'The State of Us: The Good News and the Bad News about our Society', by Jon Snow (published by Bantam, 2023)
Journalist Jon Snow argues that inequality is the story behind all the other stories. In his time reporting first for ITN and then for Channel 4 News
, he has seen many changes. Yet for him two things stand out, almost as symbols (and certainly as catalysts) for where we are now as a society: the Grenfell disaster and the Brexit debate. The first highlighted disparities between privileged power elites and the average person, and the second created an economic and power lock on social relationships that has yet to be resolved.
Looking back a bit further, the Iraq war destabilised the energy-centric geo-political status quo and helped to shape more than a few of the pragmatic decisions that had to be made by the British Government ever since. It led to growing distrust of politicians (who now remembers Blair except for Iraq? Especially after the Chilcot Inquiry) and contaminated the reputation of Britain across the world. For Snow, a case could and should be made for connecting up the dots between Iraq and Ukraine.
Distrust, then, and inequality – two pervasive themes in Snow's recent book The State of Us
. Dealing with the first is indeed a way of addressing the second: if we get reliable responsible and objective factual journalism, then we stand a chance of dealing with inequality in society. Being informed about the truth, the facts, in a democratic society sustaining and sustained by the freedom of the press, enables the average man and woman to play a full part in civic discourse and political discussion.
Too often, the class system has disenfranchised many people in Britain, and, for all the progress that has taken place, the traditionalist attitudes and structures still impede change. Snow cites public schools, the House of Lords, and Oxbridge in the media – all familiar targets, of course, but in context tellingly made. He is rightly struck by the irony of Putin going to war for the glory of a Greater Russia while presiding over perhaps one of the most overtly unequal societies in the world (think oligarchs). By that token, he regards Russia currently as an example of a 'broken nation'.
Snow has for many years been associated with Channel 4 News
, itself a news outlet with a clear – even ostentatious – agenda to address inequality, both in its news coverage and in its own personnel recruitment. He wryly admits to being a boy who talked posh and being a lad for whom that helped. He (even more wryly) recalls how well he got on with (of all people) Margaret Thatcher, who both liked 'pretty boys' and who, like Snow, always said that 'if she could do it, anybody could'.
As for Snow himself, posh family, public school and the lot in his early background, he left Liverpool University after a row about apartheid, grew up fast when working for a while in Uganda (a baptism for him in seeing people for what they were rather for the colour of their skin, mediated through the filter of stereotypes and empire), worked for and with homeless young people in London for New Horizon, and came to know his own mind. This is something that has always been clear throughout his broadcasting career.
He says he is an optimist, a believer in equality and diversity in life and at work, and someone who tries to see beyond monoliths and systems (of class, privilege, gender, and race) to what hope there might be in national and international life. However, this does not stop him raising hard questions about where we are as a society. Too many homeless still, so what about more social housing? How can a sense of community develop on a sink estate, how can we probe beneath the cliches that Kensington & Chelsea is so posh that something like Grenfell could never happen, how can we trust the private rental sector to put things right?
He draws on his own experience of the Brexit debate – Cameron's gamble in the interests more of his party than that of the nation, Project Fear and Nigel Farage and the shock outcome, the political and social divisions left (even in families) by the fall-out, and what he regards as the 'economic disaster' of leaving the EU. Throughout he tried to remain impartial, though he knew his own mind – Brexit was (and still is) a project led by a cadre of British xenophobic nationalists, obsessed by putting the 'Great' back into 'Britain' (think Trump) and driven by paranoid and nostalgic hankerings after sovereignty. Snow asks the still-timely question: 'If Brexit was the answer, what the f*** was the question?'
An important theme in The State of Us
is the role of journalism which, in his words, 'is the best defence against inequality'. As a result, Snow spends the second half of the book on the news. We get an inside track on his daily life as a journalist – the early morning porridge, the bike ride across London, 24-hour news as things went digital, the meetings and interviews (he had one with most modern US Presidents and most British Prime Ministers, even Liz Truss who was hardly there for long) and the deadlines.
But, being Snow, he wants to make a broader point: it is that impartial and factual news is even more important than ever now. He is sceptical that privately-owned news channels and social media outlets are (and can be) objective, driven as they often are by personal agendas. No surprise that a key journalist on Channel 4 News
would support the central role of public service broadcasting, which not only nurtures a healthily competitive news ecosystem but also acts as a form of regulatory control on what could become something run either by government or by private capitalism.
Snow's argument is that freedom of the press in a post-truth age is so precious that, as a society, we must not let it wither on the vine. Governments of all colours (from Tories keen to privatise the BBC to Corbynite socialists determined not to engage with the media at all) have agendas that militate against freedom of the press. Such freedoms equip us all with factual information, speaking truth to power, that allows us to participate fully in the democratic process, and it also protects us against state propaganda and manipulation of media by opportunistic global players.
Snow knew Iran before its theocratic censorship and regrets the change. Syria is another bad case. He is cautious about how Elon Musk will manage Twitter: where 'facts can easily be monetised', he says, we must worry about the truth – accountability and transparency are not to be taken for granted. Virality is not veracity, he suggests.
The State of Us
is a snapshot of 'now', looking back to the good and less good of how we got here, and looking ahead to the challenges and likely achievements of the future. He is confident that diversity and gender pay equality will eventually prevail in the workplace. He fears the insidious effects of misinformation and the possible threats to public service broadcasting, even though he believes it can subsist alongside social media.
Yet Grenfell remains vivid in his mind, as it should in ours, as an allegory of social injustice; and the Brexit fall-out remains as an ongoing sore yet to be healed. China's secrecy over Covid, Tory extremists, racist posts about Clive Myrie, Putin in bed with oligarchs (he could have mentioned London for money laundering), the chance that another Incredible Hulk will become President, and the tenacity of elite power and the rich list – all these will remain in Snow's thoughts as (and this is clear from a last reflective chapter) he winds down from the frenzy of daily broadcasting.
With a journalist as thoughtful and substantial as Snow, readers will wonder where he will allow his trusty bike to take him next.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland