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9 November 2022

Phil Jones’s Diary: Climate change up close, the nightmares of history and working with my old friend Jeremy Vine

Dying trees on a trip to Germany are a reminder that politicians are doing too little to address the climate crisis.

By Phil Jones

“I bet you wish you were still editing the Jeremy Vine show?” friends ask as yet another government crisis explodes. I can honestly say: “Not for one minute.” I’ve always known that what journalists find thrilling the rest of the population find alarming, as people suffer yet more cost-of-living pain. Also, I’m enjoying having my own voice, although when I mention that to an ex-colleague he laughs at me: “You’ve got to be joking, Phil. You spent 30 years at Radio 2 doing exactly as you pleased and ignoring every BBC rule on impartiality.” I was thinking of that in August when Jeremy Vine was found to have breached the editorial guidelines after expressing support for low-traffic neighbourhoods. Knowing Jeremy as well as I do, I suspect he has taken the judgement very seriously, but nothing will stop him campaigning for safer cycling.

My beef with the whole idea of impartiality is that journalism should be about a search for the truth, not a lame attempt to present both sides of the argument. Often there isn’t another side that’s honest or credible. During Brexit, a majority of economists said leaving the EU would be a disaster, yet the BBC went to extraordinary lengths to balance that by finding the odd economist who thought it was a great idea. While visiting my daughter in Berlin, she made the wry comment, “When I left Britain five years ago Jeremy Corbyn was being vilified. Five years later it’s Jeremy Vine.” It’s not so long ago that, as a BBC journalist, I was expected to give weight to the arguments of climate change deniers.

[See also: The BBC: Mirror of the nation – by Andrew Marr]

The inescapable crisis

Travelling to the German capital, we stop off in the Harz Mountains. In previous centuries these gentle hills were beloved by German literary giants such as Goethe and Heine. A fellow hiker remarks how stunning the scenery is. Well, not really, I think, as I trudge up the highest peak. All around the trees are dead or dying. The culprit is a beetle that eats into the bark. But the real enemy is climate change, as rising temperatures allow the pest to flourish. I feel a sense of gloom as I contemplate our planet’s future after a summer of searing heat. It’s as if nature herself is crying out in despair.

Seeking solace, I turn to cold-water swimming. It’s every bit as exhilarating as people say, despite freezing your bollocks off. But wait: as I emerge from the lake a helpful lady tells me about the dangers of blue-green algae: “It didn’t used to be a problem because the cold weather would kill it off, but that doesn’t happen now because of climate change.” Unfortunately, we live in a world where politicians aren’t going to do enough to avert the climate emergency, and peaceful, non-violent protesters are being sent to prison for six months.

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Calling Kafka

Sadly, my father-in-law died last month and our thoughts turn to his widow. Like many clergy wives, she is a remarkable woman. In late life you’ve got to be strong to survive the death of a man you’ve walked in step with and loved dearly for 60 years. In times of loss, I’m struck by how kind most people are – unlike large corporations. Try ringing a call centre when you’ve just lost your husband. The Kafkaesque hurdles defeat the best of us, but are particularly bewildering to the elderly. These global utility giants seem only to care about their shareholders. I offer to help, and after 20 minutes a distant voice answers – I’m guessing from another continent. But I’m defeated by data protection, the very thing we’re told is there to keep us safe. One is left feeling angry and powerless, but I try again. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, they replace the human with a bloody robot.

[See also: Sasha Swire’s Diary: Rishi Rich in No 10, lords-in-waiting, and a case of the green-eyed monster]

How to welcome migrants

I’ve exchanged editing Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 with being a panellist on his Channel 5 show. The question is: what would I do about all those migrants crossing the Channel? I answer that I’d give them each a £10,000 grant to set themselves up in business – which would be much better value than wasting millions sending them to Rwanda. These people have made dangerous journeys to reach our island and must be the most resourceful, hard-working and brave souls you’d ever meet. Like many immigrants before them they’ll be running the country within 20 years – and probably end up in the Tory cabinet!

On the spot over Auschwitz

Jeremy asks me what it felt like visiting Germany, given some of my family were murdered at Auschwitz. Good question, but it’s slightly unnerving to have to respond to something so personal and complex on live TV. I can say for sure it bothers me less these days, but I remember walking the streets of Berlin in the 1980s and thinking that every elderly person I saw may have been a concentration camp guard.  

[See also: Gary Lineker: “The BBC can’t stop me talking about politics”]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink