Jon Snow and the Gilded Cage

Channel 4 News's anchorman has to disguise his political bias as neutrality, a pretence that is both insidious and unmanly

The American critic, Paul Berman, wrote recently that “neocon” had become a show-stopper in upmarket liberal circles. The mere use of the word was enough to convince an audience that a man was a monster. “You should say it out loud in falsetto, as if a mouse had just run across your foot,” he explained. “Otherwise you will not have captured the right tone.”

Jon Snow is no stranger to the hitched-up skirt and high-pitched scream. It echoes through his autobiography, Shooting History. Snow tells us that he is the son of a High Tory bishop, and in my view, he retains a part of the traditional conservative’s resentment of the Americans who usurped Britain’s status as a world power and shrank the horizons of his father’s class.

In the imagination of Channel 4 News’s anchorman, neocons have attained supernatural powers. They are time travellers responsible for “overthrowing Mossadegh in 1953 and Arbenz in 1954”, even though the neoconservative movement wasn’t born until the 1970s, two decades after the liberal Republican administration of General Eisenhower organised coups in Iran and Guatemala.

They are also shape-shifters who organised the “carpet bombing of Cambodia” in 1970 and the coup in Chile against Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, which would be news to the historians who say that the man responsible for both crimes was Henry Kissinger, a “realist” who no more believed in the neocon dream of using force to spread democracy than he believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden. (He still doesn’t.)

Worst of all, they are body snatchers, who prey on gullible members of the English aristocracy. Allow me to explain.

When he left university in the early 1970s, Snow applied for a job at New Horizon, Lord Longford’s drop-in centre for homeless teenagers. His Lordship assured him there was no need to worry about the competition. He was going to hire the young Snow because “I think your father must have taught me at Eton”. Longford argued for prison reform as well as the homeless, and Snow praises him for that. But he also became a figure of fun when his quixotic campaign against pornography led to him making in-depth studies of the strip joints of Copenhagen.

The news anchorman defends his benefactor in the only way he knows how. “Frank Longford was really pretty broad-minded, despite his reputation,” he writes, “and seemed to me to have been hijacked by some early neoconservatives.”

A man so ignorant of recent history that he believes that one of the first tasks of the nascent American neoconservative movement was to target a batty Anglo-Irish peer is hosting one of Britain’s premier current affairs shows.

Surely, the charge that a dull-witted and narrow-minded group of upper middle-class liberals has smarmed its way through British broadcasting is proved beyond reasonable doubt.

It is easy to feel that way, particularly when you watch Channel 4 News. A few months ago, Snow provoked furious protests from soldiers after the Drudge Report broke the media silence on Prince Harry’s service in the Afghan war. “I never thought I’d find myself saying ‘thank God for Drudge’,” Snow declared in his daily bulletin for viewers. “Editors have been sworn to secrecy over Prince Harry being sent to fight in Afghanistan. Drudge has blown their cover. One wonders whether viewers, readers and listeners will ever want to trust media bosses again.”

Never mind that reporting troop movements in wartime stands alongside shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre as a restriction on freedom of speech that all but the most anarchistic journalists accept, and consider the double standard.

If the Sun were to reveal the secret location of Maxine Carr, the former girlfriend of the murderer Ian Huntley, Snow would have kittens and say that a populist tabloid was endangering her life. Yet when editors decide not to endanger British soldiers in battle, they are guilty of a breach of trust.

While I was writing this article, the Ministry of Defence announced the death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan. Channel 4 News said that it was “duty-bound” to examine Gordon Brown’s claim that our soldiers had died in a noble cause. “Reliable measures” were hard to find, it concluded with a shake of the head. The conservative Spectator went wild and pointed out that the army had pushed the Taliban back to the Pakistani border, allowed the preparations for the upcoming elections and prevented al-Qaeda from re-establishing an Afghan base.

The failure of Channel 4 to grasp that the struggle against a movement that executes teachers for the crime of teaching girls to read and write was a liberal struggle struck me more forcibly. Its report could not allow the notion that radical Islam was against every good liberal principle in the minds of its liberal audience. Doubts and awkward moral questions might follow, and that wouldn’t do.

The bias feels all the more insidious because of the huge advantage politically committed broadcasters enjoy. Politicians realised long ago that taking them on is like swearing at the ref or throwing your racket at the umpire — a mug’s game they can never win. As soon as they are challenged, broadcasters retreat behind the mask of impartiality and present themselves as mere adjudicators. It is no good using the normal tactics of argument against them by pointing out the previous failures of their ideology or their hypocrisies and blind spots. Talking back makes you seem a spoilsport who won’t play by the rules.

Yet it is precisely because they need to duck for cover that their influence is limited. Conservatives generally make too much of bias in broadcasting. It is not simply that Radio 4’s PM and The World at One are models of public-service journalism, but that the more dubious programmes cannot always be dubious. Channel 4 News is straight most of the time. Even when Snow let rip about the decision of editors not to turn Prince Harry into a Taliban target, he had to watch his back and add the nervous caveat: “But perhaps this was a courageous editorial decision to protect this fine young man.”

Reviewing Snow’s autobiography, the Labour MP, Denis MacShane, paraphrased Karl Marx: “[Television reporters] offer an interpretation of the world. Snow, one suspects, would prefer to have changed it.” MacShane’s use of past tense was instructive. For if you want to change the world, you go into politics, or argue your case as a polemicist or join a campaign group. You suffer the disappointments, but also feel the satisfaction that comes with making a commitment and fighting for it.

Broadcasting brings the politically engaged presenter or reporter celebrity and money, but extracts a dreadful price. It allows them only to push the impartiality rules so far by, say, asking tough questions of a political opponent but giving powder-puff interviews to a friend. When challenged in debate, their employers will not allow them to stand and fight their ground. They must scuttle away and pretend to be nothing more than civil servants of the airwaves. To use a word they would never use, their chosen careers are “unmanly”.

Conservatives should pity rather than condemn the liberal locked in the gilded cage of broadcast news. For these are lives half-lived.

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