James O'Brien

The oh-so clever life of O'Brien

James O’Brien’s LBC morning show is a thundering, sanctimonious bore

On Radio

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

For a wounding definition of the virtuous man it is always worth revisiting Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play, The Real Thing. Stoppard was writing about Brodie, a jailbird turned writer (at least in his own imagination), and in his famous “cricket bat” speech the dramatist’s exposure of peacock-proud liberalism still stings. It’s more powerful for the fact that Stoppard is a genuine liberal, if that word still has any meaning.

This is Stoppard armed with the new ball, approaching the crease off his long run, with the breeze at his back: “Every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific.” Whoosh! And here’s another bouncer: “War is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft.” You can’t fool Brodie.

Nor can you fool James O’Brien, who flutters his feathers each weekday morning on LBC, which, the station likes to boast, “leads Britain’s conversation”.

He exhibits the faults he finds so readily in others and passes them off as fruits from the tree of knowledge

At 10 o’clock he eases himself into his very own Star Chamber, wig in place, and casts a practised eye over the miscreants he has lined up for his daily exercise. As Stoppard wrote, “it’s like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the Indian rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea”.

Midget intellectual is right. For the first 15 minutes of the show listeners are treated to a stumbling tour d’horizon of the previous day’s events, filtered through the imagination of a man who has little to say but is determined to say it anyway.

There is a place for a monologue, even at 10.05 in the morning, and there is room for invective. If you want listeners to respond in a lively manner then you must give them something worth responding to. The problem is, O’Brien, like Brodie, is such a thundering bore.

The Tories? Cheap and nasty. The European Union? A beacon of human rights. The National Health Service? Beyond reproach. National newspapers? A right-wing cartel. There is no lightness of touch in O’Brien’s manner, no change of pace, no deftness, and little acknowledgement that there may be another way of looking at the world. He exhibits the faults he finds so readily in others and passes them off as fruits from the tree of knowledge.

Nobody is quite as clever as he, nor as public-spirited. Should the listener stray ever so lightly from the path of conventional wisdom, O’Brien will tilt his judicial wig and reach for the bran-tub of familiar insults. His rebukes are coated with sarcasm and exasperation but as he falls short of top-notch intelligence, and has a limited vocabulary, his barbs rarely wound as he would like.

Although he is eager to tell the world how venal the right-wing papers are, O’Brien does not set a radiant example

And when the violins start to play, and he speaks broken-heartedly of “this country that we love”, a country he spends much of his time denouncing for racism and bigotry, it is time to put the spoons away.

Although he is eager to tell the world how venal the right-wing papers are, O’Brien does not set a radiant example. For years he fanned to flame the lurid sexual fantasies of Carl Beech, whose lies were exposed by the newspapers he despises, rather than Exaro News, the “alternative” media outlet (now defunct) that O’Brien championed as a pioneer of investigative journalism. 

One would have thought somebody who came such a spectacular cropper might present a more humble face to the world. But no, he carries on bearing the torch of truth for the benefit of us all, out of love for his fellow man. The human panacea indeed.

Nobody could accuse Nick Ferrari of concealing his views, which are often forthright. Yet he manages to lead the conversation on his show, which precedes O’Brien’s judicial review, with more dexterity. Andrew Pierce is not a shy man. 

But he too allows guests to speak without trying to demonstrate his moral superiority. Interviewing Jolyon Maugham, the QC and occasional fox-slaughterer, Pierce granted him as much time as he wanted (rather more than he needed) to make his case that Boris Johnson had behaved dishonourably, a view most listeners would share, irrespective of political affiliation. 

There was no grandstanding, or fluttering of feathers, or theatrical disgust.

So the scorecard reads: O’Brien caught Pierce bowled Ferrari 0. Quack, quack. He must return to the pavilion, and vow to do better.

Radio 3 could certainly have done better with its five-part tribute to James Joyce on the centenary of Ulysses. The three women and two men who contributed to The Essay were all Irish! So much for diversity. Joyce, who thought that most people born in Ireland were happy to be Irish but few wanted to live there, was instinctively European (in its proper cultural sense), though he held on to his British passport by choice.

He was a complicated man, who wrote his famous book mainly in Trieste and Zurich, and it would have been rewarding to reflect on his continental wanderings by hearing some non-Irish voices. 

Simon Heffer, for instance, loves Ulysses, and has a broad hinterland. An imaginative producer, prepared to look beyond the usual gang, would have issued an invitation.

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