James O’Brien and the lost journalistic art of asking decent questions…

Ever since I started Slugger back 2002, and having only just discovered the opportunities which blogging offered to a humble, prospecting researcher like myself I’ve always been interested as much in the cultural effects of net based comms as in the subject itself.

With our John Hewitt session coming up, I thought it timely to look at the latest writing on the subject and so I called into Blackwells on Monday and I couldn’t pass James O’Brien’s How to be right in a world gone wrong. I read it in a couple of otherwise fairly busy days.

If you think we are special in Northern Ireland, you need to read this book. It is almost as though the rest of the world (or the UK at least) is going back to where we just came from. (What might save is us our intimate knowledge of what a miserable place that is to go back to.)

If you’ve never heard of him, he’s a liberal talk show host on LBC. Unlike many others, he doesn’t indulge the prejudices of his audiences lightly to the extent I’ve often wondered why they keep calling when he’s forever leaping in to correct a drift from the subject.

The book was published towards the end of last year, to surprisingly few reviews in the mainstream media. Perhaps O’Brien’s chippiness put them off.  While he mostly targets the right wing press, he also has a few deft shots at the liberal establishment.

Whether you like his personable but often combative style, O’Brien is a canary in the mineshaft of public service journalism. The book is a sustained challenge to a media which has long since forgotten its democratic duty to inform, rather than to merely to stir and incite.

His quotation Orwell’s description in 1984 of the ‘two minutes of hate’ is priceless and unsparing of current British media practice: “And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion  which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowtorch”.

Brexiteers and Trump supporters get most of his ire, but quite explicitly not his listeners of whom is he is clearly rather fond. And yet it is the media that he’s maddest with. The rich Fleet Street owners and the cynical editors of the right wing press, yes.

But his primary target is the deep incuriosity forced upon many otherwise good journalists by the scripted interview from which they are rarely allowed to diverge, which results in answers coming through whose veracity remain entirely unchallenged.

Whatever the original intention (presumably to avoid unnecessary risk) it generates an apparently endless form of “journalism as show business”. It ultimately gives rise to George Akerof’s market for lemons scenario where when quality is uncertain, it always pays to go low.

O’Brien doesn’t. But he does deal with a lot of people who are clearly not used to his favourite form of socratic push back. I tend only to listen to him when he’s talking about something I know about and he’s not always right.

But in the process of engagement he listens deeply to what his listeners are saying, and getting something which a lot of high profile editors now only seem to dimly understand the need allow their journalists to listen engage with people’s answers.

When you speak regularly to people persuaded that the evidence of their own eyes and ears is ‘fake news’ while the demonstrable lies of their leader are somehow the truth, you realise that the answers are, again, not political but psychological.

The Washington Post’s valiant attempt to record every demonstrable lie Trump tells in office stood at 4,229 after 558 days in office. The people who ignore or pretend not to believe this do so because they enjoy being frightened and thrive on anger.

It is, in many case, all they have. In almost all cases it is the only thing that can rescue them from the realisation that their unhappiness and grievances probably owe more to their political heros, their own past votes and actions than the existence of a Muslim mayor, a Polish plasterer or a Mexican housemaid.

Sound familiar? I’m not sure I go with all of O’Brien’s solutions, but creating “an environment in which politicians will be too frightened to drawl out yet another deceitful soundbite, secure in the knowledge that it will be forgotten by teatime” is certainly in my top five.

They aren’t at the moment, and are too fond of that corrosive American habit of sending out journalistic proxies to defend the indefensible “for a pat on the back from the Cabinet Office and a knighthood 20 years down the line”.

Relearning the art of the challenge with generous space to test the answers is decent way to discover what a lemon looks like. And label them appropriately…  See you in Armagh?