James O’Brien has just come off the air when I meet him at LBC’s studios in central London. He looks a little frazzled and worn-out, like an A&E doctor who has just returned home from a night shift. His pupils are the size of chocolate buttons, his speech lags a little, and his mind races so much that the rattle of his internal thoughts is almost audible. Although he’s not the cocksure, prickly James O’Brien you’ve probably seen viral clips of, this James O’Brien is affable, relaxed and self-effacing.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, you’ve probably come across some of his merciless takedowns of right-wing figures on social media. Or some of his meticulous and eloquent monologues, which have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. One of his most-shared clips is a heated interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg back in January 2019, in which the two argue at length about Brexit and Australian beef. That chat has been viewed almost 1.5 million times on YouTube.
Perhaps his most famous viral clip, however, shows him grilling Nigel Farage back in 2014. In it, O’Brien is seen challenging the then UKIP leader on his views on immigration and racism. One of the stand-out moments in that interview is when the fiery presenter asks Farage why he claimed he felt ‘uncomfortable’ on a journey in the UK recently because everyone on the carriage was speaking a foreign language. Spoiler: Farage’s wife and children are German-speaking.
It is takedowns like these that have seen him become somewhat of a cult hero in recent years. But the 47-year-old hasn’t always been the liberal voice on the radio he is today. Before LBC, he worked on The Wright Stuff where he was often on the opposite side of the argument. “That really just involved me being pungent and a little bit obnoxious every morning,” he says.
“I’d find myself arguing the toxic position, which was often the right-wing position, just because of the make-up of the panel, which meant someone had to argue it,”
Before he got into broadcasting, the dad-of-two was showbiz editor at the Daily Express, a role he undertook because, in his words, he, “thought that was a hell of a lot more interesting than the political beat.”
I ask him when he started becoming political, was it from a young age? “I thought it was. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t.”
He recalls a time when his old Express editor, Rosie Boycott, asked him the same question earlier this year – because she couldn’t remember him being political when they worked together.
“I had to sort of stop and think. In my mind, in my manufactured mythology, I was [political]. But actually, no I wasn’t in the late nineties’ early noughties,” he reflects. Before adding: “I always lent towards objection to unfairness and for me, that is a left-wing position.”
His anti-bigotry stance recently saw him labelled as a “loser snowflake” by one of his callers, who claimed Boris Johnson had always been a champion for gay rights . O’Brien disputed that, citing a column Johnson wrote in the Telegraph in 1998, where he said that Peter Mandelson’s resignation would lead to the blubbering of “tank topped bumboys” in “the Ministry of Sound Nightclub”.
Ironically, O’Brien’s old man also wrote for the Telegraph paper.
“My dad was a Daily Telegraph journalist who sent me to public school, but it was not a right-wing household by any stretch of the imagination. My maternal grandfather worked in the Sheffield steelworks and my paternal grandparents ran one of the roughest pubs in Leeds, so we covered almost all the bases at home. Meaning that I railed against what I saw was unfairness or injustice,” he says.
Another thing that contributed to his political awakening was the austerity measures imposed in 2010, as well as when he began to see his old colleagues on Fleet Street in a different light when he moved to broadcasting.
“I remember reading one column about the firefighters’ last round of industrial action. And someone I liked, and knew, was peddling all these nonsenses about them all having extra jobs and how you can’t trust what they say. And I kind of realised I should position myself as an opposition, rather than a proposition.”
He adds: “I think my political awakening comes from those processes.”
The liberal broadcaster is a hybrid of privilege and working-class. He was brought up by his adoptive parents in Kidderminster, on the same street as Tom Watson, the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and despite being adopted when he was a baby, claims he had a fairly normal upbringing.
“I went to private school from the very earliest age, so that was abnormal, that was exclusive, but I didn’t play football in the cul de sac around the corner with the kids from private school, I played it with the kids that lived nearby“.
The LBC presenter is referring to his “posh” education at Ampleforth College – a public school in North Yorkshire known as the ‘Catholic Eton’. Before he went there, he was at a public school in the Midlands.
“When you say private education, if you didn’t go, there’s a perception that we must all have dressed like Jacob Rees-Mogg and stood up for the national anthem at bedtime. But A) I was a day boy until I was 10 or 11. And B) It was in the middle of the Midlands, so the parents had obviously made a few quid, but they weren’t signed up members of the Bullingdon Club by any stretch of the imagination,” he chuckles.
Each time O’Brien laughs, as he does often throughout our chat, his face changes from a man approaching his 50s to that of a giggling schoolboy who’s just been told a joke in a school assembly.
I ask him if his girls go to private school, and he tells me, in a slightly more abrupt but still polite tone: “No, I’m not going there,” which suggests, perhaps, they do. Although he is happy to say he doesn’t believe in getting rid of private schools altogether, as was suggested previously by Jeremy Corbyn. He is, however, all for scrapping charitable status.
Does he think there should be more opportunities for less well-off kids to go to private schools?
“Yeah, not everyone is lucky enough to have a dad like me who comes from a backstreet pub and ends up on the Daily Telegraph.”
One of O’Brien’s poker tells is that, whenever he talks about something he’s passionate about (which seems to be a lot of things), he accentuates his point by drumming his forefinger on the table.
“But you don’t increase the opportunities of people at the bottom of society by taking away the privileges of people at the top of society. The best thing you can do…” (now he’s slamming his finger on the table frantically) “…is to increase mobility and that seems to be in decline, or in reverse, at the minute. And that’s what frightens and upsets me.”
When we discuss his upbringing, something that he seems aware of and appears to feel fortunate for, he launches into an impassioned monologue about why he thinks his parents sent him to a public school. His finger drumming the table as he does.
“I think, and mum thinks so too, that he [his dad] sent me to Ampleforth so I could sit comfortably with people who went to schools like that because I don’t think he did.
“He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, but I think he felt having a Yorkshire accent, having left school at 15, having a very real lived experience and then working on a paper like the Telegraph, where people with pocket watches would be promoted over him, and he knew it had nothing to do with journalistic talent. I think he wanted me to have that golden ticket. And I wish he’d been around to see that it worked,” he giggles again, but this time there’s a sadness in his eyes.
How To Be Right…. In A World Gone Wrong
Sadly, O’Brien’s dad, Jim O’Brien, passed away nearly seven years ago, so he never got the chance to see his fame or read his son’s new book, How To Be Right… In A World Gone Wrong, which features standout transcripts from his radio show. I tell him that I’m sure he’d be very proud.
“Yeah, but he never would have said it though, he’s from Leeds,” He breaks down into rapturous laughter before continuing. “Not in a million years,” (still chuckling) “Maybe after a few too many pints, there might have been a grasp in the pub or something like that, but I don’t think there’d have been a card,” he says.
At this point, I realise the clock is ticking down and I only have half an hour with him. One of the challenges of interviewing a skilled orator, like O’Brien, is trying to move onto the next point because almost everything he says sounds interesting. I switch the conversation back to politics and ask him about the current Prime Minister.
Is Boris Johnson explicitly lying to the people?
Is Borish Johnson explicitly lying to the public?
He immediately starts drumming on the table, so I know something good is coming. The veteran broadcaster then tells an anecdote about one of his oldest friends, who he’s been playing FIFA with for over twenty years. He recalls a time when his friend adjusted the settings on the football game before O’Brien arrived to play him so that he could win.
“He danced around the room for a bit after beating me and then his conscience got the better of him“. He then pauses before launching into one of his articulate, philosophical soliloquies.
“There are three types of people in this world. There are people who will cheat, and their conscience is silent. There are people who will never cheat. And there are people who will cheat but are so soiled by the experience that they’ll somehow cough to it, or even feel genuine remorse if they get caught, like the Australian cricket team. I think that remorse was genuine. Johnson is in the first category. He will cheat and the question he’ll ask himself is ‘can I get away with it?’ It’s unfashionable to feel this way but the evidence for how comfortable he is with cheating lies in his personal life,” he says.
He then goes on to give an example of when Boris Johnson claimed there was “no press here” to the father of an ill child when at a media op in a hospital back in September. The father then pointed at the cameras.
Does he think Boris Johnson is replicating Trump?
“I don’t know. There are days that all paths lead to Steve Bannon, and there’s no genius to what Steve Bannon does. Steve Bannon just opens up an all you can eat buffet on people’s base appetites, whether it’s misogyny, racism, xenophobia or anti-immigration.”
Will it wash in the UK? I ask.
“I suspect, and this is something I want to research further, I suspect, that the legacy of slavery creates a very different environment in America to the one we have here. And I wouldn’t take this too far until I’ve read into it further, but when we have Brexit, kind of, mythologising a nonexistent past in the context of the 1950s. I do increasingly wonder whether we, on this side of the Atlantic, don’t understand how very right-wing people in America mythologise the even more distant past of segregation and slavery. Some of the stuff that happened in schools after Trump got elected was chilling, and I don’t think that’d ever happen here in quite the same way quite as quickly.”
Does that mean he’ll be voting for Jeremy Corbyn?
“The problem I have with the looming general election is that I find it very hard to contemplate voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. A) Because of the anti-Semitism that he has not properly dealt with, or even, I don’t believe, acknowledged. And B) Because I think that the handling of opposition to this government in general, and the last government, and Brexit, in particular, has been so poor. BUT, my constituency MP, I know her and I really like her and I really rate her, so I’m torn. I don’t know what I’ll do until I’m in the ballot box.”
With our time drawing to a close, I push him for an answer, as I know he’d do the same to his interviewees.
There’s a general election tomorrow (our interview is before the general election was announced), who are you voting for?
“I don’t know. Probably Ruth Cadbury, the Labour MP in my constituency, because I know her, and I like her, and I know she works hard. But I’d be holding my nose about Jeremy Corbyn, which isn’t going to please your readers.” He chuckles.
James O’Brien’s book, ‘How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong’ is out now in paperback (WH Allen, £8.99).