Show Hide image

The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Show Hide image

How James O'Brien became the conscience of liberal Britain

Talk radio has long been dominated by right-wing blowhards. But LBC's James O'Brien can make tolerance go viral. How?

Every weekday at 8am, James O’Brien arrives at the LBC studios in Leicester Square, sits down at his desk with a pile of newspapers and a pair of scissors and talks to his production team. He whittles down the options until he has three one-hour phone-in topics for what has become the most talked-about radio show in Britain. At least that’s the idea. He doesn’t know for sure what he’s going to say until the 10 o’clock news finishes, the light comes on and he opens his mouth.

One Monday in January, the final segment of O’Brien’s show is about paternity leave. In the control room, which is spacious, hi-tech and as uncannily tidy as a movie set, his producers Caroline and Rosie assiduously vet the calls in the service of quality over quantity. O’Brien is an excellent listener, sensitively prodding callers into revealing more, wooing them with his own self-deprecating stories. He slips in a quick dig at Donald Trump but the segment ends without a voice being raised. Afterwards, drinking peppermint tea in a downstairs meeting room, O’Brien says that he likes topics which don’t force callers to take sides. “You get stories rather than opinions. And everyone’s had Trump and Brexit up to the back teeth. I didn’t want to do an hour of either of them today.”

If you’re a regular listener to O’Brien’s show, then you’ll know that many of his segments are like this. But if, like millions of people who lack the time or inclination to listen to daytime talk radio, you’ve only recently become aware of him via video clips shared by your friends on social media, you’ll know a different O’Brien: a talker rather than a listener, a deliverer of opinions rather than stories, a tireless foe of both Trump and Brexit.

It has all happened very quickly. Last April, O’Brien’s fiery monologue about Kelvin MacKenzie and the Hillsborough inquiry was his first video to exceed one million views on Facebook. Two months later, his response to the murder of Jo Cox hit 3.4 million on that platform alone. That was when I first saw O’Brien on my social media timelines. Since then, he’s been a permanent fixture. We are accustomed to seeing clips of John Oliver, Samantha Bee or, before he stepped down from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart - but this is the first time a British broadcaster on the left has become a consistent viral phenomenon. In less than a year, James O’Brien has become the conscience of liberal Britain.

There are obvious practical reasons for the 45-year-old’s dramatic spike in popularity after 14 years at LBC. In 2014, the station began broadcasting nationally. The following year, station owners Global revamped their studios and installed multiple cameras with an eye to producing broadcast-quality clips that they could promote online. If you watch O’Brien’s famously tough 2014 interview with Nigel Farage, it looks DIY by comparison. “I thought they were bonkers,” O’Brien says. “But my God they knew.”

O’Brien is as fluent off-air as on but if anything can render him relatively inarticulate, it’s a question about why his show in particular has spawned so many hits. “It’s pure serendipity,” he says. “Absolute luck. We were in the right place at the right time with the right people working on the internet side of it.” He doesn’t understand why some clips take off and others don’t. “I haven’t got a clue. I might think something’s a stone-cold viral hit and then it doesn’t do anything. I think if you started trying to put a penny in the slot and going off on one in a predefined direction you’d probably come a cropper.”

Some of his greatest hits are ingenious setpieces, like the time he mischievously introduced a passage from Mein Kampf as a quote from a speech by Home Secretary Amber Rudd to illustrate the grim similarities. Others are lightning in a bottle, like his compassionate conversation with a tearful German woman who talked about the xenophobic abuse she’d received immediately after the EU referendum. And some are old news to him. Last October, he asked a Leave voter called Ashley to name one EU law that he disliked and all Ashley could muster was a joke about the shape of bananas. The exchange proved so popular that it became a news story. “I’ve done ‘name one law’ a dozen times over the last 10 years,” O’Brien says. “It’s not new.”

Brexit was the turning point for O’Brien, who prefers the label “liberal” to “left-wing”. It made him necessary. For liberals, it was a colossal psychological trauma that was later compounded by Donald Trump’s election victory, so there was an opening in 2016 for someone who could express this angst without being paralysed by despair or tongue-tied by rage. O’Brien’s long, eloquent monologues strike a perfect balance between humour, knowledge, emotion, exacting logic, moral indignation, and exasperated incredulity. Nobody else can articulate the values and anxieties of this shellshocked sector of the population with such power and consistency. I have to say this because he certainly won’t.

“I feel self-conscious even discussing it,” he says, frowning. “The same thing happened with the interview with Farage. I’m still baffled by why other people didn’t do what I did because it was so easy. You just found a thread and pulled it and the man fell apart like a cheap suit. Apparently there aren’t many people making points about exploitation in the workplace or the defunding of the NHS. Which, of course, you would expect the leader of the Opposition to be doing, which is clearly where you’re leading me.” He hoots with laughter.

Why James O’Brien? That’s easy. Why only James O’Brien? That’s the tricky question.



Just as the satirical TV talk show has become the exclusive domain of the liberal left, the radio phone-in has always favoured voices from the right. Long before Breitbart, or even Fox News, conservatism’s media shock troops were bellicose bloviators such as Rush Limbaugh. The format lends itself to stoking grievances and generating more heat than light. When O’Brien took over LBC’s mid-morning show a decade and a half ago, he wanted to see if another approach was possible. Could a phone-in host use those tools to encourage people to think rather than rage?

When O’Brien first joined LBC, in the Sunday evening graveyard slot, the radio consultant Valerie Geller advised him to act like he was talking to one person rather than a room full of them. He thinks that all of his favourite broadcasters, from Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans to Kirsty Young and Mishal Husain, have this direct relationship with the listener. “They connect on an individual level, rather than seducing a crowd like a demagogue can.”

O’Brien tries to ignore the cameras. “I’m a scruffy sod anyway so I’m not going to start treating it like telly.” Once or twice he’s found himself talking straight into the lens and he stops himself because it makes his delivery “almost thespian”. A large part of the appeal of his videos is that you can see him actually thinking, rather than performing rehearsed lines. He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. “The morning after the [referendum] result, the first thing I said was that there’s one thing we can all agree on: nobody knows what will happen next. I think that’s probably what resonated. Somebody who wasn’t pretending to know.”

This is one of the reasons why Brexit’s leap in the dark bothers him. O’Brien doesn’t like not knowing things. As the son of a veteran newspaperman, Jim O’Brien, he was raised to venerate facts. As far back as he can remember, there would be newspapers on the breakfast table and Brian Redhead’s Today on the school run. “I think it’s just osmosis,” he says. “It’s what I find interesting.” He has a sharp memory for useful facts and will google additional statistics or anecdotes while he’s on a call but he forces himself to resist l’esprit d’escalier. To have the last word after a caller has gone is cheating. The art, he says, is to expose someone’s ignorance or hypocrisy in the moment. “It’s magic radio when you can hear the penny drop.”

O’Brien therefore regards the denigration of facts and expertise in the current political discourse as an existential affront. “The marginalisation of truth over the past 18 months has been genuinely staggering.” On his show he insists that opinions are backed up with evidence. If a caller like Ashley complains about the EU, then he’s expected to name a regulation that adversely affects him. If someone criticises a strike, then she has to explain how else workers should fight for their rights. “If you track back over the last 12 years to see at what point something clicked, it was when I asked people to tell me how immigration was ruining their lives,” he says. “And they had nothing, ever. If you’ve got no evidence I’m not going to call you a racist but I am going to call you a bit silly.”

When O’Brien’s clips are posted by LBC or reported elsewhere, they often use the clickbait hyperbole of “destroying” arguments or “dismantling” callers. The overstatement makes him wince; it’s not that easy to change minds. “I think there’s an incremental process,” he says. “I know there is. The nicest messages I get say, ‘You’ve changed the way I look at the world.’ But it didn’t happen because of one phone call; it happened because I get three hours with them every day. You can change an open mind.”

O’Brien regards his platform as a unicorn-rare privilege. Unlike Samantha Bee or John Oliver, he isn’t addressing a self-selecting echo chamber. Many of his 810,000 listeners also stay tuned to LBC for the likes of Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage. (“It is what it is,” he sighs when I mention his colleagues. “It’s not company I’d particularly seek or enjoy. It’s just a little bit inconvenient that they work in the same building.”) The show gives him a freedom and reach that he can’t imagine anywhere else. No politician or newspaper columnist engages with that many people for that long every day.

He mentions his recent support for union rights. “If I didn’t have a radio show I wouldn’t know where to go to get that message out there. I think Labour have a problem getting it out there. Maybe they’re all capable but they just don’t have the platform and all I’ve got is the platform: that curious congregation of the technology, the political culture, my crystallising beliefs and articles of faith, all slotting into place at the same time, and then it pops up on your screen.”

Does he consider himself influential?

He scrunches his brow. “Maybe that’s going to be the next stage in this weird saga. Maybe I’m going to start thinking I can actually influence politics. But at the moment I don’t. It’s a question of trying to work out why people do what they do.”

O’Brien is often disappointed by what he finds, which may be his most relatable quality. While many commentators appear to spend every waking hour looking for new things to be cross about, he is more like a retired gunfighter in a western, forced to take up arms again when bandits come to town. He would rather be talking about things like paternity leave but callers kept making unfounded complaints about political correctness and immigration, and then Trump and Brexit happened, so here he is. “People seem to thrive on anger and hate,” he says. “I guess in a country that’s governed in many ways by the editor of the Daily Mail, the tyranny of anger and hate shouldn’t be a big surprise.”

Naturally, he has made enemies. Kelvin MacKenzie has called for him to be sacked and Rod Liddle dismissed him after the Farage interview as “so swaddled in his purblind political correctness that he actually… knew nothing at all, apart from his own utterly misguided certainties” — an almost comically inaccurate criticism. On Twitter, where O’Brien has 131,000 followers, he has attracted an army of right-wing trolls. “I block and mute a lot. There was a feller today who had 300 tweets, about 250 of which were about me. The people who pay the most attention to you are the ones who hate you. If people who liked me were that devoted to the programme I’d find it quite unnerving.”


One of the nice side effects of O’Brien’s higher profile is that old schoolfriends get in touch on Facebook to say that they always knew he’d end up doing something like this. At Ampleforth College, a Catholic boarding school in North Yorkshire, he was fiercely argumentative and rebellious to a fault. “I was awful,” he says. “I got into trouble all through my childhood. Police-level trouble a couple of times. I look back now and think how patient my parents were.”

During the phone-in about paternity leave, O’Brien says that his father was often away for work — for weeks on end during the miners’ strike — but he tells the story without a flicker of resentment. He speaks glowingly of Jim, “a quiet Yorkshire Catholic”, and his mother, “a magnificent Yorkshirewoman who wouldn’t brook any crap”. “Almost without me noticing, they imbued me with a moral compass,” he says. “Which is why I think I can sometimes be a little bit sententious, but I’d rather be sententious than dishonest.” (The choice of word is telling: Rod Liddle has described O’Brien as “hugely sententious”.) O’Brien drifted away from religion after school but he began attending church again after his father’s death in 2012.

O’Brien has always had a show-off gene. While studying at LSE, he seriously considered applying to drama school. In his first journalism job, as gossip columnist for the Daily Express under Rosie Boycott, he would put on a winning performance in morning conference to mask his dearth of scoops. His TV debut, as a presenter on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff in 2000, went so well that Anglia Television gave him his own chat show, A Knight With O’Brien. “All the big names were on there: Darius, Caprice, Ted Bovis out of Hi-De-Hi…” He raises an eyebrow. “Big show.” He also co-hosted a Channel 5 politics show with his wife Lucy during the 2001 general election campaign, leading Clive James to call him “a pink-shirted walking encyclopedia of political savvy”. (The couple married in 2000 and have two daughters at primary school. O’Brien credits Lucy with making him less quarrelsome off air. “It’s arguable that the woman who you’re madly in love with isn’t going to want to go home with you if you’ve made a dick of yourself at a dinner party.”)

After two years, management changes left O’Brien abruptly unemployed and he gave himself a year before returning to newspapers. Taking any TV work going reduced him, he says dismissively, to “a gob on a stick”. He only started turning work down after his dad asked him the excellent question: “Why are you flying to Belfast to have an argument with Peter Hitchens about cannabis legislation? What is going to come from that?”

The experience left him very choosy about television. He enjoys guest hosting Newsnight (“People are obviously going to see bias where they want to see it but I’m I’m comfortable with being an equal opportunities critic”) but thinks that his 2015 ITV debate show O’Brien didn’t play to his strengths and isn’t desperate for another showcase. “People find this hard to believe but quite a lot of radio people don’t sit here dreaming of being on the telly. There’s no gaping hole for more TV, not at all.”

O’Brien is glad that there weren’t cameras in the studio when he started at LBC. He thinks he too often settled for low-hanging fruit: small-bore topics that were guaranteed to get callers. “I was lazier. I used to do less thinking. The first lesson you have to learn is that making the phones ring is not the same as good radio.” He used to be more combative, too, picking fights for the sake of it. His priority now is to raise the standard of debate rather than stoke the flames.

When he talks about his early days in journalism, he remembers being dismayed that so few of his colleagues left the office. “I thought the point of being a journalist was all about talking to people. And you’re never going to talk to more people than doing what I do now.”


O’Brien is now so outspoken that it’s easy to forget that he didn’t take sides during the EU referendum campaign. “I was more anti-anti,” he says. “Some of the rabid pro-Leave people seemed to be such unsavoury characters that I was worried where they might lead us but that didn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong destination.”

O’Brien is no stranger to unsavoury characters. In 2015, he published a book called Loathe Thy Neighbour, about hostility towards immigration. He has spent over a decade fielding calls from some of the most furiously right-wing people in Britain: the climate-change deniers, the conspiracy theorists, the scourges of political correctness, the Islamophobes, the misogynists, the flat-out racists. No cosy liberal bubble for him. You would think that if anyone was prepared for the resurgence of populist nationalism, then it would be O’Brien, but no.

“I wasn’t surprised by how strange and ill-informed they are; I was surprised by how many of them there are,” he says. “I just assumed that I was dealing with most of them. I had no idea that 30, 40, 50 per cent of the population was subscribing to similar schools of thought. And if I couldn’t see it, talking to them every day, what chance did the politicians have?”

O’Brien thinks the media needs to raise its game to confront this tide of irrationality. “I think it’s going to have to start with words. Everything starts with words. People have to start insisting on what you mean by ‘ordinary white working class’. What do you mean by ‘elite’? ‘Take back control’? These are the things that journalism has let through. The fact that demagogues are able to say these things without being pulled to shreds, let alone scrutinised, is why we are where we are.”

Another bugbear is the false equivalence that broadcasters sometimes succumb to in the name of balance. “Climate science is by far the best example. I worry that the next thing we’re going to look at through the lens of false equivalence might be Holocaust denial. If that moves front and centre, then I think we’re all fucked.”

O’Brien is unsure where his ballooning profile will lead him. Success brings new opportunities but none are as appealing as the role that made him successful in the first place. He’s meant to be writing a book proposal, if he can find the time. “It’s similar to why you’re here today. The question about opposition: why are these arguments about different issues not breaking through on a political scale when they’re breaking through on a media scale for me?”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about O’Brien is his tenacity. He has spent over half his adult life going head-to-head with the paranoid, bigoted and ill-informed without losing faith in people’s capacity to listen, reason and change their minds. Where does this optimism come from?

“I’ll tell you what it is,” O’Brien says, leaning forward. “It’s the epic amount of effort that goes into getting people to act against their own interests, so I can’t be too downcast when they do. If they weren’t putting any effort into it, if we weren’t putting the liars on prime time, and they were still going down this road, then I’d be a lot more worried. I guess it’s why I go to church. I still think the truth will out and good will win.”

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at: