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Interview: Jeremy Vine, broadcaster and presenter

10 March 2017

‘It makes for a better show if you don’t know what the presenter thinks’

I’d always describe myself as a journalist. The word “journalism” is associated with a higher calling than presenters, to me at least. Journalists are people who’ve actually picked up the phone.


Apart from the Radio 2 show [Jeremy Vine], the job I’ve most enjoyed at the BBC was being Africa Correspondent. For me, the real joy was doing real journalism, which is constantly searching for what’s real. In British and American politics, it’s a very manicured, controlled form of news, much as I enjoy it all. In Africa, I was in 18 countries over three years, delving into reality in a way I’d never experienced before — not just accidently blindsiding a politician on his way home from Westminster.


Mandela was President, and stepped down in 1999; there was war be­­tween Eritrea and Ethiopia; poverty in Angola; chaos in Zambia; war in Sudan and the Congo. . . It was quite bleak in many ways, but somehow the human spirit always shone through.


What makes us human? As I’ve got a brother, Tim, who’s a comedian, I’d have to say laughter. That may confound what I’ve just said, but if you laugh, you’re human.

Being a good presenter means being the same on air as off. Honestly.


The beginning of each item is scripted on Radio 2 for the first two paragraphs, but then you’re on your own. I like that: it helps keep the air of conversation, and the key to Radio 2’s style is that it presents news and information informally. So we say it as it is in the moment, as it comes. I slip up every day: you want to say one thing, and say something different. These things happen.


I do several shows at the moment. The hardest thing about doing the BBC election graphics is learning the [name of the] MP in every constituency before the election. It’s also the most enjoyable thing.


There’s the whole Westminster Par­liament thing. And then there’s politics as a force of life. [That needs] a mechanical knowledge of who the MP for Ipswich is, what an Early Day Motion is, and who won the by-election in Stoke. And then there’s understanding how people work, and what happens when there are 650 ambitious people out for each other’s jobs in one building. I love both, but that combination of mechanical and spiritual is some­thing very primal.


How I stay impartial is the question I get asked more than any other. The answer is that if someone said to you: “You can have the best job in the world; you just mustn’t ever express a political view,” you would take it. I feel the only thing the BBC has ever asked me to do as any kind of sacrifice is just not express a view in public, or private, or in my sleep. But it’s the best job in the world. And when I’m presenting on Radio 2, I think it makes for a better show if you don’t know what the pre­senter thinks. He remains a little bit special.


If you look at our news division, which is the key repository of our impartiality, there’s an awful lot of interest and commentary and ex­­citement about Donald Trump, for instance. But, although what’s going on is all fascinating, it doesn’t mean we approve or disapprove.


Our ideals at the BBC are always in flux. But at the heart of it are in­­formation and entertainment: News­night and Strictly.

All broadcasting is interactive. You don’t have a show without an audi­ence.


Religious broadcasting gets harder, and we try harder. One thing help­ing here is the technology. That may seem a strange thing to say, but, with technology, broadcasting is much more tailored to the indi­vidual viewer. You can now shape the BBC around you with playlists and the website, and so on. Because religion is a very personal thing, it enables us to deliver more person­ally than back in the ’70s, when everyone had to tune into Songs of Praise and sing the same hymns.


Listeners can now contact us on equal terms. I listen to every single tweet I get, and reply to a lot of them. We had uniform provision, like the NHS, but it’s rapidly chang­ing into something more tailored.


There are still some shared events. It’s still “broadcasting”: the FA Cup Final, elections, sadly, the death of Princess Diana. But if we are a less communal society, that’s not the BBC’s fault. We’re all atomised, liv­ing in our individual silos now, but there are also different connections to be made. In 1979, I was a fan of Joy Division, and thought I was the only person in the country who liked them. Now I discover that I could network with 10,000 fans.

I used to think that broadcasting was evanescent, and when I moved from the Coventry Evening Tele­graph to the BBC it was a bit of a shock. Now they’re knocking down the [Coventry] building, and no one reads what I was writing then. But the spoken word lasts for ever.


I’d still like to write a great novel. I’ve finally got the plot, 51 years into my life, and I’m so excited I could squeal. Yes, the Twitter may have to stop, but actually there’s always time to create and use your imagination. My novel may not be any good, but using an idea to connect with an­­other person is the most powerful thing.


I don’t know why I went into broad­casting, and Tim went into comedy. Probably both of us were told by a teacher to stop showing off. I seem to remember that one of Tim’s school reports actually said: “Sadly he cannot make a living from play­ing the fool.”


I was taken to church as a child a lot. I guess I had an understanding of the Bible story before any sense that it was true. Now I think it’s true, but I’ve forgotten the story.


My favourite sound is the open G at the start of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”. I’ve just been studying the history of paint­ing with my elder daughter, which has been a wonderful thing for both of us. The one we both love, far and away beyond the others, is Las Meninas, by Velázquez. The arrog­ance! He’s been told to paint the King and Queen, and he does a portrait of himself painting them.

It’s always poetry that I’d turn to for inspiration or comfort.


Usually, it’s bad grammar or bad driving that makes me angry.


I’m happiest when I am only in the present.


The people who’ve influenced me most are people who are creative, or who start a business. Once a year, I do the Entrepreneur of the Year Award; so I think of the guy who founded Moonpig greetings cards, or the guy who borrowed £100 million to set up waste sites for councils, or Joseph and Joseph, who do all those coloured kitchen uten­sils. They’re the economic equival­ent of novelists: they start with a blank page and give us a story. I’m jealous and ashamed that I’m not one of them. I always say to my kids: “A job isn’t something you are given; it’s something you create or give to someone else.”


The way people are kind without being prompted is what gives me most hope for the future.

I pray most for forgiveness.


If I was locked in a church for a few hours, and could choose anyone as my companion, apart from the obvi­ous person, it would probably be the poet W. B. Yeats. I’d ask him to re­cite “The Second Coming”, the greatest poem of the 20th century. It’s funny, because I was just reading it this morning as I was on the train. It describes the end of the world in about 22 lines. Who is the lion slouching into Bethlehem to be born? Some people now might think it’s Donald Trump.


What I love is the idea that our lives are bound together by something which can suddenly fall apart: “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” It describes politics now: “The centre cannot hold.” We always assumed we would always have the Church, government, the media; but now they are incapable of hold­ing the agenda. The wishes of individual people are the power in this new age. When we get Brexit and Trump in defiance of what all the comment­ators think is the sens­ible option, it’s a very chaotic situa­tion.


Jeremy Vine was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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