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23 February 2022

Phil Jones’s Diary: Leaving Radio 2, the Queen’s favourite show, and why Gorbachev apologised to me

I’m certain that one person who does support the BBC is the Queen, who told me once that her favourite programme is The Kumars at No 42.

By Phil Jones

A s I leave Radio 2 I wonder if 26 years editing the same BBC programme is a record. I depart with a reputation as a maverick and a rule-breaker, as even the director-general, Tim Davie, acknowledged (albeit in a rather affectionate tone). When I became a manager I believed my duty was to protect my staff from management. I’m also conscious of sounding like many of my predecessors, who were made famous by the BBC, only to spend their retirement mercilessly slagging it off. So I hereby make a solemn promise not to join them. There are lots of things wrong with the corporation but, right now, it needs every friend it has to save it from the barbarians ready to destroy the greatest cultural institution this country has.

Journalistic bias

If anyone can save the Beeb, Tim Davie can, and I have always enjoyed his outings at parliamentary select committees, where he takes no prisoners. Despite my best efforts over lunch, Tim didn’t reveal any of his plans (such as how he will cut millions of pounds? And who will replace Laura Kuenssberg?). What I can exclusively reveal, though, is that most weekends Tim can be seen running the footpaths and bridleways of the Chiltern Hills. For the next political editor, I suggested Ash Sarkar, who is exceptionally bright. Colleagues have countered that she’s too left-wing to be impartial. Don’t you just love the prejudice that right-wing journalists can be impartial in their work but left-wing ones don’t have that capacity?

The head of state at No 42

I’m certain that one person who does support the BBC is the Queen, even if her loyalty has been greatly tested. (Remember when the BBC had to apologise after admitting it had implied she stormed out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz?) So where is my evidence that the Queen loves the Beeb?

[see also: Lionel Barber’s Diary: Boris Johnson’s new leaf, inflation fears, and being headhunted by Ofcom]

Well, I’ve kept this exclusive story secret for 21 years after I was told by a BBC executive that, on pain of death, journalists should never reveal their conversations with the monarch. In 2001 I was invited to a media function at Buckingham Palace. The first thing the Queen said was how much she loved Terry Wogan. No surprise there. We all knew the Queen was a Radio 2 listener. We chatted for ages, which I can tell you is rather surreal. My brain kept saying, “Bloody hell I’m talking to the Queen and I can’t think of a single thing to say!” In the end I alighted on, “What’s your favourite programme?” Straightaway, she said, “The Kumars at No 42” and, even more astonishingly, proceeded to recite some of the one-liners from the grandma character, played by the brilliant Meera Syal.

But why was I really surprised? Her favourite programme was about a family of Asian immigrants settled in the UK. Maybe the Queen genuinely supports multiculturalism, loves BBC sitcoms and has a wicked sense of humour. All of which leaves me a little torn because, putting it delicately, I’m not the world’s greatest royalist. You can now count me among that growing group of republicans who don’t like the monarchy much but suspect the Queen is a good egg. We can only wish her a speedy recovery from Covid.

Saying sorry to Alfred

I was always suspicious of the authoritarian types who rang my Radio 2 show during civil liberties debates and declared, “If you’ve done nothing wrong then you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Try telling that to my Czech grandfather, Alfred, who was arrested for doing absolutely nothing and spent a year in jail, dying prematurely. When I met Mikhail Gorbachev I told him: “Both our grandparents were arrested by the Stalinist police.” He seemed intrigued and when I said that Grandad died as a result of that injustice, he said: “On behalf of the Russian people, I am truly sorry.” You could say it was a little too late, but I’ll take it nonetheless. All of which reminds me why, as an idealistic young man, I became a journalist: to challenge authority, injustice and the misuse of power. That’s what the BBC at its best still does, and why it’s worth fighting for.

Second childhood

Will I miss the job? I’m sure I will, a little. I’m bound to grieve the loss of something I’ve loved so much. But I’m lucky because I will always enjoy hiking up a mountain more. And having extra time with friends and family. A colleague asked me what one thing I would do if I could go back in time. “That’s easy,” I replied. “I’d spend a day with my children, when they were five and seven, and enjoy reliving every second of it.” I love my children, now 26 and 28, but spending a day again with them as children would be heaven.

Phil Jones was editor of “The Jeremy Vine Show” on BBC Radio 2 and is currently writing his memoirs

[see also: John Simpson’s Diary: In Afghanistan food is scarce, poverty is spreading and fear is everywhere]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls