By Paul Ray
Sat in a little room in South College, directly above Durham’s newest college bar, Jeremy Vine was talking to me about cycling.
“I love cycling. My daughter’s 17, right, so she might come to Durham next year if she’s lucky, if she gets in. And if she got into South College, I think the ideal thing would be to cycle, because she’d do English, so if you’re studying English and you’re at South, or Grey, or Van Mildert or Hild Bede, the obvious thing is to cycle, because why would you want to walk 25 minutes?
“But the problem is with cycling here is that you’ve got to go down South Road, and South Road needs sorting out! I mean, I’m looking at it thinking… I don’t know what the speed limit is, but there’s people going 50 [mph] on it. The pavement isn’t wide enough, and it seems to me that the council need to get stuck into this. They’ve got to make a safe cycling route on South Road.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that our 15 minute conversation traversed a variety of everyday topics, rather than sticking to the common themes of Brexit and Covid-19. Since 2003, the Durham alumnus has presented the main lunchtime show on BBC Radio 2, taking calls from ordinary people as well as interviewing prominent politicians (and playing 70s pop music, of course). Vine has become an expert in picking out and chewing over issues that matter to ordinary people; one such recent issue here in the North East was the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United. The presenter received considerable pushback on Twitter for asking if any Geordies were considering switching support to bitter rivals Sunderland to protest against their new owners’ dubious human rights record.
“I thought I would ask a stupid question, and it got some pretty angry answers. I wasn’t expecting the blowback. Twitter is violent at the moment, my God! I then apologised for the question, so I’m hoping I’ll be forgiven. I don’t think there’s a single Newcastle fan, who’s — well actually that’s not true, I was going to say who’s not still supporting the team. I spoke to one on Friday who said he won’t support them anymore because of the Saudi money, but most will just be delighted they’re going to have a good manager and have good players.”
I was curious to hear Vine’s own views on the matter, which has seemed to divide fans and media analysts quite starkly. “It’s so difficult. The thing is, I support Chelsea, and we were taken over by Roman Abramovich, and that means, to describe it in the most positive way possible, that we’ve got the benefit of a lot of privatised Russian oil and gas, and that’s a fairly positive reading of this. And you know what, the amount of time I spend thinking about that in a guilty way per match can be measured in seconds, because I’m watching Kante, and Jorginho, and Lukaku, and what a team, you know.”
“It’s funny, I pay a thousand pounds a year for my season ticket, and for that I’m probably watching £300m worth of players, and I’m paying £50 a game. That’s quite a good trade. And I should say the answer is yes, they can be happy, and they just… it’s one of those weird things. I think when there’s a moment when Britain cuts its links with Saudi Arabia, takes sanctions out on it, stops selling it arms, and generally says they’re having no diplomatic relations, at that point maybe Newcastle can think again, but not yet.”
As a presenter who broadcasts live for four hours every weekday, on television on Channel 5 and on radio on Radio 2, Vine is no stranger to dealing with controversy and backlash from things said live on air. One such incident happened a few weeks ago on his TV show, when outspoken guest Mike Parry declared that “minorities must be squashed,” in the context of a tirade against climate group Insulate Britain blocking roads. (Parry soon issued a statement insisting that he was only talking about disruptive protest groups, not minority groups in society.) I asked Vine if he thought the severe blowback from the incident was justified.
“I think it was one of those unfortunate moments… for me, I’ve got to ask myself as the presenter what my role is there, and my role is to challenge or get it clarified. But funnily enough, where I fell down was I was looking to the guest next to me, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who’d been in a long running argument with Mike Parry during that show, about almost everything. And she didn’t react. So when she didn’t react, I didn’t react. And as a result, I feel I let Mike down a bit there, because I didn’t get him to clarify it. And we were talking about the M25 protesters, and he said minorities have to be squashed. And when you take that particular phrase out, it just is a disaster. It looked terrible. So, it’s one of those things, you know, if you do as I do four hours live a day, every day, 20 hours live a week, you’ve got to be quite good at catching stuff, and I missed that.”
Britain, and indeed the whole world, has changed a lot in the 18 years since Vine became the voice of Radio 2 at midday. I wanted to know how the show’s phone calls from ordinary members of the public have exhibited this change. Have the calls become more politically vehement, more emotionally charged, in the past few years? Or has Britain always been this wound up?
“I think we are more divided, and we’re more inclined to argue with each other. That’s not a bad thing, it’s better to have an argument than a war. So a lot of the frustrations that we have on this tiny island are mediated through argument, verbally, which I suppose is okay. We’ve moved away from an illiberal thing, maybe in the 90s or 00s if someone in public life was gay, you’d have people ringing up and being angry about it. We’ve moved away from that, thankfully.”
I suggest that maybe this illiberal attitude towards gay people has merely been shifted towards trans people. Vine doesn’t seem comfortable engaging there: “I’m not sure about that.” He’s clearly choosing his words carefully. “In terms of tolerance for people with different sexualities etc, I think there’s an enormous amount, so I think the audience has got kinder. Where I think it’s changed is when you hit the culture wars thing. So, when you hit stuff to do with what’s described as benefits scrounging, or when you hit Brexit is the classic example. And actually, funnily enough, Covid became a culture war, because Covid became about the state being allowed to tell us to put a vaccine in our arms, or wear a mask, and so on. So all of that just becomes so heated… God!” he exclaims, seemingly dazed by the phenomenon he’s describing. “Hammer and tongs! It’s amazing how angry people get!
“But you know, in my own little world I see it on my road. Somebody has to stop for me at the lights and they wind their window down and shout abuse, and I’m thinking ‘is that what we’re all doing to each other, you know, we’re just shouting abuse at each other now?’”
Eventually, of course, Brexit did come up. We were talking about BBC impartiality, and the criticism it receives for its interpretation and execution of this impartiality. I put to Vine comments recently made by Jolyon Maugham in his interview with Palatinate (across), where he claimed that it was a democratic outrage that the BBC applied a ‘both sides’ approach to Boris Johnson’s prorogation (suspension) of Parliament in September 2019. Vine wasn’t having any of it.
“I think that’s not a great example, with respect, because the proroguing of Parliament issue to me was about whether Parliament was going to be allowed to override Brexit, the Brexit vote, and so that’s the other democratic issue. And so there’s definitely two sides to that one. I think the better impartiality example is climate change, where for a while we did have a ‘scientist versus Nigel Lawson’ type of thing, so we had a scientist versus someone who was angry about [the acceptance of climate change], and that’s not a good mix. But the BBC did get into the right position on that.”
“I mean, it is really difficult, impartiality, there’s no question about it, because some things are 50/50, other things are 80/20, some things are right and wrong, but it often seems like in all things we’ve got two people in the studio arguing against each other. So, I think you never get to a perfect position, and we’re learning all the time. A good example of it is my campaigning on cycling; I don’t really know whether I’m breaking BBC impartiality on it. I’m assuming I’m not, because basically all I’m trying to do is to stay alive. But can I campaign on climate change, would that be alright? Because the BBC accepts that climate change is happening, could I campaign for a greener planet? That sounds OK, but what if my campaign says that everyone needs to change their boiler next year, then all my listeners would get cross. So it’s really difficult, and I think the key thing to understand is that the BBC has never claimed to have solved it.”
Image courtesy of PalTV