INTERVIEW: James O’Brien on how to tackle fake news and Brexit

Joana Ramiro spoke to the LBC presenter following his Leveson Lecture on the challenges facing journalism today.

If you’re an LBC radio listener you will surely be familiar with the work (and voice) of James O’Brien. 

O’Brien has undoubtedly become one of the most notorious opponents of Brexit, demolishing the arguments of Brexiteer politicians and callers on his show alike. In person, he is as combative as on his show.

An extraordinary orator, deftly weaving personal anecdotes with solidly proven facts, he can talk about fake news and Brexit as if he were telling you the plot of a riveting film. And that is how he delivered this year’s Leveson Lecture on Monday.

For over an hour a packed auditorium at a central London University of Westminster campus hears O’Brien describe the slow decaying of upstanding journalism. How The Sun started covering news in a way that would trigger an emotional response from its readers, how editors like Kelvin MacKenzie and Paul Dacre consistently passed bigotry as news, how the entire sector followed in an age of click-based success.

Reminding us how over and over again the likes of MacKenzie and Dacre vilified foreigners and refugees, as well as the European Union, he added:

“If you tell people they are being attacked and you offer them a solution to that attack, an escape to that attack, then reaching for it doesn’t make you racist, it doesn’t make you bigoted, it doesn’t make you stupid. It does however make you wrong. And that seems to be where the chink opened up in the approach to Brexit, because people being wrong were not being told they were wrong.”

As a result he has become a “reluctant fan” of press regulation, and why he was ultimately invited to deliver the lecture, which is organised by the Hacked Off campaign.

“It’s the comforting lie that sells, rather than the uncomfortable truth,” he said in his characteristic pithy tone. “We just need to get the comforting lies out of the game.”

How do we push those comforting lies aside, however? Is it possible to have a discussion on any topic about modern Britain today that doesn’t lead to immediate division and quarrel?

Talking to me after the lecture, O’Brien says he wouldn’t “no-platform” guests, but he would “look very very hard at equivalence.”

“It’s not zero”, he added, “but if 95% of the world’s scientists subscribe to one view on climate change and 5% of the world’s scientists subscribe to another, give 95% of [the time to them].”

A quota? I asked. Would he give five minutes to the climate change scientist and one to the climate change denier?

“Not even a quota, just measure,” he answered halfway through signing copies of his latest book How to be right in a world gone wrong.

“Or even give the same amount of time but say ‘you of course speak for next to nobody, whereas the person you’re interlocutor is addressing speaks for the current accepted scientific paradigm. Just keep pointing it out, again, again, again and again. That for me would be it.”

But while this is all well for O’Brien, who enjoys an unparalleled degree of freedom in the way he conducts his interviews, the procedure is harder for other journalists, who have to obey the myth of objectivity. Like BBC presenters, for instance.

Confronted with the problem of the BBC as the golden standard of impartiality – while still offering space for questionable statistics to be spewed by its guests, O’Brien sounds suddenly very jaded.

“Oh I don’t know,” he said and sighed, slightly rolling his eyes.

“I’d quite like the BBC to start… if they are doing something about the port in Dover, bring in some hauliers and some people who work for the port. Don’t bring in two politicians, or two pundits, or two journalists just to have an argument with each other, chaired by another journalist. I want to speak to the people who do this job for a living now. And I thought that historically that’s the role the BBC played and they’ve elected not to because they get more clicks from an argument than they get from cold hard information. Just go back to the old Reithian values.”

I end up finding myself nodding along to his position, and we both comment on how exasperating it is to see our industry turned into a click-based article churning factory.

And while he argues that he is “not about passionate revolutions, I’m about small changes”, O’Brien might be, with his far-reaching audience and obsession for empirical evidence creating just enough of a revolt to salvage British journalism from its 21st century predicament.

Joana Ramiro is a reporter for Left Foot Forward. You can follow her on Twitter for all sorts of rants here.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.