Jeremy Vine: 'It's do or die, but let's go for it ...'

That's Jeremy Vine's rallying cry as he prepares to front a new-look 'Panorama' - and take an already illustrious career to a whole new level. Jane Thynne hears how he plans to do it
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The Independent Online

Jeremy Vine has just completed his latest novel. He wrote it, JK Rowling-style, at a café table - in the corner of a branch of Eat in Regent Street, London, where he would go before his daily show aired on Radio 2.

The novel is a psychodrama about a boy bullied at school who, 20 years on, succeeds in avenging his persecutors. Even if he doesn't come anywhere near enjoying Rowling's success, Vine can at least look forward to achieving things in his day job. He is about to become the presenter of a new-format Panorama, widely seen as a last-ditch relaunch for the BBC's 53-year-old current affairs show.

And it will give Vine the chance to answer those in TV current affairs who have previously underestimated him.

If the BBC had a face, it might well be that of Jeremy Vine. Engaging, Home Counties, youthful, conservative with a small "c". Fans call him "wholesome"; detractors call him bland. He is known for his Christian convictions and laments the "collapse of courtesy" in the media. Despite a week of sleep deprivation occasioned by a new baby - Vine's partner is Radio 4 reporter Rachel Schofield - he is resolutely upbeat. When he presented Newsnight 10 years ago, it was an effort of will to summon enough nastiness.

"I enjoyed Newsnight," he says. "It was house style to wipe the floor with interviewees. No one gets out of that studio alive. Newsnight was like playing squash - it's an explosive exercise. Radio is a much more intimate connection with the audience and it's probably more truthful. TV's a show, radio's a conversation, TV is impact, radio is intimacy. You have to be true to yourself, and at heart I'm not a snarler really. My snarling phase was assumed. I thought, 'I'm going into this TV arena where everybody's really mean and vicious and I suppose I should be too.'"

That didn't stop people being mean to Vine, of course. One of the more scathing descriptions of that time came from Jeremy Paxman, who used to refer to him as "mini-me".

"I pretended not to mind, but I did resent it," Vine says. "Now I look back and I think maybe it was the best thing because unless you are causing some aggravation to Paxo as the third presenter, you are completely invisible. So one of my greatest achievements is to have annoyed him. But at the time I was pissed off. I remember someone saying, he's been going round the office calling you "mini-me" and I thought that's pretty serious.

"But I should stress that I'm not trying to get even here. I am quite philosophical about it now. I think I took myself too seriously, actually. Newsnight is Paxman's show and I waltzed in and I was very young, 34, and I remember breezing up to him saying, 'I can't wait to start! Tell me everything you know!" There are very few people like Paxman. He's a total one-off."

Born in 1965, the son of a maths lecturer, Vine grew up in Epsom and was a punk rocker in the cleanest, Cheam-est sense, playing drums in a band called The Flared Generation. After Durham University, he joined the BBC as a news trainee, went through a failed marriage, questioned his faith, and became a correspondent in Africa. There is something about his Christianity, his earnest charisma and Middle-England appeal, that recalls a young, pre-sleaze version of Tony Blair.

From early on he knew he was made for radio. "When I was 12 I was the young DJ on the Kenny Everett show. I remember walking in and there was Roger Scott in the corner who I listened to every day and he was just this little figure in a cubicle and I was amazed. I said to my mum, 'I'm going to be a DJ,' and she said, 'Well it's probably not the future,' so I took her advice, went through all this journalism, became a reporter on the Today programme and Newsnight, and then I end up here."

"Here" is expressed in tones of deep satisfaction. He loves Radio 2, and his show, where he mixes cultural debate with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Salman Rushdie alongside phone-ins on Daily Mail staples like teenage tearaways and the NHS. He is credited with bringing a younger, slightly cooler demographic to the network. Yet it does seem a leap to go from crucifying politicians on Newsnight to communing with the "smart mums" who make up the bulk of his Radio 2 lunchtime audience. After reporting from Eritrea, South Africa, Croatia and Northern Ireland, don't quick chats between Elvis Costello and Kylie Minogue seem ever so slightly tame?

"It's not so much tame as in a strange way more real. I always used to think that news was something that we give to them, the licence-fee payers, and I now realise it goes the other way round, that news is something they tell us. The idea that I might know more than 5 million listeners is preposterous. The BBC goes in cycles. It used to be the Mission to Explain, we stand on the mountain top and hand down tablets of stone, now it's completely in reverse, we are on a Mission to Explore and we need the listeners' help in finding out things. It may even be a higher form of journalism, what I'm doing now."

Such comments go to the heart of the discontent that surrounds Vine's arrival at Panorama this month. For a long time Panorama has been viewed as TV's awkward old relation in the corner - difficult, unappealing, but too venerable to kill off. The "Panorama problem" has been in every controller's in-tray for years. Greg Dyke's solution - to shuffle the programme into a graveyard Sunday night slot - led to the audience decline that prompted the current relaunch.

With Vine the show will return to a presenter-led format, pioneered by Richard Dimbleby, David Dimbleby and Robin Day, and seen with ratings success on ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald. It will have a regular primetime home at 8.30 on Monday nights but will be reduced to 30 minutes. To some, this smacks of dumbing down. John Ware, the programme's long-serving investigative reporter, has quit. Other staff have departed, and there is alarm at the thought that the programme may virtually abandon foreign coverage in favour of untaxing, "accessible" domestic topics, which do not have to be laboriously explained. Vine's first two shows will be on IVF and "have-a-go heroes", but a studio discussion on Iraq has been shelved.

To one current affairs producer, the odds are weighted against the relaunched Panorama from the start. "It's a terrible slot. There's Dispatches at 8pm, and how many people are going to watch Tonight with Trevor McDonald, then turn over for another dose of current affairs at 8.30? Panorama were mad to take that slot, it's a dead zone, and they'll need to get 4 million a show or they're in serious trouble. No controller wants current affairs now, they only tend to take it through the back door, like BBC 3's F***k Off I'm Fat. There's virtually no current affairs on BBC 2. It's a really worrying time."

Vine, however, claims this is backward thinking, "The whole dumbing-down thing is a really old argument. It's a way of saying ordinary people who pay the licence fee shouldn't be allowed to watch news they're interested in and it should all be more highbrow and concocted by people who come from Oxbridge and I don't really buy that. The BBC is falling over itself to try to reach listeners and viewers who are paying the licence fee but don't think there is a programme that does what they're interested in."

He believes, with his foreign reporting credentials, that there should be no alarm. "The answer is, there are foreign things you can do which are fascinating. On Radio 2 we did the 16-year-old girl in Iran who is going to be stoned for alleged prostitution and an asylum-seeker in Uganda came on the programme and there was a massive response. There are lots of ways of doing those stories, but there needs to be a human way in. We do share all kinds of things with people in far-away places of which we know little and we should never underestimate the power of that."

So will Panorama be like Tonight with Trevor McDonald? "Well that's a complimentary comparison because they do very well in prime time and they put current affairs on very successfully. I don't want to sound like a corporate cheese, but Panorama is the biggest brand we've got. This is a do-or-die operation to take the programme back to prime time and Mondays in a changed media landscape where we're fighting not just 249 other channels but Google and YouTube and MySpace. So I've got no idea what's going to happen, but let's go for it."

Despite his blissful time at Radio 2, Vine doesn't mind admitting that he has missed TV. "All broadcasters want to be on TV. Everyone wants their own show, and the great thing that gives Radio 2 a premium over Newsnight is that Newsnight, even if you're Paxo, is a shared enterprise. Our programme title is my name, which is an incredible thing. Bizarrely, after I started on Radio 2 I got recognised in the street more than on Newsnight."

Last year he was approached to host ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby Sunday show, with "a lot of money", but he could not face leaving the BBC. "There's something in me that keeps me at the BBC. I'm slightly in love with it. It's allowed me to do some amazing things. I worry that at times I have too much loyalty to the BBC, that it's woven into my DNA. All presenters should feel part of an insurgency inside the organisation. You get these consensus positions adopted by the people in charge and it's up to us to be a little bit eccentric and difficult and loud and strange. That's what presenters should be."

Vine himself, however, doesn't seem in the least difficult, loud or strange. The only thing that's bothering him at the moment is the novel. He has published before - two books set in the Church of England - but this new one is a departure.

"I'm trying to rejig it here, in the café, on my little laptop. My first two novels were written eons ago and it would be quite embarrassing to even read the titles of them, let alone the text. This one's different. It's probably no good and I'll have to do a total rewrite."

But that is not enough to dent his optimism. "It is a great time of life for me now. New baby, new show. There are new things on all fronts. It's brilliant."

The new series of Panorama begins on BBC1 on 15 January