One of my favourite things when doing these interviews for the Moorlander – aside from hearing some of the most fascinating stories from Devonians – is the number of places in our county that you get to explore.
Interviewing former BBC Royal Correspondent Jennie Bond at her home this week was most certainly one of my favourites. After spending what felt like a day travelling around the lanes of South Devon, you drive into what can only be described as a cliffside home overlooking unlimited sea – right across the horizon.
Surrounded on both sides by high hills, it was like driving down into a secluded fort.
One of the problems, however, which my editor found out the hard way, was it is so secluded that you miss the entrance to the driveway. After exploring most of the South Devon coast, he eventually found it and we could begin our interview.
Jennie was the voice and face of BBC news for 14 years, becoming a staple of British TV covering the Royal Family. However, as I know, every journalist starts somewhere and in Jennie’s case it was the Richmond Herald, though it was quite a personal journey before she got there.
“I always kind of felt that I would like to broadcast. I hated amateur dramatics, I was too scared to go on the stage, so I did the lights at school instead. But I did enjoy reading out loud in my bedroom and the sound of my own voice.” Jennie paused at this moment before adding “That sounds awful!”
Despite these initial thoughts, however, it wasn’t broadcasting that she would go into immediately: “But then I thought I’d be a teacher and I did a French and European degree at Warwick University. One of my tutors was Germaine Greer, so it was very radical for a convent school girl like myself to go to this mad, crazy world of university.
‘I had a go at teaching as part of my degree and I was absolutely
appalling at it. I was hauled-up by the headmaster accused of corrupting the pupils. That’s because I talked about things that they were interested in. We talked about Jimi Hendrix dying of a drugs overdose and various other things.
‘One of my friends became a journalist and I thought that was very interesting and I followed her. I wrote to every newspaper in the country…and I sent the same letter which said: ‘I know your area of the country extremely well and I would like to be a reporter on your newspaper’. Only one gave me an interview. He rang and said ‘come to Richmond tomorrow’ and I said ‘Where’s Richmond?’ – that was not a good start!”
In a story that most journalists, or even most new job-starters can relate to from some point in their career, Jennie would go on to describe the first meeting with her future boss:
“Meeting my first editor was a great revelation. I went in, frightened about the prospect of this interview with this man, he had his feet up on the desk wearing only socks and eating a big raw onion! We had a very combative interview in which he challenged me about why I knew I would be a good journalist with a French and European degree. I eventually said ‘I know f*** all about journalism but I will learn. I promise you I will learn!’ and he gave me the job.
‘It was quite brutal. I remember my first story. He tore it up in front of me, threw it in the bin, set fire to it and then kicked it across the newsroom.”
I couldn’t help thinking at this point that I have got away lightly with some of the stories I have produced over the last three years of being at the Moorlander.
For many of us that remember Jennie’s broadcasts throughout the 90s especially, it would be fair to say that she was the height of professionalism. However, even the best of them have had some mistakes they have got to overcome in their career.
“I remember making this god-awful mistake in my first newspaper. I still to this day get a bit mixed up between defendant and plaintiff. Now that’s a crucial difference…I went to a court case and I got it wrong in my copy the next day.
‘This woman came in the next morning and said that I called her the accused. Luckily no one was in the office when she came in. I got down my on my knees and begged her not to say anything because I would lose my job and bless her, she didn’t.”
Jennie went on to work at the Evening Mail before eventually joining the BBC in 1977 – the place that would see her go from strength to strength and become a household name.
“I think I always wanted to work for the Beeb. I applied two or three times but was turned down two or three times…then they would write to you and say they did want you.”
‘I remember being given the weather forecast,” Jennie put on her very best sarcastic voice at this point, “It was very, very exciting to write the weather forecast. Peter Donaldson with his lovely dulcet tones would get to the end and ‘…and now for the weather forecast’ – and I would be like ‘I WROTE THAT!’”
Jennie started her career at the BBC as an editor, taking on what the organisation called ‘attachments’, spending time on International Assignment, Women’s Hour and Time of Your Life with Noel Edmonds.
“I was writing and editing the news for 11 years in radio and then I became a radio reporter – I think I just said that I fancied doing some reporting and I did!
‘The first time I ever heard my voice on the radio was before I became a reporter. In the middle of the night you had to do a brief newspaper review and you went down to Radio Two which was in the bowels of the BBC – and you had to do a two-minute review on the papers. Before I got there I just couldn’t speak – you were so nervous — my mouth was so dry. I don’t think I enjoyed my first broadcast so much!
‘I became a radio reporter and then a general reporter on the TV and I loved that. You genuinely did not know what you were going to do each day and you’d have your passport in your bag ready to go.”
When she eventually took on the role that would, in many ways, define her career as a broadcast journalist, it was surprisingly with some reluctance.
“One of my bosses, Chris Cramer, asked me if I wanted to be a
Royal Reporter. Well, actually he said Court reporter and I thought
‘Oh s**t. My shorthand’s awful – I don’t think I would be able to do that.’ And he went ‘Oh no – I meant the Royals’.
‘I really didn’t want to do it – I thought it was a bit of a poisoned chalice. It was all really frilly and silly and frothy and ‘Here comes the Queen in her light green ensemble’ – and it was all just too silly.
‘And then it became an important story about the monarchy and if it would survive and then the Diana years and the War of the Waleses. It was no longer the bottom of the bulletin but now the top. I said I would do it for the year. Well, I did it for 14 years.”
Despite covering the Royals for so long, Jennie was not someone who thought much of protocol or the deference naturally shown to the family.
“I was never able to bow or curtsey. I couldn’t do the ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Your Royal Highness’. When I saw Prince Edward recently, I couldn’t even utter the word ‘Sir’ so I just said ‘Hello. How are you doing?’
“I wouldn’t say I am a Republican, I’m just not a raving monarchist. I am a big believer in politics and if the British people decided to get rid of the monarchy and introduce a presidential style system, I think that would be quite good. But I firmly believe that if we had another referendum – God forbid – on the future of the monarchy I would be quite convinced the monarchy would keep its 70% approval rating.”
During her time covering the Royal Family – probably at one of its most difficult, post-war periods – Jennie would strike-up a strong relationship with Princess Diana, which all started with a simple note.
Jennie wrote to Diana stating that if she wanted her to cover accurately, she should know more about her character. Her request was granted and she would go on to meet Diana on a number of occasions.
“It was really helpful to chat to her. She was frank with me but to this day I still wonder if, when she talked to me on those two or three occasions, if she actually wanted me to go out and broadcast it.”
However, it did not come as good news to Jennie when it was revealed that Martin Bashir would conduct an interview with Diana – the one with the infamous line ‘…there were three of us in this marriage.’
“I was furious. But Diana was like that. You could sit with her one day chatting away having a cup of tea like old friends and the next day she would cut you dead.”
Over the course of her career, Jennie reported on many dramatic and notable events to do with the royal family, including the 1992 Windsor Castle fire, two royal weddings, the break-up of the Duke of York’s marriage to Sarah Ferguson, the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the deaths of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, and has reported on the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s celebrations of her Golden Jubilee. She was in Australia, in January 1994, when an attempt was made to shoot the Prince of Wales.
I asked her what stuck out in her mind when thinking about her career: “The Windsor fire was a perfect example of the lack of access us journalists got. I was in Buckingham Palace [at the time] talking to Charles Anson, the Queen’s Press Secretary. He was called out of the room, the Queen’s Private Secretary wanted a word, they chatted and he came back in.
‘Then my pager flashed up saying that Windsor Castle was on fire. I am in Buckingham Palace and the newsroom was having to tell me that the castle’s on fire!”
Her career, however, was dominated by the life of Charles and Diana. “The drama was the War of the Waleses but it was so hard to get to the truth. It was so hard to decipher what was really going on. Diana’s death was obviously massive as well. I was here [in Devon] and we had just been to a drinks party. I came back, we had had quite a few drinks, and I got a call from the newsroom saying that Diana has been an accident.
‘The next thing, I was in a taxi all the way to London because I was over the limit. I was going to drive, I wasn’t blitzed but I was over limit, but Jim said to me, who was more three sheets to the wind than I was, ‘if you get in that car I will be calling the police!’
‘The BBC just trapped me in the studio for hours and hours and hours talking relentlessly about the Royals and Diana. I messaged the producer and told him to go to my locker and in that he would find three red books. They were all my notes from my meetings with Diana. I thought I did respect her wishes when she was alive not to say anything, and there weren’t any great revelations in there because she had done Panorama. Nonetheless there was quite a lot in there and I just talked about what she had said to me during our meetings.”
When I asked her what she considered to be her proudest achievement during her career as a Royal Correspondent, her answer proved that she was a true journalist at heart.
“The proudest achievement was probably annoying the palace.
What really annoys me is when people presume I was employed by The Palace. I considered it a straightforward job of journalism. I tried to get the facts…[and] get them out accurately and quickly as best you can… I hope I did it like that.”
It was her love of Devon that saw her finally call time on her career as a journalist in 2003 at the BBC.
“We decided that we were so in love with Devon and that we wanted to end up here in Devon permanently. Jim and Emma [her husband and daughter] moved down here so she could start school and I was working in London during the week. I hated it – I was going home every night to Muswell Hill, lonely and miserable and I thought this was no way to live. So I thought f*** this for a game of soldiers. I decided one day I wanted to leave.
‘It was a huge risk and a massive gamble. I have always been the breadwinner for 20 or so years. We didn’t know how we were going to manage financially but it ended up being the best big gamble ever. I’m a Celebrity came along straight away and loads of other TV shows and I was in the lovely position of still having a very good living, working far less, and having fun.”
For many of our younger readers, the first they might have known of Jennie would have been her appearance on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
“Jim didn’t want me to do I’m A Celebrity. He thought it would be degrading. I said no, originally. Two months later they came back again and my agent told me to work on Jim. In the end we asked Emma.
‘We sat down, had dinner and asked Emma, who by then had a bit of a London accent: ‘God Mum you eating slugs in the jungle would be well cool.’ So I bribed Jim with a red tractor!”
‘I have always said that I think I would be remembered for two things: being buried in a coffin full of rats in the jungle and for saying ‘fart’ on the 6 o’clock news.”
At the end of our interview, Jennie said something which I couldn’t help but put as the final comment in this edition of our TM2 – a line that should fill all young journalists with motivation for what they do.
“I bloody love journalists as I believe we are interesting because we are interested.”