I fear that one of the casualties of the Brexit vote in 2016 may turn out to be James O’Brien, host of the morning phone-in show on LBC Radio. Not in terms of his career, necessarily – I believe his listening figures continue to rise – but in terms of the quality of his work.
Which is a shame, because he’s one of the best phone-in presenters we’ve ever had. And I really like phone-in shows.
Certainly, he’s been Britain’s most effective shock-jock, that American convention whereby the host is meant to be assertive, argumentative and opinionated. Previous attempts to import this style had faltered in a country where expectations of impartiality run deep. The likes of Jon Gaunt and Caesar the Geezer never really made much impact; nor did Katie Hopkins in more recent times.
But O’Brien has succeeded by inverting the political norm, eschewing right-wing outrage in favour of Guardian-style opinion – even if it’s still delivered in the aggressive tones of a tabloid columnist. ‘This is the Holy Grail of commercial radio,’ he says: ‘building a big audience on uncomfortable truths.’
He’s also subtly changed the structure of the show. The opening monologue at the beginning of each subject has become an editorial statement, rather than just even-handed waffle, desperately seeking callers and covering up the lack thereof. And, when he’s riding one of his hobby-horses, he tends to come out of the quarter- and half-hour breaks with further monologues.
The result is that, by the standards of the format, he takes very few callers to air – sometimes just five or six an hour – which therefore means that his producer can pick and choose with more discrimination than is possible with other shows.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually encourage argument. If you open a discussion of press freedom by saying that lots of people are ‘bleating about how the government shouldn’t control the press’, then you’ve pretty much set the tone for what will come. Because those who care about, oh I don’t know, let’s call it democracy, for want of a more pompous word – they don’t call in, they just wander off. And all you get are the conspiracy theorists.
Nonetheless, his show is, at its best, very good indeed.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. O’Brien came out of print journalism, having been a showbiz reporter on the Daily Express, and his fondness for tabloid froth – which still bubbles through from time to time – used to be much more obvious. Most notoriously, in 2009 he launched a tirade against Frank Lampard, based on gossipy stories about the footballer’s private life, and described him as ‘scum’ and ‘weak’ – only to be humiliated when Lampard himself phoned in to put him right.
Since then, he’s successfully reinvented himself as a more serious commentator. And he’s got a whole lot more experience. Presenting phone-ins is one of those fields where the 10,000 Hour Rule seems to apply: the longer one does it, the better one becomes and, crucially, the more the audience adjusts to the host. O’Brien has been broadcasting something over 700 hours a year since 2004.
His strength – indeed the strength of the phone-in format generally – is putting human stories to the political headline. O’Brien is particularly good on tales of suffering and hardship. The downside of this is that the subjective comes to outweigh the objective, as seen with his insistence on giving a hearing to the wilder accusations of establishment paedophilia. ‘I don’t know whether Ted Heath abused children,’ he wrote in the Daily Mirror. ‘But I am certain that the allegations against him have to be examined publicly.’
His breakthrough moment came in a 2014 interview with Nigel Farage. The once and future UKIP leader had recently said that British people would be worried if a group of Romanian men moved in next door. What about if they were German children? asked O’Brien. What’s the difference? And Farage retorted archly: ‘You know what the difference is.’ O’Brien denied that he could see any difference and challenged Farage to explain it, which he was unable to do.
This was, many claimed, a disaster for Farage, who swiftly apologized for his performance, but it didn’t really do UKIP any harm. The party went on to top the poll in the elections to the European Parliament, attracting 4.4 million votes. In his Sunday Times column, Rod Liddle argued that the ‘sanctimonious’ O’Brien, ‘swathed in self-righteousness’, had added ‘another 100,000 or so votes to UKIP’. That’s probably not true.
Now a colleague on LBC, Farage describes O’Brien as being ‘on the hard left’, but that’s not true either. If he were, he wouldn’t be so angry about Brexit.
And boy, is he angry. Not quite as much as A.C. Grayling, whose hysterical outbursts add so much to the gaity of the nation, but still pretty livid. He works himself up into a terrible lather, furious that 17 million people chose to ‘punch themselves in the face’ by voting against what he sees as their economic interests. Because, he insists, nothing else matters except the economy. All that stuff about sovereignty? That’s just people being silly about blue passports.
The only plausible explanation for why the country did something so stupid is that it was duped and deluded. And the responsibility for the deceit rests with lying politicians – some of whom may have a pecuniary interest in Brexit – and with the newspapers, particularly the Sun and his former employers, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. The latter, he says, ‘has done more harm to this country than anyone since the Luftwaffe’.
In recent months, he’s gone a bit more-in-sorrow-than-anger and decided that he’s the reincarnation of Cassandra (the one from Troy, not the one from the Daily Mirror). He’s the only person in the British media telling the truth about Brexit, yet he’s destined not to have his warnings heeded, however apocalyptic they are. One of his favourite sayings is that it’s easier to sell a ticket for the Ghost Train than for the Speak Your Weight machine – and he hasn’t noticed that when it comes to Brexit, he’s doing the former not the latter.
Like a pub bore, he brings everything comes back to this one subject. There’s been a decline in the number of people having children in their thirties? ‘All of these issues have to be viewed through the framework of Brexit.’
Rather than Cassandra, he’s actually more like one of those vicars who used to appear on Thought for the Day, with an agenda that they were determined to shoehorn in, no matter what was in the day’s news. The kind who would talk about, say, ball-tampering by Australian cricketers, before the inevitable non sequitur: ‘And, you know, in a very real sense, wasn’t that what Jesus was telling us when he overturned the tables of the money-lenders? That we mustn’t tamper with the ball that God has given us?’
Anyway, this is James O’Brien on Twitter:
The mention of Twitter is not accidental. O’Brien’s long-standing obsession with the Sun and the Mail has been increasingly augmented by a similar obsession with his timeline, especially when it’s discussing the Sun and the Mail. This can become tiresome, with chunks of his show devoted to answering some third-rate argument made online by someone of whom we’ve never heard.
After Brendan Cox was accused of sexual assault, we had an hour about how people were tweeting at O’Brien demanding his denunciation of a man who had been a guest on his show. Why, O’Brien wondered, did these people think that he wouldn’t make such a denunciation? His answer: Because they were the kind of people who worshipped Donald Trump and could tolerate no criticism of their hero. Because they assumed that he must be one of those kind of people as well. Because everyone’s become so tribal, like football supporters who can’t see the faults of their own team.
Admittedly, this is coming from a man whose instinctive response to a negative story about the Left is to reach for a UKIP story, but there is some truth in it. Certainly, it’s a pretty fair description of Twitter, which is often very tribal indeed. But that’s such a terribly small world. Beyond Twitter, I’m fairly sure that most people are prepared to see fault in politicians, even in those with whom they broadly agree. And I’m not convinced that the best way to combat the more negative aspects of social media is to air them on national radio.
All of which sounds like I’m finding a great deal of fault. And I suppose I am. The thing is that I do still think O’Brien’s the best phone-in host currently working on British radio. He’s got a great voice and manner for it; he can switch tone convincingly from high-minded to low comedy; he can be both pompous and self-mocking; he’s sympathetic when he needs to be, irascible slightly more often than necessary.
Occasionally, I think he gets it wrong, as on the morning of the Grenfell Tower fire. And occasionally those who should be his allies also think he gets it wrong, as when, in the words of Hadley Freeman in the Guardian, he addresses women’s concerns over gender self-identity, treating the subject with ‘the blunt shouting hammer of talk radio’. But no one’s perfect, and part of the fun of the phone-in is disagreeing with, and even getting annoyed with, the presenter. The truth remains that he’s the best occupant of LBC’s morning slot since the mighty Brian Hayes himself.
Except… Except Brexit. The monomania is, and there’s no polite way to say this, getting to be a little boring. If you disagree with him, you’ll likely be annoyed and go elsewhere, while even if you do agree, you probably don’t need to hear doom being mongered every single morning. And for the vast majority in the middle, it’s just, well, repetitive.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign of it ending in the near- or even medium-term future. Apart from anything else, it’s carved him out a nice niche as a hate figure for right-wing Brexiteers, and his conviction that he’s correct is fuelled by criticism from the organs he despises.
Just a few days after the referendum, Kelvin Mackenzie in the Sun was calling him a ‘tedious left-winger’, and claiming that 20 per cent of the LBC audience disappeared when Leaver Nick Ferrari handed over to O’Brien. That latter is a tad disingenuous: breakfast shows always get bigger audiences than mid-morning shows – as Mackenzie should know, since he used to be head of TalkCo, which owned LBC’s rival station, Talk Radio/TalkSport.
Earlier this year, the stakes were upped when O’Brien was accorded the great honour of a slagging in ‘The Sun Says’. He is, apparently, ‘the epitome of a smug, sanctimonious, condescending, obsessively politically-correct, champagne-socialist, public schoolboy Remoaner’. Quite rightly, he put the words onto his Twitter profile as a badge of pride.
Such attacks, along with the hate he gets from Kippers and Corbynites alike, ensure that he’ll stick to his guns. What else can he do? But there are only so many variations to be played on the anti-Brexit theme, and – for those of us who listen to daytime radio – it’d be nice to hear some new tunes.
PS. Just one slightly disturbing footnote…
The Sun never has liked O’Brien. It was first outraged by a 2007 show in which he ‘asked listeners if they had met Her Majesty and what she was like. “Does the Queen smell of wee?” he delicately queried, referring to her age.’
A decade on, and this is a tweet from O’Brien:
Not being a psycho-analyst, I don’t really know what to make of this recurring motif in his work.