Does James O’Brien ever stop talking? Just two hours ago, the famously opinionated 51-year-old radio host was gabbing over the airwaves in his usual mid-morning LBC slot – interviewing the mayor of London, pillorying Boris Johnson, and butting heads with listeners over the Israel-Gaza protests. Speaking to me now via video from a dimly lit room in his home, he looks as sapped as you might expect. But give him a nudge – mention, for instance, the latest revelations from the Covid inquiry, in which WhatsApp evidence appeared to confirm suspicions about the shambolic nature of Johnson’s pandemic leadership – and like a set of wind-up chattering teeth, O’Brien snaps back into animation.
“I’m not a political journalist,” he says. “I’m not a lobby journalist. I just marvel at the madness of it all.” We’re chatting on the day Johnson’s ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings is testifying. Messages have come to light in which Cummings claimed Johnson was “melting down” and referred to former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara as “that c***”, while Johnson was revealed, in a diary entry by Sir Patrick Vallance, to have called Covid “nature’s way of dealing with old people”. Both figures feature prominently in O’Brien’s new book, How They Broke Britain, a laceration of modern British politics. “A central thrust of my book is the tragedy of having these idiots in charge when something awful happened,” O’Brien says. “Any fears I might have had that I exaggerated the awfulness of it, or the idiocy of them, dissipate with every syllable that comes out of Dominic Cummings’s mouth.”
It’s typically unsparing criticism from a man who’s spent his career rattling more cages than a sadistic prison warden. O’Brien is a fixture of British radio, having made his debut on LBC nearly two decades ago, in 2004. It wasn’t until the build-up to the Brexit referendum that his reputation as a political pugilist really took off, however – when clips of his spiky but methodical exchanges with Brexiters propelled him to viral fame on social media. There have been times when his calmly belligerent, don’t-let-a-falsehood-air-unchallenged approach has faltered – an infamous on-air row with Frank Lampard over the footballer’s personal life saw him dig himself something of a hole.
But there’s more to O’Brien than just political slanging matches. His podcast, Full Disclosure, has spotlighted thoughtful, intimate conversations with a wide variety of people – figures such as Daniel Radcliffe, Carol Vorderman, and Sara Pascoe, with whom he spoke candidly about his personal experience of male infertility. His million-plus X/Twitter followers testify to his standing as a thinker, as much as a debater. His rise to prominence coincided with LBC’s expansion to the national stage in 2014; despite what his detractors say, O’Brien’s reach goes well beyond the London media bubble.
As well as dismantling the arguments of random phoners-in, O’Brien also proved an adept fryer of bigger fish, most famously Nigel Farage, whose 2014 interview on O’Brien’s show saw the Ukip figurehead flounder under scrutiny, ultimately storming out of the studio. (On the recent unpalatable rumour that Farage might be following Matt Hancock and Nadine Dorries into the I’m a Celeb jungle, O’Brien is characteristically withering: “Treating Farage like a respectable human being, never mind a respectable politician, is a symptom of a much deeper mess that we’re in.”)
Farage is one of the figures skewered along the spinal cord of How They Broke Britain, a 384-page polemic examining the dismal state of the UK by way of the 10 people O’Brien deems most responsible. Three Tory PMs (David Cameron, Johnson and Liz Truss) each get their own chapter, along with various other political and media figures, including the chair of The Spectator Andrew Neil, ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and corporate titan Rupert Murdoch. “The only one that I thought twice about was Jeremy Corbyn,” O’Brien explains, “because he is not in any way responsible for creating the ecosystem in which the awful stuff happened. But the unelectable has to bear some responsibility for the triumph of the unconscionable.”
The harmful consequences of Brexit, both economic and political, make up a large amount of the book – but not all of it. “There are three prongs to this trident of awfulness that we’ve all been impaled by,” O’Brien says, with a kind of weary truculence, frowning perhaps more at the universe than the webcam. He has a habit of answering questions in lists. “One [prong] is the ludicrously biased right-wing media, which, with Brexit and Johnson, achieved a new gear of sycophancy, or ‘client journalism’. The second is the lobby groups. And [third is] the politicians – this new iteration of the Tory party, that bears no resemblance at all to a party that MPs such as Dominic Grieve or Anna Soubry or even Nicholas Soames would have been comfortable in.”
The criticism is not, of course, limited to just these 10 figures, but everything from Suella Braverman’s asylum policy to the supposed failings of the BBC. O’Brien is familiar with the inner workings of the Beeb, having worked as a guest presenter on Newsnight (alongside a list of other bygone roles, including video games correspondent for the Mail, diary reporter at the Evening Standard, and panellist on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff). What does he think of the BBC’s impartiality policy? “I think it’s an absolute mess on all sorts of levels,” he responds bluntly.
Eager to elaborate, O’Brien describes the problem of “false balance”. “You are literally told, no, we have to get a guest on to say the Earth is flat, otherwise we’ll get lots of complaints,” he says. “When I was at Newsnight, we secured an interview with Pascal Lamy, the former director general of the World Trade Organisation. At this point, all the head-bangers and idiots were claiming we could leave the European Union without any trade deals at all. Now, that’s not an issue of balance. That’s an issue of ignorance. You don’t balance out people who know what they’re talking about and people who don’t.” Despite his protestations, another guest was booked for “balance”: Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom.
I spent years insisting the beatings had done me no harm at all
“I had the surreal experience of sitting in the studio picking Pascal Lamy’s brains about what WTO rules meant in the context of Brexit, what would happen to a country that had no trade agreements in place. He was fascinating, informed, articulate, and evidence-based. At which point I had to turn and say, ‘Oh, Andrea Leadsom, you disagree…’ and that’s insane. That is objectively insane. It’s absolutely bonkers and that’s the problem that the BBC has got.” O’Brien laughs, a kind of jaded, exasperated chuckle, and scratches his ever-so-slightly unkempt beard.
If O’Brien’s on-air confrontations can be likened to boxing matches, in which he patiently seeks to jab his opponent to the floor with repetitive force and precision, then How They Broke Britain sees him charge his foe head-on, frantically windmilling his arms. Here, O’Brien is on the offensive, sheared of the need to counter anyone else’s half-baked assertions. It’s an angry and opinionated piece of work.
Anger is an emotion with which O’Brien has had a long and complex relationship. Half a decade ago, he sought therapy for a number of reasons, with rage issues being traced back to physical abuse he experienced as a young child at the hands of a headmaster. (“I spent years insisting the beatings had done me no harm at all.”) O’Brien subsequently attended Ampleforth College, a North Yorkshire boarding school known as the “Catholic Eton”. The institution is now infamous for a child abuse scandal, though O’Brien was not abused there. After living most of his life “with [his] fists up”, he was finally confronting his trauma.
“I just reached a point where it was not doing me any good at all outside work, to be in this constant state of vigilance,” he says. “To be constantly waiting for the next attack, and always getting my punches in first – verbally, emotionally speaking. And that’s why I [went into therapy]. I wasn’t expecting it to work, but lo and behold, it all came tumbling out.”
O’Brien is no longer in therapy, but he hasn’t stopped trying to sand down his rough edges. A facet of this has been his willingness – contrary to his dogmatic public persona – to change his mind on issues. Go back a decade, he says, and “I was just a fairly predictable, white, middle-class, heterosexual bruiser. I used to be very predictable on social issues – obesity; mental health; special educational needs.” Predictable maybe, or what some would call regressive (“I was one of those people that would say, ‘...but we used to just call it naughty in my day!’”) As time went on, O’Brien became more aware of the need “to be conscious of everybody’s sensitivities”.
“I’m not sure how helpful pungent opinions are,” he says, as the conversation turns to the Israel-Gaza conflict. “In the past, I did not understand the constant existential threat under which Jewish people live. The place from which support for Israel comes – for many Jewish people – is a place none of the rest of us will ever visit.” Citing guidance from Jewish friends and callers who had survived the Holocaust, he says that he gained a “much deeper understanding of the importance of Israel as a homeland for Jewish people – which doesn’t mean I will defend what [Israeli PM Benjamin] Netanyahu has done or what they are doing now”.
It’s comments like these that have sometimes seen O’Brien accused of equivocating. Call it what you will – nuance or “bothsidesism” – his reluctance to commit to a hard polarised stance on certain issues has left him with detractors at both ends of the political spectrum. Various descriptors have been hung around his neck, in particular, the gently disparaging “centrist dad”, a label he’s previously said he can “live with”.
Does he ever feel pressured to come down hard on one side? He uses one of the day’s big stories to illustrate his answer: the news that Portuguese police had issued an apology to the parents of Madeleine McCann over their handling of the missing child case in 2007. “I think that the McCanns were the canaries down the coal mine when it comes to public [pile-ons],” O’Brien says. “It was when social media was becoming this uncontrolled force that it had never been before, and they were among the very first victims of almost boundless online vitriol.
“The certainty with which people would argue that they were complicit in their daughter’s disappearance or death… even for a radio phone-in show – you know, traditionally we’re the kings and queens of incoherent rage and pungent certainties – it used to stagger me,” he says.
Over the course of our conversation, O’Brien repeatedly makes a point to refer back to other questions, stitching our conversation together into something that feels whole and purposeful. I shudder at the thought of disagreeing with him on the radio; he sometimes gives the impression of never being wrong, or never seeming to think he could be. But that’s not entirely true: O’Brien does cop to the occasional lapse in discernment (“Watching a complete Herbert like Matt Hancock emote for camera… I fell for his schtick for a while. I’ve got to own up to that”). His brand of verbose self-assuredness feels like a knowing, almost parodic act – at least some of the time.
The country has to right itself. The only question is how awful will things get before it does
But, after all, there is more to O’Brien than verbal fisticuffs with politicians. He does talk to other people too – and sometimes he even gets on with them. We are talking just days after the shocking, premature death of Friends star Matthew Perry, whom O’Brien interviewed in depth back in 2016. I ask what his impressions were of the late star, who spoke with him about everything – addiction, TV, and (surprise, surprise) politics.
His face softens a bit. “Do you know, he reminded me of someone who I also interviewed very near the end of his life: George Michael. There’s two things that reminded me of George. The first was a sort of heaviness. Now, I don’t know whether that was medication or something else, but both of them had a sort of heaviness, coupled with an incredible light – as in illumination.”
O’Brien’s voice has shifted into a solemn murmur: “They were both bringers of immense joy to people, and yet they both seemed to move almost in slow motion. Imagine you’ve got 10 speeds and we are right in the middle. It was as if they’d just gone down one notch from normal speed and they were just a bit slower and a bit heavier of mouth.” He was, he tells me, “so lucky to have met them both and so sad to have seen… that sense of bringing happiness to everybody except themselves”. It would be tempting to observe that in these moments of earnest reflection, O’Brien seems somehow more human, more real, than he does while on his soapbox, spitting venom in the direction of Downing Street. But I’m not sure this is the case. Anger, frustration, disgust – these are as human as it gets.
A book like How They Broke Britain risks sinking into the tar pit of nihilism; the country’s situation is so grim – whether it’s the cost of living, or parliamentary rot – how could the forecast be any brighter? But O’Brien has hope – when it comes to Brexit at least. “The question of how long it’s gonna take to undo or reverse Brexit is draining,” he says. “But there’s an inevitability to it. It’s almost gravity. The country has to right itself. The only question is how awful will things get before it does.” Rousing? Maybe not. But it’ll have to do for now. Until tomorrow morning, at least, he’s done talking.
‘How They Broke Britain’ is out now in hardback, published by Penguin. O’Brien will be at the Henley Literary Festival on 17 November, with tickets available on the website: henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk/events/james-obrien