LBC ra­dio host James O’Brien on ex­pos­ing rightwing fake news and chal­leng­ing call­ers on Brexit

The Guardian - Review - - Nonfiction - Fiona Sturges

James O’Brien is, as he notes in his new book, “a very rare beast”. He is a lib­eral talk­show host op­er­at­ing in a field burst­ing with blovi­at­ing rightwingers. On his phonein show on LBC – the sta­tion that also em­ploys Nigel Farage, Ja­cob Rees-Mogg and, un­til May of last year, Katie Hop­kins – O’Brien has be­come the de facto spokesper­son for scores of Bri­tons frus­trated by the di­vi­sive­ness and fury of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics.

You don’t even need to tune in to hear him hold­ing forth on the ma­jor sto­ries of the day, since clips of him de­liv­er­ing wearily heart­felt mono­logues on such top­ics as the Hills­bor­ough in­quiry, the mur­der of Jo Cox or how the NHS is be­ing sold off un­der our noses have be­come a fix­ture across so­cial me­dia plat­forms. Equally com­pelling are his con­ver­sa­tions with call­ers who of­ten end up with the ver­bal equiv­a­lent of a bloody nose. Taken in iso­la­tion, th­ese ex­cerpts can look like de­mo­li­tion jobs in which O’Brien ex­poses their ig­no­rance in front of the na­tion, a sit­u­a­tion that has no doubt spurred him to write How to Be Right.

“I have prob­a­bly had more op­por­tu­ni­ties to hear from or­di­nary peo­ple over the last few years than al­most any­one else on the planet,” he writes, which seems an ex­trav­a­gant claim un­til you re­alise that O’Brien, who be­gan his jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer as the show­biz ed­i­tor at the Daily Ex­press, spends three hours a day, five days a week, talk­ing to call­ers about their po­lit­i­cal con­cerns. The book is neatly di­vided into chap­ters that cover the sub­jects most fre­quently by James O’Brien, WH Allen, £12.99 O’Brien has a peer­less abil­ity to point out the ab­sur­dity of cer­tain view­points raised, among them po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, Is­lam and Is­lamism, Brexit, Trump, the age gap and fem­i­nism. Within th­ese chap­ters, O’Brien in­cludes tran­scrip­tions of on-air con­ver­sa­tions with his call­ers, around which he wraps in­formed, sharply ar­tic­u­lated anal­y­sis.

The ti­tle is some­what mis­lead­ing since it sug­gests that O’Brien’s fo­cus is less on lis­ten­ing than win­ning the ar­gu­ment. This is a no­tion from which he is keen to dis­tance him­self, how­ever, since he grum­bles about be­ing ac­cused of con­de­scen­sion. His will­ing­ness to en­gage with al­ter­na­tive points of view is partly down to his con­vic­tion that peo­ple should be able to jus­tify their po­si­tions, but also be­cause such ex­changes pro­vide a tan­ta­lis­ing op­por­tu­nity for him to re­place fal­lacy with fact.

And so we are in­tro­duced to Andy from Not­ting­ham, a leave voter who called to say that Brexit would al­low Bri­tain to “con­trol our own laws”. Pressed to name pre­cisely which laws, he couldn’t name a sin­gle edict im­posed by the EU that had neg­a­tively af­fected his life. We also meet David, a lay preacher who called in af­ter the Lib­eral Demo­crat leader Tim Far­ron de­scribed gay sex as a sin. O’Brien wanted David, who be­lieved the Bible told us all we needed to know about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, to en­lighten him on Je­sus’s views. By the end he had asked the ques­tion 27 times, but to no avail. This is be­cause Je­sus said noth­ing on the sub­ject at all.

O’Brien is an ex­cep­tional broad­caster with a peer­less abil­ity to calmly point out the ab­sur­dity of cer­tain view­points, plac­ing the blame largely at the door of the scare­mon­ger­ing of the rightwing me­dia, and a po­lit­i­cal dis­course in which xeno­pho­bic lan­guage and er­ro­neous claims of fake news of­ten go un­chal­lenged. Still, his clar­ity of thought – his con­fi­dence and ab­so­lute con­vic­tion that he is on the side of good­ness and truth – is some­thing to be­hold. As O’Brien ad­mits, “you need at least a slightly overde­vel­oped ego to do the job”. Thus the most il­lu­mi­nat­ing parts of How to Be Right ar­rive in his rare mo­ments of un­cer­tainty. A case in point comes in the chap­ter about fem­i­nism, in which he re­veals with star­tling hon­esty how one of his call­ers, a City lawyer named Fiona, helped him un­der­stand how men can sub­tly di­min­ish women with per­sonal re­marks, and “how be­hav­iour I once con­sid­ered ut­terly nor­mal could be ex­pe­ri­enced as sex­u­ally ag­gres­sive”.

For all its qual­i­ties, a nag­ging ques­tion re­mains about who this book is for. The broad­caster’s many cheer­lead­ers can find daily sus­te­nance by lis­ten­ing to his show, or by view­ing clips on so­cial me­dia. One sus­pects that O’Brien has a more schol­arly book in him that could dig deeper into where we are po­lit­i­cally. For the time be­ing, How to Be Right pro­vides a much­needed ex­am­i­na­tion of the rhetoric of politi­cians and me­dia pun­dits, and brings a sliver of com­fort to read­ers that they are not alone in their de­spair.

To buy How to Be Right for £9.99 go to guardian­book­

How to Be Right ... in a World Gone Wrong

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