It’s All News To Me, by Jeremy Vine (Simon & Schuster, pp339, £18.99)
You probably don’t know this, but all members of the Amalgamated Union of Radio Broadcasters have to swear an oath that they will preserve certain closely-guarded professional secrets on pain of forever sitting in front of a dead mic.
Far be it from me to risk such a fate, but I can – I think – gently point you in the direction of where some of these secrets might be found. I shall expect you to forget them as soon as you have read them, much as you forget pretty much everything you hear on the radio anyway.
Could you possibly imagine, for example, that radio broadcasters tend to be (with just a few exceptions, naturally) ego-driven, neurotic, and pathologically insecure, in need of daily reassurance that their job is safe for at least another week?
Would you swoon in disbelief if I were to hint that, just occasionally, we (sorry, they) wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, nerves shredded, having suffered that ultimate presenter nightmare of being in a studio with the cue light on and a pile of scripts consisting only of blank sheets of paper? (Yes, gentle reader, been there, done that. Many times.)
And you would simply refuse to believe, would you not, that being a radio broadcaster is beyond doubt the best job in the world, with a higher joy to hassle ratio than any other career on earth, with the possible exception of champagne taster for a high-end French vineyard.
To succeed as a radio broadcaster, you need only three modest gifts: an ability to keep the bosses happy, an ability to keep the listeners happy – and gigantic dollops of luck. Every day, every week, every year. Obviously, it helps if you can string a couple of sentences together and give the impression of being in control even while your programme is collapsing around you. A talented production team helps even more …
So how about this for luck? Suppose you are writing an account of your first 25 years at the BBC, and at some point you feel the need to pass judgement on the man who was in charge of one of the programmes you presented some years ago. You choose to describe him as “luminously bright” and as having had, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, the “single most valuable insight” of the day.
Then, long after your book has gone off to the printers – indeed, just as it is hitting the bookshops – guess what, that same ex-editor is miraculously appointed director-general of the BBC. That’s what I call luck – and Jeremy Vine, as he himself admits in this hugely enjoyable memoir, has had luck in bucket-loads.
He has also had – and he admits this too, although with a self-deprecation that perhaps doesn’t quite convince – a Shard-size ambition to make it to the top. He was the youngest broadcaster ever to present Newsnight on BBC-2 (“You don’t want to be the youngest, Jeremy,” wise old John Sergeant told him. “You want to be the oldest.”) – but quickly discovered that being perceived, whether fairly or not, as the self-appointed dauphin to The Great Paxo (mini-me?), is not a good career move.
Vine concludes that if your name is Jeremy, you should never agree to present a programme on which another presenter is also called Jeremy. But what about if your initials are JV? Isn’t it tempting fate to take over from a venerable national institution who is known universally as JY? (That’s Jimmy Young, for the uninitiated, whose immensely popular show on BBC Radio 2, Vine inherited in 2003.)
Vine has an easy manner on air that he reproduces perfectly on the printed page. His book is full of delightful anecdotes and there are plenty of jokes at his own expense. As, for example, when he’s offered the Jimmy Young job, and Paxman jokingly (?) emails to ask if he can be Vine’s agent. “Only if you give up all your other jobs,” Vine replies rashly.
The Paxo smash back across the net is as unplayable as it is inevitable. “I can’t think handling your career would take up too much of my time.” Ouch and double ouch, but all credit to Vine for telling the tale. And also for telling the cringingly embarrassing story of how he came to make an utter prat of himself wearing a Stetson hat and a cowboy pistol for a memorable car crash of a TV election broadcast in 2008.
All of which leaves me with no choice: at the next meeting of the Amalgamated Union of Radio Broadcasters, I shall be proposing Vine’s immediate expulsion. He has let all our cats out of all their bags, and has unforgivably given the entire game away. He makes it sound such fun, which of course it is – but you were never meant to know that.
Robin Lustig has presented The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and Newshour on BBC World Service since 1989. He is a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review, which he chaired from 1993 until 2002.