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ONE of the most charming things about radio and TV’s Jeremy Vine is that he jumps to be the first to tell embarrassing stories about himself.
Others might not be so pleased when he steals their thunder and spikes the guns of their future autobiographies by telling egg-on-face tales about them, though.
Anyhow, in his memoir It’s All News To Me – written to mark his 25 years with the BBC – Vine tells the cautionary tale of how he was in a loo on a train, one of those with the button-operated door. The door slid closed, the “locked” sign lit up reassuringly.
While he was occupied and out of reach of the control buttons, the door slid slowly open. A woman seated at a table looked over and looked away again quickly. Somehow stretching to hit the button again, Vine got the door to close – at glacial speed. He takes up the story:
“I wondered how I was going to get back to my seat without actually dying of shame. There was a consolation, though. When I finally emerged and went past the woman who’d looked away, I heard her whisper to her friend: ‘Wasn’t that... Jeremy Paxman?’”
It was clear before day one that there was only really room on BBC2’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight for one Jeremy, and arch inquisitor Paxo wasn’t leaving his throne any time soon.
After years mastering different areas of BBC news coverage, including a stint reporting from Westminster and as an award-winning Africa correspondent, where he had covered wars and famine and interviewed leaders including Robert Mugabe, Vine was invited to join the team presenting Newsnight in 1999 at the age of 34.
Number three to Paxo and Kirsty Wark, he found himself in an uncomfortable spot before he’d even set foot in the Newsnight office.
A favourable newspaper profile or two in which he was hailed as the coming and man and the heir-apparent to Paxman meant he received a phone call from on high asking him to keep a low profile when Paxo was about.
He says he heard from an inside source that the “heir-apparent” reference had caused serious ructions between the programme, Paxman’s agent and the BBC Press office. Of course, their paths were bound to cross sooner rather than later, and when Vine walked into the Newsnight office there was Paxo. “The first thing he said was: ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ As he asked the question, he gave me the full Paxo eyebrow. I replied shiftily ‘Just trying to keep my nose clean.’ Quite quickly I sensed that my presence on the show might chafe.”
Vine’s response to what he calls the distant buzz of disturbed hornets was to beaver away maniacally. He worked 14-hour days before collapsing at his rented bachelor flat full of takeaway cartons. He lived his life with one eye constantly on presenting rotas, revelling in a run of fronting Newsnight when his two more experienced colleagues were away.
Again telling a refreshing story against himself, he recalls how the flouncing and needy Peter Mandelson once said to him: “You’re the only person in Britain who wants to be on television more than me.” Throughout his book he lays down rules for would-be reporters and presenters, one of which is that broadcasters think they run the show and get carried away with themselves, but actually they need constant reminding that they do not really matter. Coining a little prayer, he says: “Lord, where there is no humility may you grant humiliation.” He concedes that ego is difficult to master, though, and that Mandelson recognised a little echo of himself in Vine. “I guess I was at one time a little too eager to stand in front of a camera...”, he says ruefully.
He was the youngest man ever to present Newsnight, and also the youngest ever to leave it, in 2003, when he was offered the chance to take over Radio 2’s lunchtime show, which had been, seemingly forever, in the hands of youthful 81-year-old Jimmy Young. It was part of a radical overhaul of the station, and Vine was offered the job after deputising regularly for Young.
Broadcasting is full of egos writ large, and the vagaries of audience share and new bosses with new ideas are just two of the factors that mean professionals who, in other circumstances would exchange yarns over a pint, are set up in opposition to each other by circumstance and insecurity about their respective positions.
He certainly likes to think now that he and Paxo could have an amiable jar together.
Radio institution Jimmy Young went unwillingly but the young gun whose hard news escapades in his 20s included crazily driving without a flak jacket across Croatia in search of a war has been mixing middle-of-the-road music with news and lifestyle-related chat for almost a decade now.
The man who hungered to present the BBC’s most serious news programmes seems sanguine today about his position at the helm of a daily chunk of weekday radio, which he gleefully reports snags a very impressive 19 per cent of the audience that has a choice of myriad stations across the week.
“It’s very pleasing that it’s the sixth most popular radio show in Britain, and I feel very lucky. I also feel very comfortable with the music in the show. Music is a huge part of my life, as it is for many people. It’s patronising to think or say that listeners can’t be interested in serious, lively discussion of big news stories and enjoy hearing some of their favourite music as part of the mix.”
For all the years of chasing news and “the stew of machiavellian intrigue” as he calls the BBC’s political unit at Westminster, it was slavish devotion to Capital Radio as a teenager that started him off on the route to where he is now, back in radio. He first spun a disc when he won a teen DJ competition.
Decades later, in 2008, it was his show which, during the last election campaign, was to have a pivotal role in signing Gordon Brown’s prime ministerial death warrant. Brown was out and about campaigning, when he stopped and had a friendly conversation with Gillian Duffy, a Rochdale pensioner, in which she fulsomely aired her views about what she saw as too much immigration.
Not realising he was still wearing a microphone for Sky TV, the PM got into his car and was then heard and recorded calling Mrs Duffy “a sort of bigoted woman”. The recording was played to Mrs Duffy, who was furious.
As it happened, shortly afterwards Brown was already scheduled to go to a studio and give a down-the-line interview to Jeremy Vine’s programme about the banks. Into the middle of this interview landed the sound clip of Brown in his car carpeting his aide for letting him near Mrs Duffy in the first place.
Unbeknown to both Vine and Brown, a camera in the studio in Manchester saw and heard Brown being played back his own words about Mrs Duffy, as well as his feeble apology for it to the radio presenter. All this went out on live TV as well as Radio 2.
The abiding image of the election and Labour’s defeat was the sight of the then prime minster slumped in his seat, head in hands. It encapsulated what many believed: The game was up.
Vine says it was hard not to feel sorry for Brown. He adds that he can’t imagine a chain of events that better illustrates what broadcasting is all about. “You can be as professional as you like, but in the end most of it comes down to chance... you have to be lucky. And sometimes you will do everything by the book and bad luck will wipe it all out in second.”
These days he happily works more or less regular hours, enjoys his married life and eight and five-year-old daughters. “The best things about where I am now are that I really enjoy knowing I won’t be bleeped in the middle of the night and that I am around all the time to savour my family – the biggest joy you can experience.”
• It’s All News To Me by Jeremy Vine is published by Simon and Schuster, £18.99. To order call 01748 821122. Postage costs £2.85.