You have spent much of your career travelling – do you ever find it hard to leave home?
Once the plane door shuts, I am just hungry to go. But I do sometimes dread leaving. I may have things planned and then suddenly I’m off to Egypt. Part of me is thrilled and part of me is depressed. My sense of home returns at acute moments when times are very tough.
What is the crisis most neglected by the media today?
You never hear about Central America any more – El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, or Guatemala – but times are very hard there. The wars have given way to gangs fuelled by deportations from the US. The Eritrean/Ethiopian border and Somaliland are also neglected considering the scale of the crises there.
Has the rise of social media changed the way you work?
I am very active on Twitter [@jonsnowC4]. I think it is a sensational medium. We haven’t even begun to explore its potential. The Arab Spring has certainly changed the way I have approached work. In a way you are more connected but there are still black holes. I don’t know of any Tuaregs who are tweeting at the moment.
Have you ever shaken someone’s hand and regretted it?
I have shaken Qadafi’s hand. I have shaken [1970s Ugandan dictator] Idi Amin’s hand. I have shaken the hands of a lot of people who are hated and disgraced. But I feel that my capacity to report has been enriched by having shaken their hands. That is a terrible thing to say but it is important. I had a relationship with Idi Amin. He was a repulsive killer but my access enabled me to report much better.
Is it important to stay detached when reporting on crises?
It is a good rule not to look too physically engaged with people. But sometimes there’s no option. In New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina, we got there with a boat before any of the help-vessels. We couldn’t go round just filming because people were pleading with us from their rooftops. There was an 85-year-old man haemorrhaging in his bed clothes. We had no option other than to rescue him. But that sapped most of our filming time so we ended up filming the rescue.
In June 2011 and March 2012 you presented the two-part documentary series Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields for [British broadcaster] Channel 4. The footage shown was disturbing and graphic – did you have any doubts about airing it?
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields really was a total breakthrough. Srebrenica, Rwanda – neither of those massacres were documented. In Sri Lanka you had footage shot by the victims of their own suffering and you also had trophy footage from the perpetrators filming the rapes and the attacks they were conducting.
It seemed to us that once this mobile-phone footage was verified by the UN, we had a human rights obligation to air it. The power of the film was in the pictures, even though they were grainy and horrible. I don’t think anything worse has ever been transmitted in current affairs.
How does it make you feel that the act of airing that footage has given so much momentum to the call for the war crimes to be addressed?
I think I feel queasy about it. On the one hand you want to advance understanding and on the other you don’t want to ruin the chance of reconciliation. But I believe that you can’t have reconciliation without truth first. And we have contributed to that truth.
What is the story that you most hope to cover that hasn’t happened yet?
I would love to report on the last person being treated for guinea worm. They have reduced the incidences from 3.5 million across 26 countries in 1986 to 1,000 in two countries now, and they say that by 2015 it will be eradicated. It is an appalling affliction from drinking organisms in bad water, which become 35-centimetre-long white worms that then spring out of the body at the breast, the tummy, arms, legs. Very few people in the West know about it.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
I am one of the most ambitious people I know but I am never quite sure what that ambition is. I would love one day to be of service, to do something that affects people’s lives. I don’t think I have done that yet. I think the best is yet to come.
Libby Powell is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to New Internationalist.