Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Shooting history in the foot"

I’ve enjoyed Jon Snow’s often jokey Snowmail preludes to each evening’s Channel 4 News, which are often funnier, more insightful and more to the point than the various BBC journalists’ blogs. Then there’s Snow’s terrible taste in stripy, brightly coloured ties, his ever-present bike and the occasional scandalised tabloid front page. Usually because he’s beaten them to a salacious scoop.

But that was about all I knew about him, really. So I wasn’t sure what to expect of his memoirs, Shooting History. The paperback offers some intriguing pull-quotes. Denis MacShane of the Independent calls him,
“a modern-day George Orwell”
while Matthew Parris offers the rather back-handed compliment that,
“when it dawns on the reader how extremely anti-Establishment Jon Snow’s views are, one’s respect for his impartiality as a broadcaster only grows.”
The book starts with Snow’s comfortable childhood, the son of the head of a public school (and later Bishop of Whitby), and he’s a better chorister than scholar. He’s brief but surprisingly frank about near-abuse and early sexual encounters, but it’s his year as a VSO in Uganda that really makes an impact, followed by an anti-apartheid sit in at Liverpool Univeristy, flunking out of college and three years hard graft for a drugs shelter. There’s something of the radical zealot about this character-forming period, like having realised he’s been one of the privileged ones he’s desperate to make amends.

Snow rather comes to journalism by accident, but the political zeal is vital to the kind of journalist he becomes. There’s a terrific tension between the imperative to report objectively and professionally and his own deep-rooted desire to act. There are times meeting Idi Amin or other dictators when he’s aware he could physically attack them, even kill them… His horror at Europe and America’s various colonial and militaristic projects (for all his evident love of the countries and people) is born from the simple, evident proposition that they’re not playing fair.

In effect, Snow’s been right there in the midst of some of the key events and with the key people of recent decades, and this is an insightful modern history. But for all the big stuff about wars and world leaders, there’s plenty of telling small details. On pp. 74-5 his bicycle gets him to a scoop long before his stuck-in-traffic rivals, and later the bike astounds his colleagues in Washington DC. There’s mention of his influential friends – lawyers and politicians of the crusading bent – and the effect his thrill-seeking wanderlust has on his family life. These, too, are dealt with briefly and frankly, and I can see why the Independent might liken this plain style to Orwell.

There is, though, more good humour than in Orwell’s reportage, and a delight at the absurd.
“Geoffrey Howe, still Foreign Secretary, once told me how Mrs Thatcher, who rarely took a holiday, found herself, with her husband Denis, on a five-day break in a small town in Austria. By some ghastly coincidence, the Kohls were at a hotel nearby. She decided she’d best nip trouble in the bud, and sent word to the Chancellor suggesting a casual meeting. He replied that he could not possibly find time to see her, being too tied up with work commitments. That afternoon, she and Denis took a stroll, and there, three streets from their own hotel, was the substantial figure of Kohl sitting happily with his wife Hannelore and a solitary security guard in the sun outside a cafĂ©, devouring a vast cream bun.”

Jon Snow, Shooting History, pp. 283-4.

The villainous Eliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies says that the most important question for a journalist to answer is why. Snow’s great achievement here is to interlink the wars and world leaders he’s encountered, joining up the dots to explain how we get where we are now. He shows how the mess made of Africa by withdrawing European colonial powers provided a breeding ground for terror. He was there on the ground in Grenada to see the Reagan administration wilfully ignoring the nonsensical elements of its intelligence to pursue a reckless, aggressive war.
“It was one of the very rare occasions on which America took not a single journalist into war with her. Ostensibly the aim of the invasion was to ‘rescue’ the American medical students from the annexe at the bottom of the runway. Five thousand US troops were sent on the mission. Instead of hitting the bunkers that didn’t exist, they attacked the wrong building, a mental hospital, killing patients. Resistance was almost non-existent, but that did not prevent three US Black Hawk helicopters from crashing into each other while they assaulted another building which turned out to be completely empty. At the end of it all, after a couple of hours of ‘fighting’, sixty Cuban workers, twenty-four Grenadians and nineteen American troops lay dead. Most of the medical students complained that that they didn’t want to be rescued at all.”

Ibid., p. 221.

In the final chapter, Snow draws these many threads together into a crusading manifesto – one aimed at the broadcast media as well as political leaders. He is angry at the media’s shrinking horizons and the failure of the North of the world to engage with and comprehend the concepts and imagery – and grievances – of the South.
“This is a time for nations and peoples to come together, a time to rekindle the United Nations dream and let it reflect more honestly a fairer new world order. But the national politicians don’t want to talk about it, and the media is relieved – for it is the stuff of boredom. If the fashion for war against a noun is with us, why not a ‘war against ignorance’? We have an obligation to our children and our children’s children to break out of our self-centred lethargy and to engage – not as we did before, extracting whatever we felt was worth taking – but in enabling everyone to share in whatever is productive and enriching for all of us. If we do not, assuredly the resentful and dispossessed will come for us with greater and greater ferocity. They will not come in an overwhelming Second World War kind of way, but in never-ending stabs that render our developed daily lives more and more insecure.”

Ibid., p. 378.

We must ask the difficult questions and face the difficult truths. As he says, the attacks of 9/11 were not, “just a band of disaffected educated Saudis. These people are emotionally succoured and backed by great numbers in the world who see no hope, who have nothing to lose, and who think ‘America had it coming’.”

It rests on us to ask why.

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