Jonathan Coulter writes about James O’Brien who runs a well-known chat show for LBC, and has just published: ‘How to be right – – – in a world gone wrong’.
He takes a progressive position on a range of issues, from the position of Muslims to the fixed-odd gambling terminals, but is what I would call Progressive except on Palestine (PEP). Moreover, he sometimes treats people deplorably, as I found in two clips where members of the public questioned views he had been propagating about antisemitism in the Labour Party.
In the first clip, he is speaking to an articulate and polite caller called Chloe, whom he repeatedly interrupts, censuring her for using the words mainstream media and Zionist. He provides a erroneous definition of the latter word, which in reality refers to the political movement that led to the establishment of Israel and continues to inspire its leaders. He also falsely claims that Chloe has asserted that there was a Zionist collusion to run the world, and when he cannot dominate the conversation, he cuts her off and asks to hear from another caller from Finchley.
O’Brien doesn’t spare holocaust survivors
In the second clip, a listener had texted O’Brien, calling him out for saying that a Jewish man, who criticised Israel at a meeting hosted by Jeremy Corbyn in 2010, had a camouflage of being a Holocaust survivor. The person in question, Hajo Meyer, was indeed a Holocaust survivor, and had given a talk entitled The Misuse of the Holocaust for Political Purposes.
In both cases, O’Brien behaved very unpleasantly, putting down and smearing his interlocutors. He badly misrepresented Chloe who had said there was Zionist collusion in the World, not to run the world as O’Brien would have it. He was moreover deeply offensive about Meyer, a man who had survived the Holocaust and had the audacity to put forward a view which didn’t fit O’Brien’s narrative. In a response below the second clip, Mark Vincent sums it up saying your rants about Meyer, the listener and Corbyn were bang out of order. As for myself, watching the clips made me feel positively sick.
On 26th November, O’Brien spoke at a public event organised by the Hacked Off Campaign in London. I attended, and found I liked most of what he had to say. I told him this when I met him at the end, but also asked for a chat about the way he had treated the people in the clips. He immediately closed down the conversation, and our discussion ended in no more than a minute.
He was signing copies of his book, so I decided to buy one to get a better understanding of his thinking. On the train home, and on the second page, I read words that directly contradicted what I had just experienced:
– – – I’m happy to employ a little bombast in defence of my own positions (- – -), but am always keenest to hear people who disagree with me – – -.
O’Brien: Progressive except Palestine
O’Brien has dedicated many hours to phone-ins on alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party, ridiculing it for baulking at accepting the full IHRA definition of antisemitism last summer. He also has a clip in which he spells out his own views. It is a rambling rant, but his central argument is that Jewish people feel under massive threat in modern Europe, and think Israel is the only place they can go the next time they are persecuted by racist movements. This, he says, prompts a slavish devotion to Israel that may seem reprehensible, but which he thinks is fully understandable in the light of what they have suffered through history. He seems to be implying that we have no right to hold Israel or its supporters accountable for their actions – judge for yourself.
If O’Brien actually investigated what was happening in Israel, particularly actions like Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed medics from across the border with Gaza, he would need to change his attitude. However because he considers the state of Israel a special case, he doesn’t make that investigation.
While one should never play down the magnitude of past Jewish suffering, O’Brien never addresses the fact that their present fears derive in large part from other factors, notably pro-Israeli propaganda telling them they are constantly under threat, and that the best thing they can do is to make Aliyah, i.e. to emigrate to Israel. O’Brien deplores the way newspaper magnates misuse their power to stir up irrational fears among the British populace about Muslims, the EU and other matters, but he seems blind to the massive propaganda that is brought to bear on the Jewish community. He also implies, questionably, that Israel only acts as it does to protect Jewish people, never mentioning its expansionist power politics.
He also fails to deal with the fact that so many of those the Labour Party has suspended, due to their statements on Israel, are in fact Jewish. Many Jews do not see Israel as representing their interests. O’Brien claims to have thought at great length about the issue, but he has excluded key facts from his radar.
How can we explain O’Brien’s contradictions?
I have become intrigued with British behaviour on the subject of antisemitism, seeking to understand how people one might otherwise call progressive, adopt hawkish pro-Israel positions, as if they have some sort of cognitive dissonance about public morality. I discussed the topic in an article entitled: Britain’s acquiescence with the weaponisation of antisemitism; can we really be so daft?
So what is going on with O’Brien? In his book he writes about his father, also a journalist, his childhood and Catholic education, coming over as someone with a strong sense of morality. This may explain the title of his book. But why does this man with profoundly moral impulses end up contradicting himself, using shaky reasoning and behaving so unpleasantly? And why do so many other public figures show themselves to be Progressive except on Palestine? There are various possible explanations, but the most plausible one I can find is that they are willing to compromise their morality to survive or progress in their job, and/or to ensure they are not the target of attacks by powerful lobbies and the press.
I am glad that O’Brien is concerned about morality. We need more of it if we are to deal with the many challenges and mighty vested interests of today, but public figures like O’Brien need to set a decent example. If they will not put their best foot forward, we should call them out, according to the principles they claim to hold dear.