Honesty, integrity, and hope: Hard to believe, but I speak of geopolitics. Leaders the world over fail us, but people like Jon Snow keep us from being consumed by despair, from losing our humanity. I have had the good fortune of growing up in the presence of giants who fought for Bangladesh and its soul pre- and post-independence.
There is no doubt in my mind that the limited time I had the honour of spending with Jon -- he batted away my Bangladeshi sensibilities that made me refrain from disrespecting him by referring to him as such, insisting that “only the police call me Mr Snow” -- had the sort of profound influence on me that people carry with them throughout their lives, that shape them.
I found him on the staircase leading into the pond on the grounds of Bangla Academy during the Dhaka Literary Festival. Jon visited the Authors’ Lounge only for lunch, opting for the outdoors and the “boundless warmth and hospitality of Bangladesh” to preferential treatment during the festival. The interview started with him noticing I had taken up a seat on the step below him and climbing down to meet me as an equal, and lasted a few days.
During this time, I had the privilege of seeing him at work. His commitments included reporting live from Bangladesh, where he felt “at ease, as though amongst family.” The good humour, dedication, and diligence the kind perfectionist displayed in the wee hours of the morning, after full days of speaking engagements, and recording and editing at the mobile office set up at his hotel, puts mere mortals to shame.
Humility: Another word missing in the individualism-driven capitalistic jargon of the world, but which he epitomises. We are interrupted just as we begin the interview. He introduces himself, to which the new addition responds, “Of course!” His reply: “No, not ‘of course,’ just Jon. I am nobody. I am just a man.” His words are echoed by his actions throughout our time together, during which he made me, “the gentle hangman,” feel special rather than it being the other way around.
It is a skill that has established him as an inquisitor par excellence, but it is not contrived. If I have reflected on the qualities he exudes before discussing our conversation, it is because these are essential values that make us human, which are being lost in the maelstrom of so-called development.
“There is no such thing as a neutral human being. She (our new friend, Mahera) is a woman. I am a man. She can have a baby, I can’t. That is a completely different life experience, and we ignore that at our peril,” Jon says, when asked about objectivity as we return to the interview. “We are all different.
All we can hope to do as journalists is to be objective, is to look at this thing and say, ‘Okay, that is what the government is saying, now what are these other people saying?’, and then find a balance. The government isn’t always right, and, in fact, the people you are talking to might not always be right. But somewhere in the midst, the reader, the viewer, the listener has to be able to make up their own minds about what the situation is.” This incontrovertible ideal of journalism is often repudiated by the mainstream. “You are right, there is a conservative lean to a lot of journalism.”
Jon, however, is a self-proclaimed optimist. He sees us as “standing on the threshold of the golden age of journalism.” It would be easy for the very personification of news in the last four decades to think the opposite as the twilight of his career looms on the horizon.
“I think what has happened is that the evolution of journalism has actually led to some erosion of left and right. Now it is, ‘Quick. Get it out fast. Get the information and spread it.’ And the question of putting a slant on it is a bit secondary. The big issue to beat the competition is speed.” The urgency can keep us true by making it about presentation rather than slant. May that horizon be far, far away.
I posit that the advent of the internet is responsible for moulding journalism. Nodding, he expands: “The social network is beginning to discuss things that the media hasn’t even got around to looking at. Suddenly, they [the media] feel the need to be part of it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram … these are all becoming part of the furniture of journalism, more, really, than the newspaper.
Though not yet with television, and we thought television would be dead by now. It is continuing, and now we have discovered that we are content providers. A lot of our films, which are expensive to achieve -- going to Gaza, for instance, is not cheap -- they become of value as content for the social network. You may not get any money for them, but where once we could reach perhaps a million viewers, we are now reaching ten and fifteen million people on Facebook and Twitter.”
I argue that the move towards generating succinct pieces is making journalism more sensationalist, with extreme views that are easier to summarise becoming prevalent. “While that is true, you can see a rise in the interest in relatively long-form journalism. I am very aware that people are increasingly reading and sharing articles from erudite magazines and newspapers, particularly online. There are articles written of considerable length, which people are pleased to be able to access, which would never have appeared in the old days.”
He uses a recent article by Victor Mallet exploring the Wahhabi-backed madrassa system -- its contents included scrutinising the flow of money and the extent of radicalisation -- to illustrate this point. “There is so much spaghetti that people are quite keen to step back to make sense of things. The worry about the superficiality of daily journalism is not taking a step back to assess and look at things in a reasoned manner.”
Asked about what threatens journalism, nuanced conversations and objectivity, Jon says, “The problem is that a free press is the most desirable element of a good democracy. The pressure on a free press, for instance in Britain -- and the British press is not perfect, but it is freer than many -- is commercial forces.” He summons his vast experience of world matters to discuss the situation in less developed countries.
“I am alarmed to discover that media outlets are being suppressed by the government. That suggests to me that they don’t want what it is that you have to say. When that happens, that is not a good thing.” Using Bangladesh as an example, when I suggest that this has always been the case, he admits to being aware that the media is under pressure. “I am not going to excuse or forgive it, but it is often the consequence of a young country, and Bangladesh is a young country. These things take time to resolve. I think that in a situation where there is a huge majority for the governing party -- this is effectively a one-party state -- a healthy spread of free media activity is necessary. Not that it should be the opposition, but so that people can feel that someone is keeping an eye on what is going on. That must not be eroded. We should stand up for it.”
Niaz Alam, the chief editorial writer at the Dhaka Tribune who introduced Jon to Bangladeshi audiences prior to the Dhaka Literary Festival through his piece, “Reading the news with a conscience,” joins us.
The conversation moves to what Jon is reading. “I am not reading a novel at the moment. I am reading a book by Abdel Bari Atwan about ISIS. I have a pile of novels that I want to read, but haven’t got to. The trouble with being a journalist is that you have to read so much other stuff which isn’t fiction, but that is, unfortunately, gory fact. If I was trapped in a novel, I would want to be a character in the now.”
He spells out his reasons for this in the perfectly articulated diction that the world has come to expect of him. “We are very lucky with what we have got. I fear very much for the future. I worry even for my children and their prospects, particularly with regards to global-warming.
I do think that it is going to come very fast and very big, and I don’t think we are prepared for it, and we are not taking the measures we need to take to prevent it. But I am also worried about the financial system. Too many people are making money out of money, and not making money out of production. I worry about the stability and behaviour within that industry. The authorities are not tough enough on policing it.”
Our combined efforts fail to force Jon towards pessimism. “I find optimism in the souls of the people I speak to. Basically, human beings are decent people.
Those that have gone awry have some desperate self-loathing which enables them to bring about terrible consequences. Part of that is the gulf between rich and poor, the alienation of people who don’t have in the face of what they can see others have. We have to spread wealth somehow.”
He justifies this by championing education. “There is greater awareness. People are being educated to a level that simply wasn’t there 50 years ago. That must breed more understanding, more interest in the way the world is moving. As a result, there are real movements all over the world to have honest conversations. Whether they will have their way is an open question.”
He is oblivious to the exhaustion our badgering has undoubtedly caused, forcing us to be polite for a change and bring the curtain down on speaking to this very best of men.
“The world is a scary place as we speak, but I am still hopeful that it will come around. Humanity is still a decent breed,” he says. We end where we began, where Jon Snow has remained throughout his life.
“What is the truth? That is always a big question,” he ruminates. “I regard myself as a searcher after truth. There are inconvenient truths that don’t always match political outlooks.
I am bound to represent them. We must not allow anybody to prevent the freedom of discourse between us.” There was Snow in Bangladesh for the first time. With it came honesty and integrity, and an indomitable hope that I have rarely felt about the world or my homeland.