Sitting opposite Jon Snow, his charisma is immediately obvious. The ITN journalist's laidback attitude is infectious, and as he slyly smiles we ease into comfortable conversation. The man's definitely a pro.
Like his interrogator, he studied law, but was expelled - 'rusticated' - from Liverpool University before completing his degree. In his words, he was “sent down for involvement in a sit-in over the University’s investments in apartheid South Africa.” In the shadow of November's protests, this seems to act both as inspiration and an awakening for many of today’s student activists: Snow paying perhaps the student's ultimate price, his degree, for a cause that he was passionate about. Was it worth it?
“Best thing I ever did," he says, his grin widening. “Otherwise I would have been a tedious old lawyer. Now I’m a tedious old hack.”
His good humour is no shield, and Snow is definitely a contented individual. We move onto his life directly after his rustication, where he started work at a daycare centre for homeless teenagers called New Horizons. He is obviously fond of this: “I’m still there,” he tells me. “I’m the chair, forty years on. Not bad.” I’m impressed and it shows, but he quickly brushes this aside with his characteristic modesty and a flash of that sly smile. “Well, it’s sometimes better to stick with what you know.”
Snow is well-travelled, starting out as a volunteer in Uganda, which he tells me was pivotal to who he is today as "it radicalised me." The suggestion that he was perhaps already somewhat radicalised is met with an offhanded rebuke as he describes himself as "pretty conservative, to be honest." Since starting out as a journalist he has travelled all over the world, an aspiration I suggest is held by many students. It's an experience Snow heartily recommends: "Travel definitely broadens the mind. You get a completely different perspective on your own life when you look at it from a long way away."
Touching on his most recent trip, I ask him to give an insight into Haiti's ongoing troubles. "The problem, really," he says with a slight hesitation, "is that Haiti has been bullied and abused by successive periods of history, both by internal leaders and by external forces." To illustrate this point, Snow turns to the American farm subsidies passed by Bill Clinton in the '90s, which effectively crippled the Haitian rice industry. "The one thing they did grow was a lot of rice, and they were able to export it. Now, with American rice subsidies, it was cheaper to import American rice, because the American farmers are paid to grow it." He describes this move as "just mad", and highlights one particularly stark irony in the whole situation. "Clinton is now the UN person raising money for Haiti, and he has raised a huge amount."
Looking at the issues now facing Haiti, I'm told the problem is that "the UN wants to respect Haiti's sovereignty, so it doesn't like to take decisions without consulting the Haitians. As the Haitian government is corrupt, and it is about to be re-elected, it is very difficult to do any deals with anybody, so there's sort of a vacuum of leadership." Snow suggests that although aid is on the ground, and although people are sheltered and fed, there is "no house-building going on; nothing long-term."
Asked how this is affecting the people there, Snow observes that "they're getting pretty grumpy, throwing stones. Disease is growing." The latter situation needs to end soon or, as the recent outbreak of cholera has demonstrated, lives will be lost.
At some point in his life, Snow found a deep personal interest in the issue of human rights, and given his experience I put to him the question of giving compensation to prisoners alleging torture, in the full knowlege of the British government. The compensation deal, believes Snow, was the wrong thing to do. "It's what the government felt they had to do, because if they didn't there would be a trial where all sorts of material would come out which could compromise them.
"I am sure there was torture. I interviewed Binyam Mohamed, and I haven't got any doubt that there was torture." But the real question, he says, is not if there was torture but rather "did we know, and did we participate? Unlike the Americans, we signed up to the UN torture treaty, so we are actually bound by international law to behave better. If we knew it was going on then we are as guilty as the people who are doing it."
Snow's strong convictions seem to be one of the journalist's defining characteristics. He was once approached by MI6, receiving a letter marked in red ink 'in confidence on Her Majesty's Service'. The letter read "if you are interested, please call the above telephone number, and if you are not please destroy this letter and do not discuss the contents with anyone, however close."
The overture seems to have aroused in Snow an equal mix of suspicion and curiosity. "I went down to the Old War Office buildings," he says, "and met a Mr Douglas Stillberry. He appeared to be a spook and he wanted me to operate for him." He tells me he declined, but you can never be sure - and the ease with which he discusses this leaves me strangely suspicious.
Snow was also once offered an OBE, but declined to accept as "journalists should not take honours from the authorities in any way, otherwise you look like you have sold out. In any case, I don't want to strut about saying 'I'm Jon Snow OBE'. Also, I think it's ridiculous to be receiving an 'Order of the British Empire', since the British Empire is no more and I want no honour from it." He's a humorous conversationalist, and his strong character is readily apparent, but when I put this to him he refuses to be complimented, saying "a strong character, or a fool? You never know which is which."
As our conversation draws to a close, I attempt to validate some of the popular Jon Snow trivia in popular circulation, starting with Wikipedia's assertion that he's an adamant conifer collector. "No, this is bollocks," he tells me. "I have no conifers. I hate the things! No, somebody has just jammed it in there and I have never bothered to go and correct it. But no, I have absolutely no interest in conifers. Wikipedia is wrong. I hate conifers!" It's an amusing outburst, and leads neatly into my final question. Snow's vast and eccentric collection of ties and socks are often commented on, and generally thought to be rather charming. I think he knows where I'm going, but he lets me ask anyway. So what's the story?
"I was the dullest thing on the screen, and the cheapest way to make a different was to change the socks and the ties."
So it was deliberate, then? "Entirely deliberate. I like them, and I wouldn't wear them if I didn't," he tells me. To illustrate the point, he holds up his tie. "I mean, this is an extremely tasteful tie..."
I'm not sure I agree, but it certainly has character.