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Politics is killing the talk show Apathy is spreading across the airwaves


June 21, 2024   7 mins

“I’m not allowed to give any party-political views,” says Julia Hartley-Brewer, on Talk Radio, “but I’m certainly allowed to give my views.” And she goes on to do so. Because this is not the BBC, where presenters are (theoretically, at least) neutral referees of balanced debates. This is independent speech radio — and here they’re meant to be opinionated.

It’s a small world, populated primarily by LBC, Talk Radio, Times Radio and GB News (an audio simulcast of the TV channel). These are the radio equivalents of a rolling-news television channel, and are similarly hamstrung by the fact that there simply isn’t enough news to fill 24 hours in a day, especially if you don’t have the BBC’s budget. So, the format is essentially that of comment and discussion, and there’s little variation: you can either have a phone-in with a single host, or a pair of presenters who chat between themselves. In either case, they want your emails, texts, tweets and, in a recent development, WhatsApp voice messages.

The combined listenership of these four stations is, according to the latest Rajar figures, just under 5 million, two-thirds of which is accounted for by LBC. Together, they’re a little way behind BBC Radio 5 Live (on 5.25 million) and nowhere near Radio 4 (9.63 million). Still, 5 million is not to be sniffed at, and the sector is growing. At the time of the last general election, two of those stations — Times and GB News — didn’t exist.

So, what are they saying in this election? Not a great deal, as it happens. The problem is that the campaign isn’t what you’d call exciting. It’s hard to care when the winner is so certain, and when the cast is this dull. Keir Starmer is, as Willie Whitelaw said of Harold Wilson 50 years ago, “going around the country stirring up complacency”.

On Talk’s Sunday morning show, Peter Cardwell (“The Westminster Insider”) started off wanting to discuss the election — “Lots happening politically,” he said, inaccurately — before having to concede that most listeners were far more concerned with the story of a police car deliberately driving into a cow in Staines-upon-Thames. Come Monday afternoon, and Talk’s Jeremy Kyle was still on the cow. “I would move on,” he wailed, “but the calls are obsessed with it.” And on Tuesday morning, Mike Graham, also on Talk, returned to the theme. There was, he said, “a fascinating amount of interest”. The election, on the other hand, not so much.

In the absence of anything more substantial, most of the attention has been on opinion polls. Too much so, according to Andrew Neil on Times. “Another day, another poll,” added Matt Chorley, also on Times: “Should we ban opinion polls?”

And that’s a perfectly decent subject for a phone-in. As are, to take a couple of examples from recent days: “Should pop stars stay out of politics?” (GB News), and “Should we be giving pigeons contraceptives?” (Talk). What do you think? Call us now.

It’s easy to mock, of course. Not so easy to fill a three-hour programme, when the previous three-hour programme, and the one before that, have also been raiding the same newspapers in search of stories. And definitely not easy when everyone is drawing on such a small pool of guests.

Because if you listen long enough, the same people come round and round again. This is obviously the case with the politicians sent out to do the media; if it’s a day for Wes Streeting to speak for Labour — as it so often seems to be — then you’ll hear him on every station. But it also applies to the pundits. On Monday morning, Lord Hayward (a Tory MP, until he lost his seat in 1992) talked about the likelihood of a low turnout with Julia Hartley-Brewer on Talk. An hour or so later he was to be found chatting about Reform UK with Andrew Neil over on Times.

“You present a show on GB News,” Neil said to Tory MP Philip Davies, which isn’t actually true anymore, but does give a flavour of the media carousel. And, of course, Neil himself helped found GB News and was once a (very good) phone-in host on LBC. “I wonder whether we’re going to hear from a wider range of people,” reflected Times’s political editor Kate McCann. It seems unlikely.

The calls are mostly predictable as well. Julia Hartley-Brewer asked listeners to say what the election is all about, and the answer turns out to be immigration. As Bev Turner put it on GB News, asking for comments on yet another silly and self-indulgent stunt by Just Stop Oil: “I think I probably know what you’re going to say about this.”

The one episode that has really stirred the blood thus far was Rishi Sunak’s D-Day snafu, which provoked a torrent of calls, virtually all hostile. And then there’s been the late arrival of Nigel Farage, the one genuine star in contemporary British politics, and very much of this world: he’s had his own shows on LBC and GB News in the past. His intervention has given his sympathisers something to get their teeth into, and, even more, has been a godsend for those who see Brexit as the first step towards fascism.

This latter camp is primarily represented by James O’Brien, a former showbiz reporter on the Daily Express who now does the weekday morning show on LBC and is very important indeed. Not my words, Carol… “According to the Press Gazette, I’m the most influential journalist in the country,” he said on Monday. Then again, he added the next day: “I’ve known everything since 2016.” (He did admit that “It sounds a bit conceited”.)

O’Brien has a tendency to lump together all his hate figures, so that any mention of Farage or Boris Johnson — and there are very many such mentions — is likely to be accompanied by a cry of “Look at Trump”. At times, these word-association asides are decidedly odd. When Farage said that not all Reform candidates went to public school, O’Brien spluttered: “Oswald Mosley went to Winchester, the same school that Sunak went to.” (Full disclosure: O’Brien went to Ampleforth, the same school as David Stirling, founder of wannabe coup-makers Great Britain 75.) “This is a grown-up programme,” he insisted.

“O’Brien has a tendency to lump together all his hate figures.”

LBC argues that it doesn’t need to do impartiality within programmes; it can achieve balance across the schedule, with presenters representing different viewpoints. And the station does have its Right-wing stars. Early-evening presenter Iain Dale even tried to become the Conservative candidate for Tunbridge Wells, though it didn’t work out and he was soon back on air. The difference is that, unlike O’Brien, Dale has guests and callers from across the political spectrum; he’ll air his own views, but isn’t snitty about those who don’t share them.

There’s also Nick Ferrari, formerly of Talk and now hosting breakfast on LBC, the most accomplished broadcaster in this whole sector; on the Right but consistently courteous and mostly tolerant of other perspectives. He’s had hour-long phone-ins with both Starmer and Sunak, which were billed as election specials, though they’re nothing new. Ferrari started this format with Nick Clegg, back when the Lib Dem leader was deputy prime minister. Call Clegg was a regular feature for years, followed by Ask Boris and Phone Farage, before Call Keir debuted in 2020. On these shows, Ferrari puts himself on the side of the callers, amplifying and clarifying their points, while also keeping them on-subject.

It works quite well, and Starmer has got better at it over the years, in that he’s learnt how to deflect difficult questions. Asked about single-sex spaces, he says he’s all in favour of them, and that this doesn’t conflict with Labour’s manifesto commitment to “modernise, simplify, and reform the intrusive and outdated gender recognition law” (the one introduced by the last Labour government). He doesn’t explain quite how the potential conflicts will be resolved, and instead veers off onto mixed-sex hospital wards, where the problem, he insists, is not trans but the Tories: “The government’s lost control of our hospitals.”

Sunak isn’t as good, but he does work better in this environment than elsewhere. Even the dumb questions are handled reasonably well. A caller denounced him for saying that he likes chocolate bars and sweets at a time when children’s dental health is so poor. Rather than snorting with derision at the idea that five-year-olds are looking to the prime minister as a role model, he stood by his vices: “I can’t apologise for eating Twixes or Haribos.”

The best angle of all has been to look back, rather than forward. There’s a whole talking-shop of recognisable MPs leaving Parliament, which gives these stations the opportunity of interviewees who are more relaxed and less concerned with toeing the party line. So Andrew Neil had the double-act of Michael Gove and Harriet Harman on to talk about the election, and the result was an intelligent and entertaining discussion, even if it felt like it came from an era that’s fast disappearing. Gove dismissed Reform as a “Potemkin party”, and said that the British electorate preferred “authoritative sensible administrators”.

Better yet, Matt Chorley has been running an excellent series of Exit Interviews (theme music: “Go Now!” by the Moody Blues), in which he talks with departing MPs. On Monday it was Andrea Leadsom’s turn, giving one-word summaries of the prime ministers she has known: David Cameron (“charming”), Theresa May (“honourable”), Boris Johnson (“optimistic”), Liz Truss (“tough”), Rishi Sunak (“smart”). She still has some odd delusions — “A lot of people say to me, ‘We wish you’d become prime minister’” — but she was superbly vitriolic about the former Speaker, John Bercow, letting loose with end-of-term freedom. “It’s great to be saying this,” she exulted.

Two other adjacent stations should be mentioned. BBC Radio 5 Live (“The Voice of the UK”) continues to straddle, ever more awkwardly, sport and politics, as well as supplying showbiz gossip and chats about what was on telly last night. Its biggest star is Nicky Campbell, who is very good at phone-ins, though not always deployed very well. On Tuesday he was soliciting “Your questions for Adrian Ramsay” — that nice young man who’s the co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

And then there’s Talk Sport, sister station of Talk Radio and Times Radio, which has a bigger listenership even than LBC. Its presenters have been instructed not to mention the election, a fact that Charlie Baker probably wasn’t supposed to mention live on air. They don’t seem to be too worried by this prohibition, since they have the Euros, the T20 World Cup, the US Open, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and the Olympics to keep them busy, but it’s still a shame. What remains of political interest is the selection of news headlines that non-obsessives might notice. And that, again, means Farage. On the launch of the Reform manifesto, they opened their bulletin — without introduction — on a clip of his new catchphrase: “Guess who’s back?” There was no time for discussion of the contents.

What do we learn from these stations? Mostly that the election hasn’t caught alight. TV debates have lost their novelty; pledges haven’t been carved in stone; Sir Ed Davey’s habit of falling over and getting wet hasn’t sparked a new version of Cleggmania. For all the talk of this being a seismic moment in political history, bearing comparison with 1906, 1945, 1979 and 1997, the public aren’t much engaged. Times bills itself as “Your Election Station”, but Matt Chorley is probably closer, as he jokingly trails an upcoming report from a hairdressing salon in Rochdale: “We are the election station — and we take the election very seriously.”


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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David L
David L
1 month ago

Did you have to put a photo of that rancid creep at the top of the article Unherd?

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago

How many words would it take to describe James O’Brien in a Matt Chorley Times Radio focus group: “Pompous”, “Condescending”, “Supercillious”, “Narcisisstic”, “Ignorant”…

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew R

If you could fit “pigsh*t” in there somewhere, you’d have nailed it.

Paul T
Paul T
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Wanchor would do it.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 month ago

James Obrien is such an ugly gammon.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

I presume you mean psychologically as physically would be too obvious to need saying.

Michael Ray
Michael Ray
1 month ago

Peter Caldwell is on Talk

Carol Staines
Carol Staines
1 month ago

The primary objective of most phone in radio presenters is to generate phone callers. Some are better at generating actual discussion than others and some are blatantly staring the post to exercise the disgruntled listeners. James O’Brian tends to listen to himself for an inordinate amount of time before generating calls, then shuts the caller down if he doesn’t like what they say. Vanessa Feltz has airhead opinions that usually attract similar callers. One of the most genuine LBC presenters is Sheila Fogarty, who at least manages to get intelligent experts joining her on the programme. Matt Frei is another one worth listening to….what a boring life I seem to have! 🙂

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

James O’Brien thinking that Brexit represents fascism?

O’Brien himself is closer to being a fascist than anyone who voted for self-government in 2016. And I’m not just saying that because he’s an arrogant, narrow-minded, intolerant bore who should have been demoted years ago to the corner of an obscure pub having no other customers.

Penny Mcwilliams
Penny Mcwilliams
1 month ago

I am always bemused that anyone would want to listen to these programmes – an irritating mixture of self serving claptrap from the presenters and ignorant drivel from callers. Just cheap schedule filler, and an echo chamber for all concerned to have their existing views reinforced. Does any of it change anything, for anyone ?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
29 days ago

If you’re on a long drive the annoyance they provoke can sometimes be useful to keep you alert.

Nick Wade
Nick Wade
1 month ago

I’ve never understood the appeal of James O’ Brien. Whatever your political views, he has a nasty streak a mile wide. He never likes to interview anyone too articulate or clever. Instead, he sets up ordinary people and skewers them with sophistry, as well as the advantage of position.

It’s hilarious when his arrogance fools him into thinking he has another patsy, because of their “common” accent (yes, he’s a snob too, our man of the people), only to be outwitted. These people are quickly hustled off.

What a vile man. Say what you like about Farage and others, but they’re mostly polite. Clearly, manners weren’t a thing at Ampleforth (where, incidentally, the sanctimonious hypocrite was the only pupil unaware of the abuse going on…).

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
29 days ago

James O’Brien, eh? Is there anything more tragic than a stupid man who thinks he’s an intellectual?

james elliott
james elliott
29 days ago

O’Brien is the closest humanity has ever come to being a rodent.

Utterly toxic, ill-informed midwit.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

I’m glad the author picked up on James O’Brien’s rampant narcissism – massive chip on his shoulder about being privately educated (but brings it up at every opportunity), tries to be humble whilst blowing a massive trumpet (it’s so transparent it hurts, the author gave some good examples but I’ve heard many myself “somehow I keep predicting the future, must be lucky”, “I don’t want to be right all the time” etc). As pointed out in the article, he is a massive bully who picks on easy targets (and uses his silence button a lot).

Honestly I don’t know why he is the second highest paid presenter on LBC. I didn’t know he was an ex-Express hack, that’s interesting, yet again the endless Mail diatribes reek of hypocrisy and in all honesty, his show is like one big left wing Daily Mail-style article….o’Brien has more in common with Richard Littlejohn than he’d like to admit

Arthur King
Arthur King
28 days ago

Abolish the BBC and the viewership of private sector podcasts will rise. Unfettered by government and left wing politics.