Justin Marozzi

Travails with Auntie

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It's All News to Me

Jeremy Vine

Simon and Schuster, pp. 339, £

He’s the Housewives’ Favourite, the Voice of Middle England on Radio 2, one moment discussing the perils of your other half leaving the gas on, the next slipping on an Elvis Costello track to liven up your lunch. Bit of a cheeky chappie, affable, engaging, amusing, doesn’t appear to take himself too seriously. We like that in a broadcaster. Self-important windbags James Naughtie, Nick Robinson and John Simpson, do please take note.

Jeremy discusses neighbours who keep sofas and old cars in their garden, no-fault dismissal, how a tragic car crash shattered one family’s lives and breastfeeding three-year olds,

the show’s website declares of his latest programme. This is the sort of stuff that he and his several million listeners are preoccupied by.

He says it has taken the plum Radio 2 job, which he got when Sir Jimmy Young was finally told he’d had a good innings, to make him realise that it’s the public, not the journalist, that always has the best stories. Of his many loyal callers he cites a couple of favourites who tell it as it is. There’s Trish in Redditch who says: ‘The only way to stop these complaints over animal testing is to try out all new drugs on animal rights protesters.’ Then there’s the caller who warns the Health Secretary against wasting money on an expensive anti-obseity programme: ‘If you give obese people £780 million, they’re just going to spend it on food.’

The book is rather like his programme: lively, anecdotal and digressive. Working in the BBC’s Westminster unit, he observes at close quarters the feline duplicity of Peter Mandelson, the heavy-handedness of Alastair Campbell and the ghastly hypocrisy of the political class:

One Tory MP who told me unattributably, ‘John Major is an utter disgrace, he must go tomorrow’, drew a deep breath when my microphone was on and then announced: ‘I back the Prime Minister and I wish my colleagues would stop this pathetic sniping from the shadows.’

It may be an insight into why we think so little of our politicians.

It’s All News to Me is a breezy canter through Vine’s career at the BBC, from over-ambitious graduate trainee to seasoned Radio 2 fortysomething, via stints in Westminster, a posting to South Africa and a turbulent period at Newsnight, where he was known as ‘Mini-Me’ to Jeremy Paxman. The arch-eyebrowed grandee of British broadcasting greets his new junior with less than collegiate good cheer:

‘What on earth are you doing here?’ (The accent was on the words ‘what’, ‘earth’, ‘you’, ‘doing’ and ‘here’).

Vine tells his story with a refreshing candour that demonstrates both his insatiable appetite for attention and an apparently genuine awareness of how absurd it all is. He offers various rules pertaining to broadcasting and journalism throughout the book. ‘No matter how important you think you are, you aren’t’ is one that may be news to a number of his colleagues.

He is entertaining about the BBC’s byzantine management structure and the divide between Them and Us, those in front of microphones and cameras and those behind. Moving onto Newsnight, he is congratulated by a manager responsible for his salary on a ‘massive move, to a massive show, which will be an absolutely huge break for you’. A fortnight later, when Vine has the temerity to ask that his pay should reflect the importance of the programme, the same man counters, ‘Come off it, Jeremy. You are moving into a junior position on a show with a small audience that is aired very late at night.’ Relief for licence-payers across the land.

Some of the most perceptive writing comes from his time in Africa, where, during an attempt to film Aids victims in Namibia, he realises he is behaving like a vulture and remembers the foreign correspondent Edward Behr’s classic Seventies account, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? To his credit, he says the best writing he came across in Africa was the terribly poignant tribute written by his maid and cook to her son, killed in a car crash. ‘When it came to language and feeling, I was the one with all the shortcomings.’ He copies in full the heartrending letter to his family written by a young man serving in Afghanistan to be opened in the event of his death. It reminds him once again that ‘the journalist may not be important, but the story is.’