Jeremy Vine on his ‘dread’ of cancel culture as he faces storm over Russia remarks

Jeremy Vine on the set of his eponymous Channel 5 talk show

One of Britain's most popular presenters Jeremy Vine has become embroiled in controversy after suggesting Russian soldiers 'deserve to die' on his talk show this week. Just days earlier, he spoke to Ian Burrell about his 'dread' of cancel culture, today's broadcasting landscape and why he's always been at pains to keep his views out of the news.

When Jeremy Vine returned to consciousness after a serious accident last month in which he went over the handlebars of his 140-year-old penny-farthing in an “incredible Olympic-style somersault”, he underwent something of a revelation.

Gathered round him in grassy Duke’s Meadow, west London, where he had fallen on his head, were four good Samaritans who came to his aid. One was a doctor, another a dog walker who wheeled the ancient bicycle to Vine’s home. “What happens when you go flying off the wheels of a penny-farthing is that four really nice people rally around to help you,” he tells The Drum. “You realize (the world is) not Twitter and not the arguments we have (on air), it’s nice people doing nice things and we need to remember in the modern world there are lots of them around.”

It was a reality check for Britain’s busiest and most successful talk show presenter, who is engaged in the task of explaining the Ukraine war to middle England. Viewers of his eponymous Channel 5 show watch him draw arrows in marker pen and place stickers of tanks and explosions on a map of Ukraine, deploying the same energy we see in his graphics-based coverage of elections for the BBC. “There are lots of people in Russia who don’t think Putin should have invaded Ukraine, there are lots of good people,” he reiterates.

But there are none, apparently, among the Russian armed forces: Vine caused shock on Thursday when he suggested to a caller to his Channel 5 show that “if you put on a uniform for Putin and you go and fight his war, you probably deserve to die don’t you?”

The blunt comment shocked the caller, who responded: “Do you? Do kids deserve to die, 18 and 20 years old, who are called up and conscripted?” The presenter replied: “That’s life, that’s the way it goes."

'My views are neither here nor there'

Vine’s stance caused uproar on social media where the presenter was accused of lacking humanity. He later defended himself by saying he was “replying to a caller with the counterpoint to his view” and merely doing his job. “My views are neither here nor there.”

Vine has always been studious in his neutrality. “I don’t think you’d know, if you [analysed] my output from the last 10 years, you wouldn’t have a clue which way I voted,” he claims (speaking ahead of Thursday’s controversy).

On his computer he has created something he calls his “bias wall”, where he charts audience complaints, according to where they place him on the political spectrum. “It’s amazingly 50-50. It’s actually a beautiful thing and I’d like to create some wallpaper out of it because some of them are fantastic,” he says, recalling that he was accused of being “up Boris’s arse” and a “Corbyn lover” in two separate complaints made in “the same minute”.

In the era of social media, the debate format that he specialises in has become “the hottest area of the industry”, he says. “It’s a fantastic environment to be on a talk show because you can talk it through. The joy of not fighting and not being at war is you argue it through and we are a great arguing nation I think.”

From the rapid expansion of Global’s LBC to the arrival of GB News and imminent launch of Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV, debate and opinion formats are now at the forefront of UK media. While the audiences of Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan or James O’Brien might have knowledge and an expectation of the presenter’s views, Vine has deliberately and successfully kept his personal position opaque, leaving his guests to hold forth. Until this week.

Alongside coverage of war and the pandemic the show will debate less terrifying subjects, such as the preponderance of pigeons in Biggleswade or people who park on the pavement. “The key word is range,” says Vine. “Our lives contain the light and the heavy, the serious and the silly. Positive moments are really important – you can’t just argue for two hours.”

Yet Vine is not about to turn away from the often-heated and polarized rows that have helped generate record ratings for his morning Channel 5 show, Jeremy Vine, which is produced by ITN and has grown its daily reach to 835,000. The show began in 2018, succeeding Matthew Wright’s long-running The Wright Stuff from Princess Productions, which had an audience of under 300,000. “I have presented Newsnight, Panorama, Crimewatch,” says Vine, “but I have not had as much facial recognition as I have had until this point in my career.” His lunchtime Radio 2 show has a weekly reach of nearly 7 million.

Cancel culture 'fills me with dread'

Cancel culture is a problem for a host who needs unabashed and outspoken guests. “With cancelation, if someone says something [that provokes a backlash] they can never be on the air again, so people fight shy of certain areas. This is territory we haven’t really had to deal with before.” Digital media is “so unforgiving” of verbal gaffes. “It’s there repeating on you, day after day for eternity. That’s a very difficult environment for people who want to speak their minds.”

Cancel culture “fills me with dread”, he says, as someone “passionately in favour of hearing every view”. When a guest recently mooted the potential assassination of Vladimir Putin, the presenter thought it a discussion subject “we should be unafraid of”.

When it comes to culture wars, Vine identifies the “biggest single fault line” as the generation gap. “Old people call young people ‘snowflakes’ and young people say old people have taken all the housing. There doesn’t seem to be any meeting of minds at all, it’s like they are living on separate planets.”

The Channel 5 show’s audience in the 16-54 demographic grew 6 per cent last year. But it must not ignore the retired audience, the presenter warns. “We should make sure that we don’t forget the slightly quieter voice of the older generation. You might think that the natural reflex of the show is to be broadcasting to people who are 60 and 70 - I think it’s to be broadcasting to people who are 25 and 35.”

Diversity of guest voices is the “single biggest thing” on the show. “If you look at our panels day after day, we have people of very different ages, genders, races,” he says. “It’s extremely important that we never have a situation where up flashes a (caption) saying we are talking about ethnic diversity in Britain and you have three white people on the panel.” Producer Jordaan Shelley has a key role in drawing up a “grid” to ensure the right boxes are ticked for a balanced panel. Regulars include Iain Dale, Ayesha Hazarika and Carole Malone. Panellists must be able to talk on all topics for two hours, unlike Vine’s radio shows where guests are matched to one story.

The show determinedly looks beyond the metropolis, he says. “We force it outside of London all the time.” It had a record audience share of 6.72 per cent in January and its ABC1 audience increased by 2 per cent last year. In January it was extended by an hour - Jeremy Vine Extra - in which Vine’s colleague Storm Huntley fields further audience calls while he heads to the BBC.

Daniel Pearl, vice president commissioning editor at Viacom CBS, Channel 5’s owner, says the Jeremy Vine audience is made up of “a range of people from retirees to stay at home mums and dads, to people on maternity and paternity leave, to people on disability benefits, people working night shifts, students who have only just got up…”

Many are watching alone and seeking companionship, which is why the show aims to offer a “welcoming sense of a club”, where viewers are active and engaged. “I don’t believe there is another TV current affairs show in the country where you have a phone-in with people giving their views and talking to experts.”

The most important companion is Vine himself, probably the most-energetic man in British media. When he is not presenting his chat shows he might be recording an episode of quiz show Eggheads (now also on Channel 5) or out bike-riding. “He just doesn't seem to get tired - there are seven Jeremy Vines!” jokes Pearl.

Vine, 56, was back on two wheels the day after his crash. At the end of a Channel 5 shift he rides two miles from ITN’s Gray’s Inn Road building across London to Radio 2’s Wogan House. He prefers his “normal pedal bike” because the 1880 penny-farthing would be “a bit iffy” for commuting and his electric one causes him to worry that “I’m not getting enough aerobic”.

Such is his cycling fanaticism that he fears it could upend him, not by falling from the saddle but by undermining his studious neutrality. “If I do have one area where I will get into trouble it will be cycling because I’m passionately in favour of road safety,” he says. “I get told I am biased against road death. I really wasn’t aware there were two positions on that.”