Interview with James O’Brien: ‘When I’m wrong, I admit it. And that makes me right’

by
18 January 2019

Huw Spanner talks to the LBC presenter about faith, phone-ins, and a mission to administer an ‘antidote’ over the airwaves

ANDREW FIRTH

James O’Brien is interviewed in the LBC studios, in central London

James O’Brien is interviewed in the LBC studios, in central London

JAMES O’BRIEN, the award-winning radio presenter who has been dubbed in the New Statesman “the conscience of liberal Britain”, has been enjoying a run in the bestseller charts with his book How to Be Right . . . in a World Gone Wrong. The blurb calls it “a hilarious and invigorating guide to talking to people with faulty opinions”, and the cover shows its author head in hand, a picture of comic despair.

When I meet him, however, on the premises of Global Media and Entertainment, in Leicester Square, from where his mid-morning talk show on LBC is broadcast nationwide, he is an engaging mixture of self-assurance (which he calls “cockiness”) and self-doubt. When I ask him about his formation, he says wryly: “It’s a work in progress.”

O’Brien is best known for the video clips which are now hard to avoid on social media. For several years now, his radio show has routinely been filmed by fixed, broadcast-quality cameras, and clips of his most powerful diatribes and his choicest take-downs of callers “with faulty opinions” are uploaded to YouTube. Some have been watched three or four million times on Facebook alone.

“The [exchanges] that go viral are the ones that are car crashes,” he says. Most of these are related to Brexit. “I don’t really argue much in favour of remaining in the EU. I merely ask people who are utterly and furiously adamant that leaving is a great idea, ‘Why?’ And then they fall apart like a cheap suit. I’ve spent two-and-a-half years saying I would love to be wrong, and at every single turn I have been proved right.”

If he makes these callers sound like idiots, it is not because they are stupid, he insists. “They have just been horribly misled, and they’re not used to being asked to explain what’s behind those fatuous slogans. And when they realise they’ve been misled, they’re left gulping like goldfish.”

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Arguably, some are left gulping because he doesn’t allow them time to breathe. He admits in the book that “the radio format lends itself to cajoling and castigation to a degree that sometimes can seem close to bullying,” and certainly he can be impatient and harrying, interrupting and not allowing a caller to complete a sentence. Crucially, when both of them are talking at once, it is his voice that dominates.

I quote the observation, attributed to Mark Twain, that it is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled. Of course, that can cut both ways. Does O’Brien ever worry that he himself might be deceived about something and unable to admit it? “I change my mind, live on air, quite often,” he insists.

The viral videos are actually “very unrepresentative” of his show, he says. “I invite hundreds of people every day to queue up and tell me why I’m wrong, and I often am, on both trivial and serious issues. I’ve been profoundly wrong about obesity, for example. But, when I am, I admit it. And that makes me right.”

GLOBALJames O’Brien in the studio

O’BRIEN was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and educated at Ampleforth College, which he describes as “a fairly healthy environment for self-examination and the contemplation of natural justice”. Unlike some other public schools, he says, it was not a place that made you think that you were born to rule the world, but it did give you a quiet confidence that you would be all right in that world, whatever your origins.

In other respects, the school was far from healthy. The recent revelations in a report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (Press, 17 August 2018) have seriously shaken him, although they did not come as a total surprise. It breaks his heart, he says, with obvious feeling, to think of the boys who “must have been suffering silently”.

He was “never interfered with in any way”, but, without going into detail, he says that he was subjected to mental cruelty and a betrayal of trust. “The monks taught us about compassion, about caring, about honesty; but they were themselves dishonest, callous, and abusive. The big moral lesson of Christianity, for me, was that actions have consequences. That’s what they taught us — but they didn’t apply that to themselves.

“I hope some of them rot in hell,” he adds quietly.

If that aspect of his schooling planted in him “the early seeds of a burning sense of injustice”, as he puts it, the ground in which those seeds took root had been made fertile by another crucial factor in his life: his adoption when he was a baby.

While he was writing the book, he explains, he found himself thinking: “Why am I such an insufferable prig? Why do I always have to be telling other people why they’re wrong? I’m a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan elite, and, even if Brexit is an utter disaster, I’m still going to be on the winning side of the inequality and unfairness in this country. So, why am I so worried about all the people who voted to hurt themselves?”

It struck him then that he has a strong sense of “There but for the grace of God . . .”. “I’ve always felt so lucky and loved,” he explains, “but I was always aware, by dint of being adopted, that, in an alternative universe, there is an unlucky, unloved me. And, as I’ve got older and become a parent myself, perhaps my politics has been directed a little bit more at that unlucky, unloved me.

“My religion teaches me that our job is to recognise our relative luck, and make sure that the less lucky don’t suffer any more than is unavoidable. That’s quite Christian. I think it is, anyway.”

I remark that I don’t want to devote too much of our allotted time to talking about his “religion”, and he says: “I do. I love this! The religious stuff really is complicated, and it is constantly changing and shifting. I like talking about it, because it helps me clarify my own thoughts.”

ANDREW FIRTHANDREW FIRTH 

AFTER he left Ampleforth, in 1990, he “spent ten years railing against religion”. He studied for a degree in philosophy and economics at the London School of Economics, and embarked on a career in journalism, becoming showbiz editor at the Daily Express (in those days, owned by a Labour peer and edited by the feminist Rosie Boycott). He was no more interested in politics in those days than in God. “I didn’t have pungent political views. And I certainly didn’t have anything like the opinion of Fleet Street that I have now.”

He recalls that he wanted to be a book reviewer. “I just loved culture and art; it was all I ever really wanted to do. By now, I thought I’d probably be in music PR, or a theatre critic on The Times.”

It is his current job, presenting a popular phone-in, that “radicalised” him, he says. “Speaking to real people for three hours every day, for the best part of 15 years, has made me care passionately about real people.”

His show also helped to bring him back to the Church. His first daughter was born in 2006, and he was wondering whether, to please his father, she should be baptised. Typically, he spoke about his dilemma on the radio, and two nuns who happened to be listening got in touch.

“They talked to me about the boys they’d met from Ampleforth, and how they had managed to show them that Catholicism — or simply Christianity, or just, generally, religion — didn’t have to be held hostage by the people you’d encountered in your past who represented it.”

Very cautiously, he says, he dipped his toe back into the water, and he rediscovered the enormous comfort that he derived from “talking to God”.

“That doesn’t necessarily translate into a strong belief in God,” he hastens to add. “What we would call ‘praying’ other people might call ‘meditating’ — or even, in a therapeutic context, having a benign companion whose counsel you seek. The way I was raised, I would have conversations with Jesus.”

When his father died, in 2012, it gave him another “massive” incentive to go to church, “because church is where I go to be with my dad. Again, though, that doesn’t translate into faith, necessarily, because I also go to Aggborough, the home of Kidderminster Harriers FC, to be with my dad, because that was one of the last things we did before he died.”

He has struggled to go to church as often, he admits, since the Ampleforth story broke. “My parish priest is a magnificent man, and a really good priest, but, you know, you hear the Creed and you just remember” — his voice cracks a little as he continues — “I got communion off men who were raping little boys. So, going up to communion, even, has a bit of baggage.”

There have been times in his life, he says, when he has known that God exists, and times when he has been certain that there isn’t anything there. “And I don’t think much purpose is served by worrying too much at that particular knot. Even in church, I don’t really worry about the profundity or otherwise of my belief in God; I just listen to the words that are being read — often by me, actually; I like doing the readings — and reflect on them in the same way that I reflect on really good philosophy.”

In How to Be Right, he refers to Jesus as “a great moral teacher”. Which of his teachings in particular did he have in mind when he wrote that?

“That our primary responsibility is to those who are less fortunate than us. And, of course, forgiveness. And trying to treat people the same regardless of their origins — the parable of the Good Samaritan being incredibly pertinent to current conversations about refugees and racism.

“I love his wisdom on financial matters; so he can throw the moneylenders out of the Temple, but he’s not going to fall into the trap of condemning taxation, because, without taxation, you don’t have any infrastructure.

“I just love the benign completeness of Christ in the Gospels. I say that without even the vaguest sense of embarrassment or silliness. There’s a selflessness there that you could never emulate.”

PANotes and flowers left at a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire 

RETURNING to politics, he contrasts that call to selflessness with “the siren voices of so-called classical liberalism and libertarianism”, which he identifies with “essentially people who hate sharing, who were born on the right side of history and hate the idea that that was just luck”.

Everything, from social housing to the NHS, health-and-safety legislation, policing and teaching and firefighting, he says, is part of a social democracy. “The instruments of government should be used to ensure that the gap between those with the most and those with the least does not become intolerably large, and that the daily lived reality of the people with the least should not become unbearable.

“For me, this toxic small-state narrative that is enjoying an astonishing period of success in the West at the moment is the opposite of Christianity. I find foodbanks repellent, for example. Jacob Rees-Mogg describing them as ‘uplifting’ is evidence to me of just how far we’ve gone down a very dangerous road.”

In his book, O’Brien avows “a fundamental belief in the basic decency of people despite so much evidence to the contrary”. Today, he seems less sure. What has really shaken his faith — in human nature or the British character, he is not sure — is the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire (News, 16 June 2017).

“I didn’t realise I lived in a country where people could burn to death in their own homes and then be mocked. It’s all very well saying ‘it’s only social media’, but a lot [of the comments] were not anonymous — people were happy to put their names to them.

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“If you had said to me even the day before that the reaction to a tragedy — and, I believe, a scandal — of that scale would be anything other than unalloyed compassion, I wouldn’t just have disagreed with you, I’d have fought you passionately that my country is better than that.

“It turned out it isn’t. That’s something I still struggle with.”

If we live in “a world gone wrong”, should we blame some aspect of “the system”, as some on the Left might be inclined to, or is it simply an outworking of human nature?

“I don’t think you can ever create a society in which everyone will be happy and no one will be resentful,” he says. “And, as long as people are resentful, the invitation to blame their whole life on somebody else — even when their life isn’t that bad — will prove irresistible for a lot of people. The British media offer that invitation on a scale that is staggering — but if it was properly challenged, I’d like to believe that a much smaller number of people would have accepted it.”

For 30 years or more, he says, much of the media have been “pouring poison into the ear of the population”.

“I know it sounds a bit self-aggrandising, but I think that part of the reason I’m enjoying this little 15 minutes [of fame] is that I’ve stumbled into a role pouring antidote into the other ear.

“I’m sure there’ll be people along soon who will do it a lot more effectively than I do, but at the moment there are days when it feels like I’m the only one doing it.”

How to Be Right . . . in a World Gone Wrong by James O’Brien is published by W. H. Allen at £12.99.

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