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Jon Snow: on Scotland, Salmond the boy chorister, and how I could have killed Idi Amin

Jon Snow is interviewing Alex Salmond on Friday in a special event in Glasgow. Here we meet the man who's usually the one asking the questions.

Jon Snow is in a hurry. He has arrived at the London offices of Channel 4 News straight from the US after a stint covering the Presidential  elections.

He is due on air in seven hours. And, he says, he has yet to learn all the words to two songs he will sing at the London Jazz Festival the following evening. Despite his hectic schedule, the broadcaster exudes the sense of someone who enjoys being busy.

“What is good about Channel 4 News is its spontaneity and that slight feeling of danger – that anything could happen here,” he says.

There appear limits to his sense of danger. A keen cyclist, he says he “cycles on the basis that they (drivers) have not seen you and, even if they have, they don’t mind if they kill you. That’s why I occasionally go over a red light – sometimes it’s safer.”

Snow, 65, who will appear in conversation with First Minister Alex Salmond later this week at an event organised by Strathclyde University Business School, The Herald and Glasgow-based charity the International Network of Street Papers, of which he is an ambassador, did not set out to be a journalist.

The son of Bishop of Whitby George D’Oyly Snow, Jon went to Liverpool University to study law but they expelled him after he took part in a demonstration against the institution’s investments in apartheid-era South Africa. The university finally gave him an honorary degree in 2011.

Was it his intention to be a lawyer? “Vaguely,” he says, “there was no plan. I was a very late developer. I could not get into university the first time round and the second time I think I got in with four days to go (through the clearing system).”

His story will cheer anyone who has ever failed an exam. “The first time round I got a C in English, I failed everything else. I failed history, I failed geography. The second time round I got a D in economics and an E, which believe it or not was a pass, in law. So I had a C, a D and an E which would not (get you) in anywhere now,” he laughs.
After he was expelled he heard “through the grapevine” of the New Horizon Youth Centre, a charity for vulnerable and homeless teenagers run by the eccentric penal reformer Lord Longford. It needed a director and by chance Snow was just what they were looking for.

“I applied for the job and was told a previous director had been thrown out of Hornsey College of Art and therefore the fact I had been thrown out of university was probably a qualification. So I got the job.”

He describes the period, in the early 1970s, as the “first phase of a sort of big heroin epidemic and a lot of acid and barbiturates and all the rest of it”. There were “a lot of kids dying – a lot of teenagers dead in squats”. He still works with the charity but finds the issues have changed.

Today’s teenagers, he says, are more diverse: refugees, asylum seekers, children running away from care homes, and there are not as many drugs involved.

“Drugs are part of the problem, but not the problem. (In the 1970s) we thought drugs were the problem, but they weren’t really, they were a manifestation of insecurity and depression.”

He found himself writing about what he was seeing. Then, as he puts it, he got “lucky”. Commercial radio was starting and needed staff. He got a job at LBC (the London Broadcasting Company).

Journalism was to take him around the world. One story he tells is of being on a plane with the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin when he spotted a gun. Did he consider killing one of the world’s most dangerous men?

“It did genuinely cross my mind. When you find yourself sitting as near as I am to you now to somebody who has definitely done some dreadful things … you think: ‘There he is apparently asleep and this gun is hanging out of his holster.’ You think: ‘Should I?’ and you very quickly say: ‘I should not.’ But it did cross my mind.”

Why, ultimately, did he not? “Cowardice I would say, principally.”

The incident took place a year before Amin fell. “So I suppose there are probably, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of people dead as a result of my inactivity.”

Were there other points at which he considered intervening in world events? “No, but of course you think about intervening in journalistic terms very often.”

Presenter of Channel 4 News since 1989, during which time he has become arguably the UK’s most famous wearer of colourful ties, he thinks we are in a golden age of journalism and is an enthusiastic user of Twitter. On his trip to the US he tweeted and blogged as well as fulfilling broadcasting duties.

Many in the industry are worried about the forthcoming findings from Lord Justice Leveson’s phone-hacking inquiry. There has been talk it will send a chill through the press. Is he worried?

“I don’t think I am, no. The chill has been sent through journalism by the outrageous contempt for humanity that these miscreants (the phone hackers) have perpetrated. I think their abuse of our hunger for information has been utterly contemptible.”

Our interview takes place before the most recent Newsnight scandal but after the programme has been accused of wrongly shelving allegations Jimmy Savile was a paedophile. Snow does not know “all the ingredients and I’m not sure anybody does” but warns: “My worry is they will find a fall guy or a fall woman.”

Despite being the son of a bishop, he is not a believer. He does go to church however. “I get a lot from contemplation. I like to sit. I like to be compelled to sit in a place of beauty – it must go back to my childhood – and have nice sounds going around and even sing some of them.”

Church to him “is a community whose aspirations come together and it is about the binding of the human spirit towards a better tomorrow. I don’t think there is anyone with a grey beard up there who is going to fix it.”

With Alex Salmond he wants to get to the man behind the politician. He has learned they were both choristers as children.

“I have been told he was a very competent boy soprano,” he says. “I want to find out about the man. He is a rather impressive politician, I think. He has had unimpressive periods but he has had an impressive run.

“I like him. I think he goes for it and he will go for it in conversation. He wants to talk turkey, or Scotland,” Snow jokes. “He (Salmond) does not faff about. Most politicians do not really want to talk turkey.”

Snow does not have “strong views” about the outcome of the independence referendum. But on nationalism, he says: “I find it very complicated – I have never even worked out what being English is. I do love this country in a sense it is a wonderful place to come home to and all that and I like living in it. But when people say, 'What are you?' I mean, am I English? I don’t really want to be English. I don’t really describe myself as anything.”

He says he is “not really very interested in nationalism,” adding, “I don’t feel the need to be aggressively English, in fact I feel I need not to be aggressively English.”

The current governance of the UK is “absolutely antiquated”, he says. “We  have the most centralised state in Europe.  I want to see power devolved  not just to Scotland but to everywhere. I want citizens to have the power.”

He believes there should be a stronger relationship between local tax raising and local powers and wants Westminster to be “stripped of a lot of power”.

Asked what level of government should be awarded those powers, he says: “I don’t know, but they (politicians) should think about it.”

He is passionate about devolution: “I think devolution is the best thing that has happened in our lifetime as far as Scotland is concerned and I don’t really mind whether you call it independence or devo max, it is perfectly obvious the Scots should run their own affairs. Whether they do so as an adjunct of the UK, as part of it or not, it seems to be secondary to the fact they should be allowed to do it.”

Westminster has “worked overtime to try to bring about the independence of Scotland through neglect, he believes. “You cannot run a country of this size the way we run it. Inverness is not the same as Truro, like it  or not.”

He says both need a “serious” say in how things are run alongside more local taxes and local accountability.

While looking forward to his head-to-head with Salmond, he expresses concern he will be the “most ignorant person in the room. I will be the person who knows the least about the subjects in hand – I don’t live it”.

He is also apprehensive about his jazz festival debut. He will duet with singer Mara Carlyle. They met through her work with the New Horizon centre. “At the moment I am terrified because I don’t even know the words,” he says. Will the adrenaline  carry him once he is onstage? “I hope so. That’s what happens on Channel 4 News.”

CV: Jon Snow

Favourite musician? Brian May, with Queen. Bach, above and beyond anyone.

What book are you reading at the moment? I have closed Salman Rushdie’s autobiographical book Joseph Anton but I will open it again.

Ideal dinner party guests? Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum; Nelson Mandela; Amartya Sen, the economist who is amazing and  a leading authority on curry and  a Nobel prize winner; my wife Precious [Snow has two grown-up daughters from a previous relationship and remarried in 2010]; Kofi Annan and Helena Kenndy QC, who is a close friend.

Favourite building? Winchester Cathedral – it is spectacularly geometrical and beautiful with a vast nave.

Favourite places? Iona is a very spiritual place and I have been there a lot. You have to pinch yourself you are in the British Isles or even in Europe, you could be in Nova Scotia. The west of Scotland is probably the  best-kept secret in Europe.

Jon Snow’s conversation with Alex Salmond has sold out but tickets are available for a second event, on December 6, with Alistair Darling speaking to The Herald and  Sunday Herald writer Alan Taylor. Visit www.onlineshop.strath.ac.uk for details.

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