The undead James O'Brien or Why shame is not a profitable quality in the UK media

He's not the messiah. He's a former Express gossipmonger with a narcissist streak

Imagine you acted as a booster for the theories of a fantasist. Imagine that you had spent hours of your nationally broadcast radio show focused on a conspiracy theory about murderous paedophiles that turned out to be as structurally sound as that cake Richard Harris left out in the rain in MacArthur Park. Imagine you basically pissed yourself in public over and over again.

You’d probably rethink your confidence, at least, right? In fact, you’d probably resign when it turned out that numerous people were defamed and some died without being able to know that the allegations of sexual abuse against them were untrue, leaving their relatives to fight on against the taint of the fantasist’s dark tales.

You might but then you are not James O’Brien, a man so free from shame that his confidence and cackling superiority complex could be used as a renewable energy source. O’Brien was a central figure in spreading the stories of a vast and sprawling conspiracy of paedophile MPs and other senior figures that led to Operation Midland spending years and millions of pounds only to conclude that the central witness, ‘Nick’, revealed in court to be a liar, fraudster, and paedophile had concocted the whole tale. It took years for this to unravel with the wife of one of the falsely accused — Lord Bramall — dying without knowing that her husband would be vindicated.

In July 2019, Carl Beech was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Here’s what O’Brien tweeted at that time:

'Hate the Carl Beech story. We gave his allegations against dead politicians a lot of coverage on the show & it turns out he was bullshitting everyone. But from Rotherham to Westminster to the BBC, telling abuse survivors that they'll be believed still seems the right thing to do.'

It is a statement in arrogance and blame-shifting. O’Brien reflexively positioned himself as one of the victims of Beech’s lies, rather than a megaphone through which they were amplified and spread. Is it right to believe those who claim to have suffered abuse? Yes… to a degree.

It would be better to say: To listen carefully and with an open mind to those who say they have been abused is the right thing to do. But to treat a conspiracy as the truth because it is a juicy story and fits your worldview is not journalism, it is something else. It is Fox Mulderism, but unlike Fox Mulder in The X Files, the evil aliens that O’Brien desperately wanted to exist turned out to never have landed.

What’s particularly disgusting here is that there were conspiracies in which establishment paedophiles were enabled and ignored. Jimmy Savile is the name that immediately comes to mind, with his politician-enabled access to vulnerable patients in hospitals — Edwina Currie’s role in rubberstamping his access to Broadmoor while she was a Health Minister should be mentioned whenever the monstrous baggage is given time on TV or radio… for context — and widespread blind eyes turned across the media but particularly by the supine brass at the BBC.

As well as the notorious case of Cyril Smith, there are others I can’t mention as I’d still have to defend myself legally if I did. Suffice to say abuse in the corridors of power in the 60s, 70s and 80s did happen. It’s also clear with the current case of the ‘mysterious’ MP accused of rape that these things have not been remotely eradicated.

The failure of the BBC and others to nail Jimmy Savile before he died was exploited by those who promoted the Elm Guest House hoax. The claims that were central to the conspiracy theory stretched back to 1990, when James Hanning, a convicted fraudster and former Labour councillor, claimed that the former Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, had been an abuser at the heart of a network of VIP paedophiles. He claimed in March of that year that he had seen a photograph of Brittan abusing a young boy. The picture, as far as anyone can ascertain, did not exist.

Fay drew up a list, including former ministers, serving MPs, senior police officers, members of the judiciary, and a smattering of pop stars, along with people linked to the Royal Family, that he claimed frequented the Elm Guest House — which was, in part, used as a gay brothel — to abuse children.

The list was uploaded to the internet and bounced around for years and years until the story returned to prominence in the febrile atmosphere after Savile’s death. Enter inept plotter, former Labour Party deputy leader turned fitness guru and failed Lord, Tom Watson. He used parliamentary privilege in October 2012 to claim that he had evidence of a "powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10." He made his statements based on information from the now-defunct investigative news outlet Exaro News.

It was Exaro that James O’Brien gave plenty of prominence on his radio show, subjecting their reporting to virtually no real scrutiny. In November 2014, O’Brien played a recording of ‘Nick’ (aka Carl Beech) on his show.

Beech’s voice was disguised using a voice distorter but O’Brien said — speaking to his guest Mark Watts, who headed up Exaro News:

“He sounds, albeit with a distorted voice, Mark Watts, he sounds quite together which, of course, in the context of abusees, of survivors, is quite rare.”

After Watts talked about the ‘credibility’ of the testimony from ‘Nick’, O’Brien agreed:

Although, of course, it does add weight to the to these suspicions – they're becoming much more than suspicions – of high-level conspiracy. The higher the level of the criminal, the higher the level of the conspiracy it goes.”

In May 2015, O’Brien had Watts back on his show and gave him this glowing introduction:

'We turn our attention next to a story that thankfully no longer feels as though it's, this is one of the few areas where it's getting the attention it deserves. And if I feel like that, having discussed it with you at length over the course of the last 18 months, goodness knows how Mark Watts feels - the editor of Exaro News – who at one point seemed to be the only people paddling upstream against the accusations of conspiracy theories and false allegations when investigating child sex abuse at the very highest levels of our society. Mark is kind enough to break off from his investigations and join us on a fairly regular basis to discuss developments.'

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Why did O’Brien not question why Watts seemed to be the only man ‘paddling upstream’? Because he desperately wanted what Watts was selling, on the back of Beech’s claims, to be true. It fitted his worldview and it provided emotive red meat for his radio show on which he plays a preacher for truth, justice, a sort of centrist Peter Finch:

The O’Brien show is built around him doing these ‘reasonable man driven mad’ monologues and the Beech lies were so compelling because he needs fodder for that shouting, more material to feed into the outrage machine he cranks away at:

In 2018, a year before Beech was finally exposed as the fantasist, liar, and sex offender he is, O’Brien published a book called How To Be Right… He has another title coming this year (How Not To Be Wrong) which seems beyond satire. In The Guardian review of How To Be Right… Andrew Anthony notes:

O’Brien is as prone as the next polemicist to logical fallacies and false dichotomies, but he nonetheless towers over his callers – or certainly the ones he elects to quote here. That’s a problem, because it makes them look stupid and makes him seem like a show-off, even a bully.

That’s the problem with James O’Brien. Gifted a bully pulpit, he spends his days ‘owning’ opponents that are selected by the producers to be easy kills. He’s like a caged lion that believes itself to still be a powerful hunter despite the fact that his keepers send sedated antelope into his enclosure. He is a boxer who clings on to a championship belt made of tinfoil because he defeats amateurs in rigged bouts. Held up as one of the saviours by the ineffectual continuity Remainers, he is allowed to get away with absolute bullshit on a daily basis.

While he spends his time decrying politicians who are — and he’s right about this, at least — venal, stupid, and disinclined to feel shame about anything, O’Brien is unwilling to actually look in the mirror. While he occasionally play acts at being contrite or unsure of his own opinions, his ego is bulletproof. That’s why he has never truly apologised for his role in the Beech farrago. He is the victim, you see.

But then, O’Brien, for all his fans belief that he is a forensic journalist, has never really been an investigative journalist or someone who breaks stories. He started his career acting as the anonymous voice behind the Daily Express’ William Hickey gossip column. The Hickey column was founded in 1933 by Tom Driberg, who went on to become the MP, of whom that old dog Churchill said, according to the journalist A.N. Wilson, “Tom Driberg is the sort of person who gives sodomy a bad name.” James O’Brien gives talk radio a bad name.

How Not To Be Wrong? How not to admit you were wrong. How to be shameful.