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Jeremy Vine: Being ‘the state broadcaster, the government wrongly feels it owns you’

Speaking to The Tab, the presenter discussed his experience at the BBC and his passion for open, democratic debate

Before his appearance at the Cambridge Union last month, The Tab sat down with Jeremy Vine to talk all things BBC, as the presenter shared his thoughts on its history, its relationship with its presenters and the public, and his fondness for his nook within the broadcasting giant – lunchtimes on Radio 2. Although my conversation with Vine took place a few weeks ago, his thoughts regarding his employer take on particular resonance given the situation that unfolded last weekend, in which the BBC’s football broadcasting all but grinded to a (now resolved) halt in the wake of Gary Lineker’s suspension for criticising the government.

Jeremy Vine became a regular reporter at the BBC in 1989, going on to present current affairs for programmes such as Newsnight and The Politics Show throughout the 90s and early noughties. The 1997 General Election and the New Labour government featured heavily in Vine’s work from this time, including the memorable interview with Gordon Brown on his Radio 2 show, in which the then Prime Minister buried his head in his hands while being played his infamous comments about a woman with whom he’d just had a tense impromptu exchange on live TV.

Vine found his current home with his lunchtime show on BBC Radio 2 in 2003, while he continued to report on elections and present Panorama and Points of View into the 2010s, before he took over from Matthew Wright in 2018 to present the now self-titled morning current affairs show on Channel 5. His time on the airwaves has also included his long-standing presenting role on Eggheads, and his not-so long-lived stint on Strictly Come Dancing. Vine’s day now revolves around his shows on Channel 5 and Radio 2, and he talks passionately about the public interaction that characterises them both, saying in 2020: “you engage people through argument. I LOVE argument.”

Jeremy Vine entertaining the chamber after our conversation (Image credits: Nordin Catic)

I begin my discussion with Jeremy Vine by referring to his more than 35-year tenure at the BBC, and this stat causes Vine’s jaw to drop. “You’re joking, really?,” he interjects, his eyes sparkling as he takes on the youthfulness of the students in the room around us.

I begin my discussion with Jeremy Vine by referring to his more than 35-year tenure at the BBC, and this stat causes Vine’s jaw to drop. “You’re joking, really?,” he interjects, his eyes sparkling as he takes on the youthfulness of the students in the room around us.

“You know, I was at Westminster in the 90s when Blair was coming in, and there was John Major, and all that, and we had the same, the BBC was getting the same stuff. So I know it feels like it’s red-hot, but it’s always been the same.”

Vine doesn’t feel that the broadcaster is acutely to blame for its departures, as he instead draws attention to the attractive projects that ex-BBC employees often join: “I understand, but I don’t think it was anything wrong with the BBC. I mean, John had had an incredible career, he was with me at Westminster, he went to Washington, he’d done a lot of presenting, Emily the same, Newsnight. I just think in the end they wanted a different adventure.”

Vine then refers to radio presenter Ken Bruce who, up until a few weeks ago, had been Vine’s long-standing colleague on Radio 2 and neighbour in the mid-morning schedule. Bruce will join Greatest Hits Radio next month, and Vine admires the move: “I don’t know how much he’s being paid but it’s a fantastic move, at 71 to get a brand new show and a brand new job.”

Vine in the Union chamber (Image credits: Nordin Catic)

Jeremy Vine does, however, feel pressures from up top at the BBC, perhaps similar to those that Maitliss recalled hearing “in [her] ear” incessantly pushing for impartiality, and those described by satirist Armando Iannucci, regarding the current Lineker row, as causing the BBC to “tear itself apart.”

Vine, though, sees these pressures as predictable given the BBC’s unique position: “If you are what could loosely be described as the state broadcaster, then the government wrongly feels it owns you. That’s the problem. And they get a shock when they come into the studio feeling self-important and they’re treated like everybody else. And that’s exactly how it should be. So honestly don’t worry for us, we’re well up to it.”

This dynamic, and the news stories that arise from it, doesn’t “mean that the BBC’s on its last legs or anything, not at all,” says Vine.

Vine signing the Union’s book before his event (Image credits: Nordin Catic)

Vine clearly loves his job, both at Channel 5 and at the BBC. I suppose he must, given the hectic commute that sees him cycle frantically across London every day between the two – a dynamic managed by recording the last portion of his Channel 5 show beforehand, meaning that at 12pm every weekday Vine is addressing the nation simultaneously on television and on radio. It is this commitment that allows him to answer a resounding “Yes, I do,” when I ask him if he feels he has a good understanding of the public mood.

Both shows involve a large amount of viewer call-ins, and this is clearly very valuable to him: “In the same way that MPs have to go into their constituencies and knock door to door, in the end the joy of being on Radio 2 as opposed to Newsnight is that [at] Radio 2 the doors and windows are open to the audience.”

Rather than dictating the news to the public, which he believes is “quite an old model,” Vine relishes in being able to hear the news from the public, even (or especially) when this ranges from government policy to the goings-on at regular caller Terry’s Welsh allotment.

Jeremy Vine, then, is the MP of the airwaves, and believes that the BBC, for better or for worse, is his constituency.