I used to spend many a bus journey on the way to college listening to the ‘Best of James O’Brien’ podcast. It’s an amalgamation of James O’Brien’s weekly shows, edited down into one juicy supplement.
As a Remainer who was never entirely convinced by the Brexit vision, I thoroughly enjoyed O’Brien’s rebuttals when angry Brexiteers phoned up to tell him that Britain didn’t need to worry about issues like the Northern Ireland backstop or trade. However, one thing O’Brien did that made me start to question his personality was the way he’d ‘put down’ his listeners and almost make them feel like they weren’t being listened to, but instead were there to be talked down to.
I soon came to realise the James O’Brien Show was nothing more than a political amphitheatre, in which inexperienced broadcast subjects would come onto the show only to then be set up for slaughtering by O’Brien. A man who, week after week of listening to, made me feel as though if I dared to differ from his viewpoint, I was nothing more than pond life.
When it comes to journalism, I’m a firm believer in punching up and not down. Countless times, I’ve seen media outlets record vox pops and treat the interviewer as though they were grilling a Cabinet Minister. At the end of the day, if there are passers-by who are willing enough to stop and be recorded, despite not having any expertise, this is not something you should then turn into a Paxman-esque interview.
Unfortunately, that was precisely how James O’Brien behaved this week. A willing individual volunteered to come onto his show, to have a conversation about whether or not children should be going back to school. Let’s not forget, this is an incredibly multifaceted issue that, for the last few months, politicians haven’t been able to deliver a concrete answer on. Yet, instead of listening and seeming to understand the caller’s point, O’Brien proceeded to play a ‘shock card’, suggesting that if the caller/parent were to send their child back to school, then they could potentially have a death on their hands.
This was a low moment for the broadcaster and for LBC, who eventually decided to apologise for the incident – but not before they shared it across their social platforms and reaped the benefits of the publicity. It was only after the backlash they received that they felt an apology was necessary.
Despite O’Brien’s LSE credentials, I hardly think the public should be paying much attention to his ‘child death’ soothsaying. It was only the other day that the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, made a statement informing people that the risk of children going back to school was tiny, and in fact, there was a greater risk if they didn’t end up returning.
It’s a difficult judgement for anyone to make in these unprecedented times. Maybe next time, James O’Brien will bear that in mind the next time a willing listener wants to help add to the debate.