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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, host of the Remainiacs podcast and author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. He tweets at @Dorianlynskey.