Entertainment

What 'How to Be Right' By James O'Brien Gets Wrong

It's not that he has bad opinions, but the radio host's new book is comically hubristic.
James O'Brien
James O'Brien (Steven May / Alamy Stock Photo)

The front cover of James O'Brien's new book, How To Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong, shows the talk-show host head in hand, eyes closed, sleeves rolled up at the LBC microphone. There is a look of pained exasperation on his face.

Once again, the conscience of liberal Britain is trying to cut through a thicket of lies with his scythe of truth. Some lobotomised bigot has called into his show and he's been forced to deploy some facts. Perhaps he's delivering one of his famous viral schoolings, a perfectly proportioned slice of pure reason that will make for an irresistibly shareable clip.

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How to be Right is a book that takes the format O'Brien works in – phone-in radio – and holds it up as if it were a mirror to society. On-air conversations between the bullish host and his callers are reproduced at reasonable length throughout the book, as if we were reading extracts from a play.

There are chapters on all the hot button issues of the day, from Islam to Brexit, LGBTQ to Trump. It's not hard to guess the radio host's general line on these issues – being a racist is bad, Brexit is stupid, being homophobic is bad, Trump is bad – although there is the odd surprise.

O'Brien says he changes his mind on trans issues from call to call (an issue where, apparently, "being right" is a little trickier for the man who knows how to be right) and, in one of a few strange moments in which O'Brien seeks to fact-check bigotry, announces that he's smelled a number of British-Pakistanis and can report that they smell good.

By and large, a picture of a man with decently liberal or socially democratic opinions emerges. Again, there's no surprise there. But there's not really a lot more than that, and "being right" is not simply a question of seeing through well-worn, profit-driven tabloid lies about the Muslims and the gays and the feminists and those asylum seekers coming to both take your jobs and sit around living it up on welfare.

The problem is that we have never at any point in history had more "facts" available to us. Modern propaganda often has more to do with creating doubt and uncertainty than promoting a particular ideology or cause. Propagandists deploy technology like Facebook and Google to such ends. The spreading of fiction dressed up as fact has never been more widespread. Governments and companies spread this misinformation on an industrial scale.

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This proliferation of facts and misinformation has given rise to a whole slew of books, generally written by centrists or establishment figures, which seek to divide the world into two: on the one hand there is the author, who is in possession of all the actual facts and knows the truth of things; on the other hand, there are the screaming, emotional masses, who don’t realise that actually things are pretty good, if only they knew it.

In How to be Right, a procession of straw men appear, with O'Brien ready and waiting to knock them down with a large bat made of reason. It's not that the people our liberal everyman talks to are particularly worthy of sympathy – they are often racists or homophobes or misogynists – it's that they are confused, angry, misguided and in no way able to form any kind of coherent argument.

Again and again, O'Brien seeks to play the role of the West Wing’s President Bartlett, who deploys facts and reason in the face of emotional ignorance and is always, always right. O'Brien even cites a famous scene in the show, in which Martin Sheen's Bartlett schools a homophobic conservative talk radio host with some Bible studies. More than that, he actually has the examples and arguments printed out and to hand, so that he too can deliver his own Bartlett Bible schooling.

"I have probably had more opportunities to hear from ordinary people over the last few years than almost anyone else on the planet," O'Brien writes in his book's introduction. Is that the case, or is it that he's just had more opportunities to hear from people who call into talk radio shows? It's easy to think, from inside the LBC studio, that you are talking to the great British public. Perhaps, in fact, you are just talking to a small collection of people who want or need to call into your show.

Rather than slating his callers, O'Brien could have reflected on the impact that talk radio and easily digestible viral monologues have had on our discourse. Not to mention how decades of smug liberal technocrats getting things wrong while telling everyone they were right has played a part, eventually, in the forming of a world in which the dam of supposedly right-minded thinking has been burst apart by untrammelled anger.

Again, it's not that James O'Brien is a bad guy with dreadful opinions – we're not talking about Jordan Peterson or even Steven Pinker, another fact-wielding liberal hero – it's that looking out at a world in which the centre has given away, tech-enabled misinformation is rife and outdated certainties have crumbled, and deciding that you are going to write a book that is literally called How To Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong is almost comically hubristic. To then write that book and have it be built around talk show conversations just adds to the problem.

But then maybe this is where we are: the world is dreadful and baffling and people just want to be told what to think by a guy they've heard on the radio. I'm not sure who asked for a hero, but James O'Brien's put his hat in the ring, along with his new book and a collection of viral schoolings that are between two and three minutes long.

@oscarrickettnow