Book review – How They Broke Britain

James O’Brien takes aim at the ‘bad actors’ who damaged this country. By Amanda Kendal

A photo of James O'Brien
                                                                                             James O’Brien. © Ula Soltys

“This book, then, is a charge sheet: a compendium of poor behaviour and bad actors.” So states James O’Brien, the LBC talk show host who is well known for the calm unpicking of dodgy arguments made by callers to his show.

His central beef, if you will, is how a relatively small number of people have damaged this country, from Brexit to the coarsening of public and political discourse in general, and in 10 chapters – each centred on one of the individuals he points the finger at – he analyses the problems.

His first target is Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun and the Times. His second is Paul Dacre, long-time editor of the Daily Mail and now editor-in-chief of Daily Mail Group Media. The latter was the editor who passed a Mail cover that called three judges “enemies of the people” over a judgement on Brexit.

That article, incidentally, was written by one James Slack, who as O’Brien points out, then became Theresa May’s official spokesman and was retained in the role by Boris Johnson, before leaving the job with one of those essential pandemic parties. It’s just one example of the revolving door between the Tory government and the Tory-supporting media – the book has many more and doesn’t, of course, omit to mention Johnson’s two attempts to have Dacre installed as the chair of media regulator Ofcom.

O’Brien manages to be calm and forensic, yet also polemical. At one point, he describes Murdoch’s “cancerous appetite for money and power”. On Dacre, he lets someone else have a go, quoting Andrew O’Hagen in the London Review of Books: “Dacre’s paper is like the drunken lout at a party who can’t get anyone to like him. Suddenly all the girls are sluts and all the men are poofs and he’s swinging at the chandelier before being huckled outside to vomit on the lawn.”

On columnist and former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie – he of that publication’s notorious coverage of the Hillsborough disaster – O’Brien observes that his columns are “performative obnoxiousness”, a description that can be applied to an increasingly large number of click-bait journalists and presenters, particularly given the presence of GB News.

Other targets in his sights include Johnson, May, David Cameron, Liz Truss and Nigel Farage. The only figure not from the political right to feature is Jeremy Corbyn, included for his and his team’s lukewarm performances in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, but also for a sense of perpetual ‘victimhood’, never accepting that anything was their fault. On comments that most of the media was hostile to Corbyn, O’Brien recalls how the Mail attacked Ed Miliband by asserting that his father, the historian Ralph, was unpatriotic – even though he had fought in the Second World War for Britain against the Nazis. Such attacks were hardly unique.

The best thing about How They Broke Britain is simply that it shines such a strong light on the links between much of the media and the Conservative Party and how each enables the other to retain power and influence – no matter how malign for the country as a whole.


How They Broke Britain by James O’Brien is published by Ebury Publishing and is out now in hardback, for Kindle or via Audible Audiobooks

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