is that rare beast, a liberal talk-show host. Indeed, the New Statesman has dubbed him ‘the conscience of liberal Britain’ (while the Sun has dismissed him as ‘smug, sanctimonious, condescending [and] obsessively politically-correct’).
His book How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong was high in the bestseller lists when Huw Spanner met him on 17 December 2018 at the Global Media studios in central London.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You struck me as a journalist of some moral seriousness. Is that how you see yourself?
That’s a loaded question, isn’t it, just to kick things off! How do I answer that without sounding either pretentious or faux naif?
I’ll tell you what the answer is: I’d never describe myself in those terms but I would feel very flattered if somebody else did.
You’re best known for the video clips of your LBC radio show that have gone viral on YouTube, which typically show you taking members of the public to task.2See, eg, bit.ly/2SmzC44, bit.ly/2JKgglI and bit.ly/2JPbAuM. There’s an old saying that’s attributed to Mark Twain –
‘It’s easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they’ve been fooled.’
It’s a very shrewd observation, but of course it bites both ways. Do you agonise over whether there are things that you have got wrong and you simply can’t admit it?
I change my mind, live on air, quite often – on both trivial and serious issues. I’ve been profoundly wrong about obesity, for example. I used to subscribe to the eat-less,-exercise-more,-just-get-on-with-it school of thought until someone pointed out to me that if somebody had an eating disorder that emaciated them and I said, ‘Eat more and exercise less!’, that would make me an idiot.
I invite hundreds of people every day to queue up and tell me why I’m wrong, and I often am. But when I am, I admit it. And that makes me right
I don’t agonise, though, I just listen. I invite hundreds of people every day to queue up and tell me why I’m wrong, and I often am. But when I am, I admit it. And that makes me right.
But the clips show you demolishing other people, not being persuaded by them.
Yes. They’re very unrepresentative of the show.
The ones that go viral are the car crashes, and most of the recent ones have been Brexit-related – and sadly I haven’t been persuaded by anyone that I’ve got anything wrong on that. 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 – right up to predicting that people would start claiming they consciously voted to be poorer.
I’m sure I’ve had a lot of exchanges that are more measured, but remember that [these are not really debates]. I don’t argue much in favour of remaining in the European Union, I merely ask people who are utterly and furiously adamant that leaving it is a great idea: Why? And then they fall apart like a cheap suit.
These people are not stupid, they have just been horribly misled and when they realise that they’ve been misled they’re left gulping like goldfish. They’re not used to being asked to explain what’s behind the fatuous slogans they’ve been fed, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ or ‘They need us more than we need them.’ These things are so patently absurd but they’ve gone unchallenged for so long.
On Question Time recently on BBC1, the comedian Jo Brand reminded David Davis of his declaration in October 2016 that ‘there will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside,’4See on.ft.com/2JKoL1g. Mr Davis was Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Britain’s chief negotiator in Brussels at the time. and he was completely unfazed.
I’m glad she did that. I’ve been begging people to do that for two years now and I don’t understand why they don’t. I don’t understand why Davis can turn up on the radio or the television and not be held to account every single time, every single time, for everything he’s got wrong previously. But he is still, in the minds of producers and presenters, someone who should be listened to.
I don’t understand why pointing out that politicians are being disingenuous at best and profoundly deceitful at worst has made me stand out. It’s not just, oh, their opinion turned out to be flawed – they’ve been absolutely wrong about everything. And I’ve watched with an increasing sense of wonder as people I kind of always presumed would represent the grown-ups have allowed this astonishing corruption and debasing of debate.
I was always aware that in an alternative universe there is an unlucky, unloved me. And as I’ve got older, perhaps my politics has been directed a little bit more at that other me
Can we talk about your formation?
It’s a work in progress, Huw.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Do you think your outlook on life was influenced in any way by the fact you were adopted as a baby?
While I was writing the book,6How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong, published by W H Allen in November 2018 I was asking myself: Why are you such an insufferable prig? Why do you always have to be telling other people why they’re wrong? You know, 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 voting to hurt themselves?
And I realised that I’ve always had this other me in the back of my mind, the less lucky me. I’ve always felt so lucky and loved, 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.
You have a sense of ‘There but for the grace of God…’?
Yes. Very much so.
Yes. I love the expression ‘born on third base and think they scored a home run’. I don’t. I’m the opposite.
I’m sure there are plenty of people who look at these things like I do. Ampleforth8Ampleforth College, the independent school run by the Benedictine monks and lay staff of Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire was a fairly healthy environment for self-examination and the contemplation of natural justice. It wasn’t a place [like] other public schools that made us think we were born to rule the world. But one thing it did do was give us a quiet confidence that we’d be all right in that world, whatever our origins were. I’d just like to see that extended to everybody, rather than confined to a small minority.
I read that at Ampleforth you insisted on tackling the then contentious issue of homosexuality in the magazine you edited. Was there always a contrarian streak in you?
There was then, and then it went into abeyance.
I’ll tell you what I always hated: ‘Because I say so.’ So, why? Why? I had a geography teacher who would say: ‘You don’t need to know that, it’s not on the curriculum.’ And that to me was like blasphemy.
The big moral lesson of Christianity for me was that actions have consequences – that’s what they taught us. They didn’t apply those rules to themselves
And then you move into the realms of morality and injustice, which I’ve always cared about but often in quite an abstract sense. The weird thing about being taught by monks is that they have scholastic authority but they have divine authority as well. So, when I found that these men ostensibly chosen by God were wanting, personally and morally – and often academically – they would resort to either ‘because I say so’ or ‘because God says so’.
You know, how can you have a £1 million book in the library when there are people turning up at the door of the monastery on Saturday mornings asking for food? Or how can homosexuality be wrong? I mean, 600 lads [at the school] – it’s not even debatable that some of them are gay! But we weren’t supposed to question, and yet in the classrooms it was pretty clear that unless you questioned you ended up wrong and/or stupid.
So, I always had – and that’s what the magazine was about – almost a pathological desire to talk about the things they kept telling us we weren’t supposed to talk about.
Oh, it’s been awful.
I mean, we knew [at the time] some of what was going on, and it certainly informed my mistrust of authority from a very early age. And either you roll with that, which most lads do – ‘Don’t tell me too much!’ – or you begin to feel (and I hope this isn’t mythologising) the early seeds of a burning sense of injustice. And I’ve certainly got that.
It breaks my heart to think of boys who must have been suffering silently while we could have helped them. A couple of lads a little younger than me were calling out some of these men – this is the stuff that should have been in my magazine.
They taught us about compassion, they taught us about caring, they taught us 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. They didn’t apply those rules to themselves.
And I hope some of them rot in hell.
You weren’t abused yourself, were you?
I was never interfered with in any way. [In my case, it was] mental cruelty, which you don’t even recognise as happening at the time. And a betrayal of trust.
You have said that you now have a complicated relationship with religion…
I derive enormous comfort from what I would call ‘praying’. Other people might call it ‘meditating’ – or they might even call it, in a therapeutic context, having a benign companion whose counsel you seek. The way I was raised, I would have conversations with Jesus.
And then the human representatives of that raising, that religion, let me down profoundly, at a very formative period of my life, and I spent 10 years railing against religion as a result.
What was it that brought you back to the Church?
When I became a parent in my early thirties, my father, who was a devout Catholic, wanted my baby girl to be baptised and I wanted my dad to be happy. I was looking for a church and astonishingly the two nuns into whose embrace I fell happened to be listeners to my radio show. 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.
So, I very cautiously dipped my toe back into it and I was reminded of how much value I derived from ‘talking to God’. Now, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a really strong belief in God, which is where the ‘complicated’ comes from.
Then my dad passed away [in 2012] and that gave my churchgoing another massive fillip, 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 [Stadium], the home of Kidderminster Harriers Football Club, to be with my dad, because that was one of the last things we did before he died.
However, I’ve struggled to go to church as much since the Ampleforth story broke, even though my parish priest is a magnificent man and a really good priest. You know, you hear the Creed and you just remember… I got communion off men who were raping little boys. So, going up to communion, even, has a bit of baggage.
I don’t want to spend too long on this –
I do. I love this! [My religion] is constantly changing and shifting and I like talking about it because it helps me clarify my own thoughts.
I mean, if it’s not complicated, that’s when it gets dangerous, isn’t it? Unquestioning, blind [belief] – that’s when really bad things start happening.
Could you imagine ringing a phone-in and the host dissects your religious sense with the same kind of relentless rationalism you deploy on your show and you’re left struggling, saying: ‘Well, I can’t articulate my beliefs, I just know that – ’?
But I don’t know. There are times in my life when I’ve known and there are times in my life when I’ve been certain 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.
I just love the benign completeness of Christ in the Gospels, and I say that without even the vaguest sense of embarrassment or silliness
In the book, you refer to Jesus as ‘a great moral teacher’. Which of his teachings in particular do you have in mind?
I think, that our primary responsibility is to those who are less fortunate than us.
And then, 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 simultaneously 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. He dealt with that beautifully [in his answer to] the Pharisees’ question about whether or not they should be paying Caesar taxes.10bit.ly/2XA9OCD
I just love the benign completeness of Christ in the Gospels, and I say that without even the vaguest sense of embarrassment or silliness. There’s a selflessness there that you could never emulate.
It’s hard to believe that in your late twenties you were showbiz editor of the Daily Express.
You’re right, it does seem odd, but it wasn’t an anomaly. This is the anomaly. The me up until I got married at 28 would have laughed his head off at what I just said. I’d have thought I was an idiot.
If you’d said to us on our wedding day that I was going to become some sort of firebrand, we’d have laughed. I didn’t have pungent political views (and I certainly didn’t have anything like the opinion of Fleet Street I have now). I never had the vaguest desire to be a political journalist – 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.
I fell into this job11Hosting his own phone-in on LBC, initially weekly, in 2003 by accident and it has radicalised me. Speaking to real people for three hours every day for the best part of 15 years has made me care passionately about real people and how easily they get led into self-damaging positions. You know, I’d read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists12The semi-autobiographical novel by Robert Tressell, written in 1910 and published after his death from tuberculosis, is a sustained socialist critique of the cruelty of unconstrained capitalism. when I was younger but I’d never realised it was timeless.
And then this bizarre political landscape [of Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit] unfolded in front of us and I was just in the right place at the wrong time.
And that engaged your sense of moral responsibility?
If someone is pouring poison into the ear of the population, it may be arrogant but if you feel you’ve got the skills to administer the antidote… 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 in the last few years I’ve stumbled into a role pouring antidote into the other ear.
If I was writing Guardian editorials or waxing lyrical in a Daily Mirror column, I wouldn’t be having the impact that I’ve had. 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.
When I was watching your viral videos, each one segued into one of Nigel Farage having a go at Tony Blair –
What a time to be alive!
Does it bother you that, whatever your agenda, to your employers it doesn’t matter who’s demolishing who, it’s all just good copy?
It bothers me, but not enough to launch my own radio station in a kind of undiluted liberal heaven. I’m nostalgic for the days when the right-wing representations in the British media were honest but (in my view) wrong; but there’s no way anyone could argue that the dishonesty is confined to where I work – and in the case of Farage there’s nowhere you could work in the British media at the moment without running the risk of bumping into him in the canteen.
Modesty aside, though, my clips are by far the most popular, so if it’s done algorithmically I presume I pop up all over the bleeding place, whether you want to see me or not.
How do you place yourself politically? You’ve said you are liberal rather than left-wing, but you’ve also said your position is essentially Christian…
I didn’t realise I lived in a country where people could burn to death in their own homes and then be mocked. That’s something I still struggle with
Well, you know what ‘Christian’ means and you know what ‘democrat’ means.
[I believe that] 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. That’s quite Christian. I think it is, anyway.
This really toxic small-state narrative that is enjoying an astonishing period of success in the West at the moment for me is the opposite of Christianity. The siren voices of so-called classical liberalism and libertarianism essentially [issue from] people who hate sharing, who were born on the right side of history and hate the idea that that was just luck.
I find food banks repellent. Jacob Rees-Mogg describing them as ‘rather uplifting’ to me is evidence of just how far we’ve gone down a very dangerous road.
Many people on the other side of that argument also identify themselves as Christians…
I think that’s always been true. If you call yourself ‘Christian’, you can console yourself that the epic inequality that you’re part of perpetuating must be God’s will.
What have you learnt about human nature from the last 15-odd years?
Oh, that’s a horrible question! Nothing from the last 15 [but] the last three have shaken my faith in human nature. Not even three years – what shook it was the Grenfell Tower tragedy [in 2017].13bit.ly/2Y941nL 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 it was not anonymous – people were happy to put their names to comments that people didn’t deserve whatever scant recompense they were going to get after seeing their neighbours burn to death.
I don’t know whether it’s the British [character] or human [nature] or somewhere in between, but that shook everything for me. 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.
You say ‘confidence’, you’re being very kind: you mean ‘cockiness’. But I don’t see how there can be. If it has anything to do with me and the little platform that I have, there won’t be.
I don’t think you can create a society in which everyone is happy – and as long as people are resentful, the invitation to blame their whole life on somebody else will prove irresistible
You’ve said that you’re ‘a great believer in the fundamental decency of people in spite of all the evidence to the contrary’.
Yeah, but it’s harder than it was. I mean, I still don’t believe that anyone gets born that way, thinking: ‘I know what I’ll do today: I’ll go and abuse someone who’s just watched their child die.’ They get… they get pushed into that, I believe. I could be wrong (I probably wouldn’t have said that two years ago). Maybe some of us are born rank and rotten – and the challenge for those of us who aren’t is to keep a lid on the ambitions of the people who are. I don’t think we’re doing a very good job at the moment.
Some people think that if only you can ‘change the system’, everybody will be good and happy. Others say: It doesn’t matter what you do to the system, people will always be self-centred and you just have to work with the grain of human nature. Which way do you lean?
At risk of being really dull, I would fall somewhere between those two stools. I don’t think you can ever create a society in which everyone will be happy and no one will be resentful. 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. For 30 years or more, the British media have offered that invitation on a scale that is staggering, but if it was properly challenged, I’d still like to believe that a much smaller number of people would have accepted it.
The puff for your book says that it ‘spells out how you try to expose and conquer prejudice’. Do you have evidence that what you do conquers prejudice?
The [instance] I’m probably proudest of is the uncle of a lad who had come out. He told me: I would have been just like my brother, calling him this and calling him that; but I tried some of your lines on my brother and now all three of us are in a much better place.
A guy who had been a fully paid-up member of the [English Defence League] phoned me to tell me that as a result of listening to me he had realised that Muslims were not the reason why things in life hadn’t gone as brilliantly as he thought they might. I’m not claiming that [I get] sacks of mail every day saying, ‘Thank you, James!’ but I do get that a lot.
I’m never going to give them the answers; I’m just giving them the questions. Why are you blaming your whole life on somebody else? Why does a woman in the workplace mean that you have been debased or emasculated? Why does treating gay people the same as we treat straight people make your life worse?
Do you see signs of hope?
Do I see signs of hope?
Three or four months ago, I would have said [that] almost everybody young I’ve met gives me hope. That’s quite a British perspective – some of the toxic tides in other European countries, and in America as well, seem to have caught up young people in a way that somehow we’ve managed to resist. That doesn’t mean there’s any guarantee that we’ll continue to [resist them]; but we are going to be more highly educated as a population than ever before and I can’t help thinking that with education comes enlightenment and with enlightenment comes hope.
So, yeah, I think I am hopeful – although there is so much [reason] not to be, it depends what day you catch me.
|⇑2||See, eg, bit.ly/2SmzC44, bit.ly/2JKgglI and bit.ly/2JPbAuM.|
|⇑3||See bit.ly/2Z2lv6Q. Mr Farage was then leader of Ukip.|
|⇑4||See on.ft.com/2JKoL1g. Mr Davis was Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Britain’s chief negotiator in Brussels at the time.|
|⇑5||He had the next best thing a few weeks later – see bit.ly/2SmQN5I.|
|⇑6||How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong, published by W H Allen in November 2018|
|⇑8||Ampleforth College, the independent school run by the Benedictine monks and lay staff of Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire|
|⇑9||See, eg, bit.ly/2Lpefi8.|
|⇑11||Hosting his own phone-in on LBC, initially weekly, in 2003|
|⇑12||The semi-autobiographical novel by Robert Tressell, written in 1910 and published after his death from tuberculosis, is a sustained socialist critique of the cruelty of unconstrained capitalism.|
James O’Brien was born in 1972 to a teenaged single mother and was adopted at the age of 28 days. He was educated at Ampleforth College and then read philosophy and economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
In his twenties, he pursued a career as a journalist at the Daily Express, eventually becoming editor of the William Hickey gossip column. He also had work published in Cosmopolitan and the Spectator.
From 2000 to 2002, he was a panellist on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff. In 2001, he presented a talk show on Anglia Television titled A Knight with O’Brien and, with his wife, Lucy McDonald, fronted Channel 5’s general election show 5 Talk.
He first hosted a show on the talk radio station LBC (‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’) in 2002 as holiday cover. He landed his own weekly programme the following year and became a full-time presenter in 2004. His reputation was established nationwide in 2014 when he interviewed Nigel Farage, then leader of Ukip, and a video of the interview went viral on YouTube.
From 2014 to 2018 he did occasional stints as a guest presenter on Newsnight on BBC2, and in 2015 he fronted an eponymous lunchtime topical-debate show on ITV which ran for 10 episodes.
In 2017, he began hosting a one-hour podcast for joe.co.uk titled Unfiltered with James O’Brien.
He is the author of Loathe Thy Neighbour (2015) and How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong (2018), which reached number five in the Sunday Times bestseller list.
In 2017, he was named ‘radio broadcaster of the year’ at the British Press Guild Awards.
He married in 2000 and has two daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 January 2019