed, Jon recounts how although he had initially intended to "expose" the US government's long and sordid history of supporting death squads and dictators all over the world, he recalls that "within twenty-four hours of landing my mistrust began turning into an improbable and lifelong love affair with 'can-do' America." Here streaming news direct from Congress, "Journalists had status; television was right inside the Establishment." (6)

Hot on the heels of the invasion of Grenada, in early 1986, President Reagan was not a dangerous neo-conservative ideologue but in Jon's eyes he was simply "a misguided and ill-informed failure in foreign policy." Likewise, Jon describes the US intervention in Somalia in 1992 as an "abortive international adventure" that "can be seen as a sincere but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to invent a template for the imposition of some kind of new post-Cold War world order." Jon's natural subservience to the powerful leads him to systematically misunderstand the world around him. He notes that while in power Margaret Thatcher "rarely if ever thought of applying 'market forces' to social issues" and her replacement at the head of the Conservative Party, Jon Major, "was nice, personable and collegiate, but he did not give the impression of being a leader who was going to have much impact upon any new world order." By way of a contrast, when describing official state enemies, like for instance President Slobodan Milosevic, Jon draws no punches: his description of Milosevic (from 1995) saw the president as a "ludicrous, Napoleonic figure" and "mass murderer" who was "so reasonable and calm, and patently villainous." (7)

Jon always seems to find blundering elites in the most unlikely of places, like for example in 2002 when he went to India to visit the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal, eighteen years after the "devastating gas explosion" that killed eight thousand people. Here Jon compares the inaction taken by the US government in India to the clean-up of Ground Zero in New York, but despite his ostensibly harsh criticisms he still gives the benefit of the doubt to the "lone superpower... [which] was either oblivious or worse when it came to American-inflicted suffering in the developing world." The reason why Jon can even use the word oblivious is because his default position for viewing elite capitalist power-brokers is not as rapacious plunderers but as rich people (much like himself) trying to make the best of a bad situation. Thus on the same trip to India Jon showed his affinity for the Indian ruling class when he interviewed the "superb George Fernandes, still Defence Minister despite having been caught in a TV sting shovelling suspect cash into his bottom ministerial drawer." When they "got talking" this "real card" probed Jon to find out which left-wing friends they had in common, and when they both discovered they had a mutual friend in Michael Foot, they "got on like a house on fire." (8)

Finally, in addition to the so-called problem of lazy journalists mentioned at the start of this article, Jon recognizes that when reporting on the issue of terrorism "the media are complicit" in sustaining the problem. Jon, however, cannot understand that the primary reason why the media are complicit is because the mainstream media themselves are a vital part of the very capitalist system on which they are supposed to report. For example, Jon observes that bad American elites (neo-conservatives) "got away with overthrowing Mossadegh in 1953, Arbenz in 1954, and Allende in 1973"; and "escaped the consequence of carpet bombing Cambodia." Yet he fails to recognize the integral role that the mainstream media played in legitimizing these anti-democratic and murderous interventions. Therefore, he suggests that because of the mainstream media's allegedly critical reporting on the war on Iraq he is "optimistic enough to believe" that this exposure "has perhaps rendered a new war on Iran, or another on Syria, less likely." (9) Of course, this point is patently false -- as more than illustrated by Media Lens' ongoing analyses. On the contrary, the mainstream media that Jon is very much a part of actually facilitated the war on Iraq and continues to legitimize it to this day.

As this article and Jon's autobiography has demonstrated, Jon evidently cannot be persuaded of his own complicity in directly supporting injustice and imperialism. This is a sad conclusion, but one that makes sense given a critical reading of his book. Therefore, the task that lies ahead for all concerned citizens who are not overly focused on maintaining friendly relations with ruling elites is to work to generate and strengthen the types of democratic groups that will facilitate the revolutionary social change that will be necessary to eventually supplant capitalism with a just and equitable political alternative.


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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.72, p.75.  (back)

2.  Snow, Shooting History, pp.75-6, p.77, p.87, p.88.  (back)

3.  Snow, Shooting History, p.88, p.89, p.92.  (back)

4.  Snow, Shooting History, p.124, p.125.  (back)

5.  Although Jon does not mention it, at this time Diana was working as the country director for World Relief in Honduras. This evangelical organization's "humanitarian" work appears to be related to other evangelical charitable outfits like the imperialist World Vision; in 1996 the former president of World Vision, Robert Seiple, received World Relief's "Helping Hands" award (see "The Religious Right and World Vision's "Charitable" Evangelism ").

Fiona Terry writes: "As in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Honduran authorities greatly benefited from playing the role of sanctuary to U.S.-backed guerrilla forces" that were based in refugee camps based around Honduras' borders. Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Cornell University Press, 2002), p.90.  (back)

6.  Snow, Shooting History, p.211, p.212.  (back)

7.  Snow, Shooting History, p.271, p.329, p.318, 319, p.337.  (back)

8.  Snow, Shooting History, p.373, p.374.  (back)

9.  Snow, Shooting History, p.377, p.379.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 29, 2011