Editor Matt Kelly meets broadcaster and scourge of the Brexiteers, James O’Brien.
For a man who spends his life talking on the radio, James O’Brien has one heck of a famous face. The video clips of the LBC presenter slowly, patiently, sometimes painfully, pulling apart pro-Brexit arguments go viral, racking up hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of views on Youtube.
He recently translated his irony-heavy laments on Brexit, Islam, political correctness, feminism, Trump and more into a bestselling book, How To Be Right… In A World Gone Wrong, further enhancing his reputation as either “the conscience of liberal Britain”, as the New Statesman tagged him, or, says the Sun, “the epitome of a smug, sanctimonious, condescending, obsessively politically-correct, champagne-socialist public schoolboy Remoaner”.
In the flesh there’s a frequent sharp humour and occasional glint of something perhaps approaching mania in O’Brien’s eyes that doesn’t come through on the radio. He alternates, sentence by sentence, between despair and irony, and only occasionally allows the black humour of Britain’s three-year circus to bubble through.
And veneered across it all is a palpable layer of weariness; If you passed him on the way home from his show, in his creased blue cotton shirt, and a beard our parents would have described as unkempt, you’d imagine he had just undergone a spell of hard labour. You’d be right; three years solidly trying to explain to Leavers why Brexit is a lousy idea.
I meet O’Brien in one of LBC’s (too) brightly-lit Leicester Square studios to take stock of that world gone wrong, and what we might be able to do to right it.
MK: The book has been a big hit, and the radio show has taken on a life of its own, especially these video clips of you taking Brexiteers to pieces. What’s celebrity like?
JO’B: Weird. There’s this weird status when it doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is who you are. It’s happened to me in the last couple of years, probably when the video clips started going viral, which no-one had really done before. And the book being successful seems to have upset a lot of people. We work in an industry riven with envy and pettiness and bitterness.
MK: Is that about you personally, or about what you represent?
JO’B: It’s about Brexit I think. I was hoping by now to have had to withdraw some of my observations and predictions about Brexit. But people who were also hoping that would happen, for the opposite reasons, oddly haven’t turned into fans and become apologetic and grateful for my guidance. So they are f**king furious; everything I said was going to happen has happened.
MK: The New European’s in a similar boat in that association with being immovable in our dislike of Brexit. Is there a point when we become part of the problem? In the sense that for a lot of people it doesn’t matter what we’re saying, to them we’re just intransigent and people stop listening.
JO’B: Potentially, yes. My argument at the beginning hasn’t changed: People have fallen for things that are not true. I didn’t realise the scale at the time, but I knew a lot of the central points about immigration, trade, and laws were simply not true. And it seemed to me very important for people in the media to continue to call out the architects of those lies, because what will they move on to next? So you’re right up to a point, which is that this isn’t just about a Brexit battle, this is a battle about truth, and about cheats prospering. And they have prospered. And they did cheat. So you do need to keep calling that out, ideally not sounding like a defensive Brexit whinge but sounding like a defence of traditional integrity.
MK: So how does it feel to see the architects of Brexit, Johnson and Dominic Cummings, ensconced in No.10?
JO’B: Well it’s fascinating, this role reversal. Dominic Cummings is an insurgent; his whole shtick is being on the outside doing things differently, and he’s now right on the inside. It’s going to interesting to see if the tactics and language of insurgency still work when you’re sitting in 10 Downing Street every day.
MK: Sometimes in the last three years I’ve found myself screaming at the radio as one high-profile journalist after another seems to just allow a bunch of bulls**t to slide by, unchallenged. Do you think journalism has failed in all of this?
JO’B: It simply wasn’t happening, but I’m starting to hear lots of interviewers do that and hold them to account. Good example the other day was Daniel Hewitt on ITV. He did a good job with Dominic Raab, asking him for examples of what he was claiming. That’s the job isn’t it? Asking questions. And it’s not just about Brexit – it’s what happens when you let false equivalence take hold and do stuff like having Nigel Lawson as a spokesman against climate change. By the way, I’d have pushed Raab harder, but that’s why I don’t get to interview many mainstream politicians these days.
MK: How important do you think our national broadcaster the BBC has been in all this false equivalence?
JO’B: Tragically important. There’s something in that false equivalence that seems to lead inexorably to the Today programme on Radio 4, their flagship political journalism show.
There’s this sense that there’s equal space afforded to two people, one of whom can back up what their saying with evidence and expertise, and one of them who cannot. For instance, Digby Jones claiming he knows what the German car industry will do, and then the head of the German car industry saying ‘no, the integrity of the four freedoms is more important to us than tariff free access to Britain’. And still Digby Jones, with his incredibly entitled arrogance saying ‘I know what will happen’. I’m afraid the BBC fell for that.
MK: But it seems sometimes that there are been a whole bunch of supposed givens in the Brexit debate that just get taken as read, so the debate’s starting point is itself massively skewed.
JO’B: Absolutely right. I’ve tried to work out how just plain nonsense about, most obviously, controlling our borders, money and our laws – how these holy grails of eurosceptisism are still allowed to go more or less unchallenged. I think it’s because a lot of journalists get very close to the politicians, so it becomes socially uncomfortable for them to be hitting them over the head with actual facts every 20 minutes, which is what you would have to do if you were doing your job properly.
MK: And do you feel there’s a timidity about the language journalists are prepared to use that fails to call things out properly?
JO’B: There’s this strange pearl-clutching reluctance to use words like racist or liar, which you see most obviously with Brexit and Donald Trump. In the context of Trump, that’s beginning to shift, three years too late. But the word liar, in the context of Brexit? Look. We’ve got Boris Johnson in Downing Street now. Before he got in he was saying no-deal was a million to one shot, now he’s saying it’s government policy. Well one of those was a lie.
MK: We’ve have been fighting this battle for truth for three years now, but it seems at times like we’re getting mauled, certainly if you look at what’s actually happening in Westminster. How do you sustain yourself in the face of all this normalisation of lying?
JO’B: Orwell covered this. He said “there’s truth and there’s untruth. And if you cling to the truth even against the whole world, you are not mad”.
MK: That’s a good one. We can cling onto that quote to the bitter end as they’re carting us off to the re-education centre. How do you think this situation got to be so bad?
JO’B: So it’s not unique. Financial crisis plus refugee crisis equals astonishing opportunity for dangerous, unpleasant politics to take hold, especially if individuals are prepared to lie and harness the worst of us. Things like that ‘breaking point’ poster is when it really goes wrong. When you’re prepared to lie to people that all the things wrong with their lives is the fault of that single mum over there, or that Polish fella or that Syrian refugee.
MK: But what about the communities that have been dramatically changed by immigration and the people who understandably feel lost and bewildered by how their world has changed? Are they right to protest?
JO’B: Of course… but at the same time right-wing politicians, but more importantly right-wing journalists, have had 30 years telling people they weren’t allowed to feel uncomfortable, they weren’t allowed to express their discombobulation about the pace of change without being called racists. The reality is that generally the places with the highest levels of immigrations are the places that are most relaxed about immigration. The people with the strongest opinions about it are the people to whom it has not happened, but have been persuaded [by right-wing journalists] that it is awful. That’s how you get people in Somerset or Texas convinced there are parts of London you can’t go to because Sharia Law applies.
You can’t turn the clock back, every great civilisation in history has been incredibly multicultural and diverse. You know, the deck of Nelson’s ship had more than 20 different nationalities on it.
MK: Quite. And when you think back to all those front pages from the Daily Mail and the Express and the Sun over the years…
JO’B:… and the Spectator!
MK:… all saying to their readers “you’re being told you’re not allowed to say that” so a lot of this feeling of discombobulation, as you put it, was manufactured by them.
JO’B: I spend a lot of time in Kidderminster, and in Kidderminster, Woolworths is still empty. That’s what? Ten years? When I was 13 that street had Our Price, McDonalds, Woolies was next door to Littlewoods. It was thriving. So there’s a sadness there now, an ache for bygone days and it’s not just a stupid nostalgia. That’s what people thought they were voting for, going to back to how things were. So today you end up with this feeling that foreigners are pushing us around… ‘my high street’s a bit shit and there are shops in my hometown with signs outside them that I don’t understand, whether it’s Gujarati or Polish’.
In the hands of dangerous, mean people, that’s a tinderbox. They knew what they were doing when they torched it.
MK: So you end up with a constituency who feel they might as well vote against anything they put in front of you because you don’t have anything to lose.
JO’B: Except they do. As Joni Mitchell pointed out, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It’s utterly understandable and forgivable.
MK: How frustrating is it to see those same old lies from our politicians today? How do they say it all with a straight face?
JO’B: Bizarre isn’t it? Even now, three years of Theresa May saying things that seem to be bonkers, in the back of my mind I was always saying ‘maybe she knows something we don’t, maybe she’s got something up her sleeve’. I feel like the little kid in the emperor’s new clothes. But even then, I’m still thinking; maybe the emperor’s got a flesh-coloured body-stocking on. You know? I mean, he looks stark-bollock naked to me, but there are some people, clever people who I respect and like, and they are persuaded there are clothes there. So… you know?
MK: Three years ago it seemed inconceivable that Boris Johnson could be prime minister of this nation.
JO’B: Not to me, mate.
MK: You saw it coming?
JO’B: Not quite. I didn’t see it coming but I would file it under never-say-never. Johnson’s motivation has always been to get over the threshold of 10 Downing Street. Once he’s over the threshold, the rest is gravy. If I didn’t live here, it would feel like a comeuppance, that we’d got what you deserve.
MK: That’s depressing.
JO’B: And now he’s playing to the Steve Bannon/Rupert Murdoch playbook. If there’s 100 people in a room and Boris Johnson comes in and shouts “fire!”, 52 people will run for the door. But because I know Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage [O’Brien always pronounces the surname of his fellow LBC broadcaster “Farridge”] I go and check and find out there’s no fire.
But those 52 people have gone now and there’s no shame in running for the door when someone shouts fire, especially if you don’t know the track record of the people doing all the shouting.
MK: What about the opposition? Why aren’t they 20 points ahead in the polls?
JO’B: With any other leader they would be. There’s this notion that the driver is somehow the same as the vehicle. I find Jeremy Corbyn pathetic, petulant, ridiculous and a facilitator of vile anti-Semitism.
But I do not find Labour’s policy platform of some nationalisation, ring-fencing protection of the NHS, building houses and the rest of it remotely problematic. That’s the vehicle. But it doesn’t matter how beautiful the vehicle is, if you put a clown in the driving seat it’s going to crash. It’s a tragedy. Labour represent the biggest opportunity in my lifetime to make this a more equitable country. But it won’t happen under Corbyn.