The Strange World of James O’Brien

James O'Brien

Of all radio formats, the phone-in is thought to be the most grounded. It purports to catch ejaculations of consciousness, unfiltered – a zeitgeist bukkake, but this of course, is nonsense. These aren’t pub arguments transmitted; caller and host aren’t debating on equal terms. The power lies with the presenter and his researchers. The latter selects the callers, while the former frames the discussion, allowing the despot with the microphone to silence those who refuse to discuss the subject on their terms.

Contributors, lacking the confidence of media professionals and unsuited to the demands of the condensed air time allocated to them between patronising commercials, are at a disadvantage from the get-go. The presenter can fade them out at will. For a voice-jockey inclined to facilitate a discussion rather than dominate one, this power imbalance needn’t be an impediment to a healthy disagreement. The public may still have primacy. In the hands of a narcissist, however, this apparent freedom of speech tool becomes a platform for self-assurance and intellectual peacocking.

James O’Brien, LBC’s morning maw, illustrates this so perfectly that it’s possible to believe he was grown in a lab for that purpose. Whatever the subject, O’Brien’s show (weekdays 10am-1pm) pits the masses he loves to patronise against his rice paper ego. It’s a battle Joe and Jacinda Public can’t win, for O’Brien has the radio’s apparatus and a cultural deference to media personalities propping his every word. Those who refuse to meet him on those terms, who doth protest, are talked over and cut off.

Listening to O’Brien filibuster those who challenge his belligerent, oft obnoxious shtick, one becomes immersed in this revealing one man show. The public are props. It’s a psychological showcase in which all of James’s insecurities and prejudices are laid bare; his poisonous assumption being that LBC’s listeners, most of whom he anticipates will be his intellectual and rhetorical inferiors (because you don’t join a Cabbies network to be bested on a daily basis), will be too wrapped up in their own half-bakery to notice.

O’Brien’s a strange beast. He shows a liberal face to the world while being Clegg-like in reality; a Tory with a left-of-centre chassis. His political ducking and weaving makes it impossible for any caller to pin him down. The man who made his name fileting ultra-conservative charlatan Nigel Farage, voted for Boris Johnson, supported the war in Iraq (parroting the face-saving lie that Blair’s false prospectus could only be marked as such with hindsight), believes in hereditary privilege (that’s the monarchy to you and me), spin-offs like inherited property, secondary school streaming (because as Ricky Gervais one observed, “there’s fuck all you can do with thick kids”), and private education – his pet obsession.

Being siphoned off from the masses at an early age is important to James because he’s a product of that bought social advantage. Seldom does a show pass when he doesn’t remind his listeners of the fact, or gratuitously carpet bomb his long soliloquies with excerpts from his learned consciousness.

Attentive listeners note that James knows Steinbeck and Shakespeare, that he has a classical education, and not only that, he’s a cultured gob. James knows that Moët is pronounced Mo-et, he’s a fan of Paddy Chayefsky, though he affects to forget the name of that film with Peter Finch – oh what was it called? – because there’s so much knowledge jostling around that skull, and he reads ten pages of his thesaurus before bed, five days a week. Unleashing your vocabulary is a neat way of keeping the proles in check. Danny Shunk and Tracy Dunn will have a job talking back because they barely talk.

If it sounds like I’m jealous it’s because I am. Which insecure, fundamentally witless pseudo-intellectual, conditioned by absurd vanity and self-importance, and perpetually battling impostor syndrome, wouldn’t want to shore up his fragile ego week in, week out, using the uneducated and unfocused as his enablers? Oh, that’s another O’Brien wheeze: faux self-deprecation. Some callers suspect James cares more about having the last word than being educated by public opinion, as he deadpans each day, and they take him on, but they’ve forgotten they’re standing on a trap door and the gaslighter-in-chief has his hand on the lever.

If you ask him not to talk at you, you know, if he wouldn’t mind, as one caller did during a heated exchange on immigration, he’ll then proceed to do just that. “I’ve enjoyed listening to you – you should try it”, says James, dispatching an exasperated pro-Israeli caller during a Gaza debate, whom he wasn’t interested in listening to. And don’t think you’ll get him by pointing out that when threatened he’ll try to overpower callers with syllables, as one idiot did on a chat about Boris’s political ambitions, “you say five words instead of one”, as you’ll be met by sulking dead air and a segue to an ad break.

But the one thing that really pinches James’s vocal cords is the unforgivable assertion that the host may not know what he’s talking about. An exploration of Special Educational Needs, with James opining most cases are bogus, turned ugly when a caller rang to say O’Brien’s dismissal showed profound ignorance. When Line 2 pointed out that cases are subject to the opinion of three clinicians, and that he knew as much because he was involved with his local child farm, James saw an opportunity and played the self-interest card. “Ah, it’s your livelihood.” Line 2 fought back, pointing out he was a volunteer, only for James to witheringly dismiss such altruism as a “hobby”, all the while suggesting Line 2 be friendly as he first patronised him, then changed the terms of the conversation, pretending not to understand why his condescending intonation was relevant, and finally, inevitably, putting the phone down with a time check and handover to the woman who reads the headlines.

Yes, James’s world is a strange one indeed. A world in which the diabolically awful radio-mercials often contradict the segment’s sentiments, (property management agents and greedy home builders during a debate on unaffordable housing, British Airways interrupting a chat on terrorism and airport security), and the public are invited to contribute their views, though the host has scant interest in them if they contradict his own.

There’s a special exception for those regaling LBC’s listeners with tales of hardship or illness (a sombre, respectful tone is adopted), but those ones get through to remind the audience that James is a compassionate guy. Yet these aren’t the ordinaries he lives for; he gets off on hitting the less assured hard and fast. But most of all he yearns for those orgasm inducing moments when he can hit a button and consign the idiots to the inconsequential ether from whence they came.

Published in: on September 5, 2014 at 11:33  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The more I argued with him, the better I came to know his dialectic. First he counted on the stupidity of his adversary, and then, when there was no other way out, he himself simply played stupid. If all this didn’t help, he pretended not to understand, or, if challenged, he changed the subject in a hurry, quoted platitudes which, if you accepted them, he immediately related to entirely different matters, and then, if again attacked, gave ground and pretended not to know exactly what you were talking about. Whenever you tried to attack him, your hand closed on a jelly-like slime which divided up and poured through your fingers, but in the next moment collected again. But if you really struck him so telling a blow that, observed by the audience, he couldn’t help but agree, and if you believed that this had taken you at least one step forward, your amazement was great the next day. O’Brien had not the slightest recollection of the day before, he rattled off his same old nonsense as though nothing at all had happened, and, if indignantly challenged, affected amazement; he couldn’t remember a thing, except that he had proved the correctness of his assertions the previous day.
    Sometimes I stood there thunderstruck. I didn’t know what to be more amazed at: the agility of his tongue or his virtuosity at lying. Gradually I began to hate him.

  2. Excellent Analysis on this Arrogent C.I’v only been listening(and not often I’m pleased 2say)since the last 2yrs(I’v been living abroad for the last 20 odd yrs)And all of yr comments&the format to these Radio shows is so awfully contrived and Orchestrated to enhance the image&who who of people like him+his understudies Sheila Fogarty and O’Brien wannbee Matt Stadlen,he does the weekend late-night slot”I’m a Londoner,I live in a nice part of Ladbroke grove”says another Posh boy,Educated at a private School,privileged upbringing(nothing 2b ashamed of there,as long as ur honest&real about it) but he wants to Lecture&Pontificate on Topics he really.knows very little about&God for if someobe calls on and expresses the opposite ability”well their given very short shrift..Cue the News or Commercialss..Really good article..I.intend to steal as much as possible to Slag the F##ker off,when I can👍✌out.

  3. Use to find him entertaining the way he spun round callers but after a short while started to find it boring and predictable so stopped listening to his program.

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