On the day we meet, the broadcaster James O’Brien begins his popular LBC talkshow with a sorry acknowledgment. “I am very conscious of the Groundhog Day nature of some of our encounters,” he says. For the past six months, the pandemic has dominated the three hours he spends on air every weekday. And, alarmingly for a talkshow host, things have become a bit samey. “Normally, I like to have three or four conversational topics in my pocket before we go on air,” he tells me later. “But since February I have been able to turn up at 10 to 10 knowing we’re going to talk about coronavirus, all day every day, in slightly different ways and forms.”
The LBC studios are in London’s Leicester Square; O’Brien and I meet at a restaurant nearby. It is the middle of September, cold and damp, ugly weather. Boris Johnson has just announced amended lockdown measures: pubs will close at 10pm, the rule of six reapplies. A second wave is imminent, despite forewarning, and it has the nation in a muddle. “I had a fortnight off two weeks ago,” O’Brien says. He arrived today straight from his show but refreshed-seeming. We elbow-tapped a greeting; he is easy company. “And I realised that I had to come back happy, upbeat, even as we report negativity, even as we continue to report on this catastrophic handling of the coronavirus.”
Happiness hasn’t always been the O’Brien remit. Until recently, his show was most captivating when it was fiercely combative, when an opinionated caller rang in about the issue of the day – immigration, the vague notion of taking back control – and a fight began. O’Brien refers to himself as a “verbal bruiser”. He has the remarkable ability to recall facts mid-conversation and deliver them succinctly, which makes him a natural for the kind of monologue-driven contest radio that is shared as viral clips. In one corner: O’Brien, voice of reason or left-wing agitator, depending on your politics. And his opponent: an angry caller, outraged by some perceived threat to traditional British values, whatever they are, that O’Brien pokes and probes until he is able to expose the baselessness of their ideas.
O’Brien is 48. He joined LBC full-time in 2004. For a long time, he was relatively unknown at the station. (During his first show, his wife called in under a false name to rescue him from a silent switchboard.) But Brexit turned him into a star. “I became, I think, a salve for a lot of people,” he says. He considered Brexit a painful act of self-sabotage. So did many of his 1.2m weekly listeners. “I just think we all thought we were going mad, those of us who were following things properly, those of us who were perhaps resistant to the idea that sovereignty could actually put food on the table.”
But his show has changed of late. “I don’t enjoy holding up the mirror to people who don’t want to look as much as I used to,” he says now. For one, he’s not sure it did any of his callers any good. “I changed the opinions of the people listening,” he says. “But very few people went away having been embarrassed on the show convinced they were wrong.” For this reason, O’Brien has sworn off taking calls from people who dial in just to debate. Besides, what’s left to argue about? Not Brexit. “That ship sailed in December. It’s over. We lost.” He gives another example. “I won’t have conspiracy theorists on any more,” he says, “which is risky, because it can make great radio. And there is a constituency of listeners that loves nothing more than to see me locking horns with a…” He trails off. “As I get older, I feel a sense of responsibility.”
A few years ago, O’Brien noticed he often entered arguments just to win them, and that winning arguments had become more important to him than accepting what was right. On the radio he could be cruel or dismissive to callers, especially those who proved his own arguments wobbly. “I found it almost impossible to retreat from any position,” he writes in How Not To Be Wrong, his new book, “even if I’d only arrived at it five minutes ago.” By his own admission, he became “an insufferable dinner party guest”. For as long as he could remember, he’d lived in “a highly adrenalised state – an almost permanent fight or flight condition,” as though he were always about to come under verbal attack.
He explains this over lunch: how he realised he had become hardwired to argue, his perpetual “on” condition, the bind he’d found himself in. “It began to seem ridiculous,” he says.
It sounds exhausting, I say.
“Do you not get that?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
“Is that alien to you?”
“For it to be a permanent state, yes.”
“Well, I didn’t know it was a permanent state,” he says. He seems resigned. “It was just the state. I thought it was normal to wake up every morning with a bolus of tension in my tummy so acute I could sometimes retch while I was brushing my teeth. It was just there, what I would now describe as anxiety, but which I would then have described as preparedness.” For many years, he thought of this preparedness as central to his character. This was why he was able to win so many arguments. This was why he had become so successful. “Not true, evidently. But I didn’t know there was any other way to live. I didn’t know there was another me.”
I ask what he was afraid of happening.
“Everything,” he says. He worried about losing the job he loved, about not being able to support his family, that the bottom might fall out from under the life he’d built. “But I thought the price you paid for being on top of the world was feeling like shit. I just presumed that was the transaction. That was life’s transaction.”
In 2017, a person very close to O’Brien became seriously unwell, and his family was forced to deal with what he describes as “a huge trauma”. When the news broke, O’Brien discovered to his horror that he was unable to provide help and support. “I was confronted with the evidence that parts of my personality were failing to properly make a contribution to the scenario.” Instead of offering care, all he could do was “try to argue the illness away”. He felt vulnerable and lost. “I used to do this with my wife,” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘Are you OK? Is everything all right?’ And I realised that I wasn’t doing it for her benefit. I wasn’t being caring or compassionate. Bollocks. I was doing it so she could reassure me that we weren’t about to be hit over the head with another shock, another disaster, another fight.”
Despairing, he tried praying, but that didn’t help, and he tried crying, but that didn’t help either. So he tried therapy, which he thought was pointless, but what did he have to lose? “I can’t stress how cynical I was,” he says. “But I thought: I’m desperate. I wasn’t helping. I wasn’t equipped to help. Because without realising it I’d seen everything in my life as a fight, and I thought I had to be like that, that that was who I was, that you fight everything.” He laughs. “Sometimes you can’t.”
I ask, “What do you mean, you tried to argue the illness away?”
“I was of the view that the best form of defence was attack,” he says. “So I came out all guns blazing, and it made things worse.”
Therapy turned out to be illuminating. “I came out of the first session feeling 3st lighter,” he says, “and we hadn’t actually done any work.” They began by discussing his childhood, “which is what they do, that’s the trick!”
O’Brien grew up in Kidderminster. He was adopted when he was a month old. He remembers his upbringing fondly, but school was difficult. Between 10 and 13 he was beaten, terribly, by the headteacher at his Worcestershire prep, a big man who kept a paddle in his office. He later went to Ampleforth, a Catholic boarding school run by monks that has had its own reckoning with abuse. O’Brien wasn’t beaten by teachers at Ampleforth, but fights among pupils were common, and O’Brien, an average-sized kid, relied on his ability to win arguments to get through. In his book, he describes this ability as his “gift” – to make people “feel small and stupid in order to shore up the often false notion that I was ‘right’ and they were ‘wrong’.” He adds: “When you spend your formative years expecting an attack from any angle, you don’t notice what it’s done to you until the process of self-protection is complete.”
At the restaurant, he recalls a defining moment during therapy. “The question was something like, ‘So, you got beaten a lot at school. How did that make you feel?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, great, it was like a badge of honour. I got beaten more times in one term than anybody else in the history of school.’ And the therapist said: ‘Really? That made you feel good?’ Cue the silence. This endless, endless silence. And it was like being hit on the head. I said, ‘No, no. It really didn’t make me feel good. It really fucking hurt.’” He slips into the second person now, as though he is talking to himself. “And you realise as you say this that, you know what? It still does.”
During one of his sessions, the therapist asked: “Why don’t you pretend that cushion over there is you, aged 10, having just come out of that study, having been brutalised by that man… Why don’t you tell 10-year-old you how you feel?” “And I did,” O’Brien recalls, “like it was the most natural thing in the world.” He looks half-sceptical even now. “There I was telling a cushion that everything was going to be all right, that you don’t have to pretend any more, that it shouldn’t have happened.” He realised that as a boy he had created a kind of armour, and that the armour had manifested as a tendency to argue, of letting nobody get the better of him, of always being alert to attack. “And look what it’s done to you,” he says. He is talking to himself again, weary now. “You can’t provide help and support to the people you love, to people who deserve it.”
I ask if he is capable of providing love now.
“Yes,” he says.
I ask for an example.
“One of my best friends is dying from brain cancer,” he says. “And the old me would have been trying to treat the cancer as if it was a tennis opponent. I’d be encouraging him to fight. But you can’t.” The cancer is terminal. “It’s not if, it’s when. So I realise now that what he needs from me is love and comfort and company and jokes, and not letting every moment of every day be defined by this awful thing that’s happening.”
All of this has been revelatory, he says. His inclination to argue, his readiness to fight – it all emerged from the traumas of his childhood. He understands now: the process of self-protection, a coping mechanism. After therapy, it was as though a weight had lifted, as though he had discovered a new part of himself. O’Brien uses the analogy of the home. “Imagine living in the same house all your life and suddenly finding a garden,” he says, “and very enthusiastically running around looking for new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world.” As soon as he discovered the garden, he felt free.
In How Not To Be Wrong, O’Brien discusses a list of subjects about which he has held misinformed opinions: he once supported corporal punishment; for a while he was in favour of the police tactic of indiscriminate stop and search; he thought teachers shouldn’t have tattoos. In each case he dissects and explains the ways he has been wrong, and argues how admitting his wrongness has ultimately helped him become a better person. When he began writing the book, he asked, “Why don’t you use yourself as material? Why don’t you work out how you ended up thinking harmful things? I thought: if I can do this for myself, then maybe I can help other people climb down from their furiously held but not entirely defensible positions.”
O’Brien thinks we are ridiculous for grudgingly holding on to opinions that can be proved objectively wrong, and he’s concerned by what he sees as our inability to understand that accepting when we are wrong is a strength. “In much of society today,” he writes, “I see open-mindedness derided as a weakness and the widespread embracing of demonstrably dangerous and dishonest positions purely to upset the ‘other side’.” He once had a caller who said he supported a right-wing politician despite knowing he was a liar and a charlatan, just because the politician’s position upset those on the left. “What does that even mean?” O’Brien says now. Then he sighs. “We’re never going to make progress if we refuse to listen to each other.”
I ask him why this is all so important, accepting when we are wrong.
“Because of the harm it does,” he says. “To ourselves and the people around us.” He pauses. “And there’s the national interest,” he says. “Look at what Johnson’s charged with doing now. He’s charged with writing the road map for the next part of the Covid journey while refusing to admit that he got anything wrong during the first part of the journey. I mean, it’s absurd. It’s beyond parody. Both economically and in terms of deaths, we’re among the worst in the world. And yet he still does it. I think that’s psychological. I think that’s hardwired into him. But if he could be honest about his own failure, then I would trust him more about what’s coming next.” He adds: “In the simplest terms, it’s about trust. If you never admit when you’re wrong, you eventually become untrustable.”
So O’Brien’s show is softer now, more gentle. For some time it has been a home of empathy and understanding. The world hasn’t stopped arguing, but O’Brien has mostly opted out. Given he’s no longer as quick to squabble on air, I ask, “are you worried…”
“That I might have therapised myself out of a job?” he finishes.
“Yes,” I say.
“I am!” he says.
“You’re a kinder you,” I say.
“But it’s still there,” he says. “These are impulses and reflexes I’ve honed and polished over 40 years. I still feel it rising up, and sometimes it escapes.” He thinks for a moment. “I hope I can still be trusted company,” he says. “Even when I’m not grabbing people by the scruff of the neck and forcing them to confront their opinions.”
How Not To Be Wrong by James O’Brien is published by Ebury at £14.99, or buy it for £12.74 at guardianbookshop.com
Photographer’s assistant Bertie Oakes; grooming by Charlie Cullen using using Kevin Murphy Hair Care and Nars Skin Care