Jon Gaunt: 'I'm the voice of ordinary folk'
As a top presenter on TalkSport radio and star columnist on The Sun, Jon Gaunt has the reputation as the most rabid right-wing ranter in British media. He tells Ian Burrell about being the scourge of the liberal press and his college friendship with Simon Le Bon
Monday 28 January 2008
He used to dye his hair five different colours with his friend Simon Le Bon. He read drama at a red brick university before becoming the toast of liberal theatre-goers, with his avant-garde plays. He heads off to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Shakespeare at weekends. When he was younger, he marched in sympathy for the women of Greenham Common and stood on the picket lines in solidarity with striking miners. And he likes it to be known that when he goes to watch his favourite football team he sits with three pals who are respectively Muslim, Sikh and Hindu.
Meet Jonathan Gaunt, 46, the most rabid right-wing ranter on British radio, the bogeyman of the liberal media and the bete noir of this newspaper's Matthew Norman. "You don't get punished in this country," wails "Gaunty" to listeners of his weekday morning show on TalkSport radio, in a familiar lament over a nation turned soft, before pining for the return of the Poll Tax. "It was fair!" he screams, blaming the demise of Margaret Thatcher's hated levy on the "great unwashed, the students, the layabouts and the lefties", who, he claims, never pay their taxes anyway.
In his column in The Sun, where he is a replacement for Richard Littlejohn, he rails against lax immigration controls and castigates the Home Secretary's lack of support for the police, describing her as "Jacqui Spliff...dopey old bird", because of her university toking.
Never mind that he makes no secret of having inhaled industrial quantities of amphetamine sulphate and cocaine as a young man. A complex character is Gaunty. Such are the apparent contradictions that if a psychiatrist was ever so misfortunate as to have to diagnose what makes him tick, the session might end with the shattered shrink lying on the couch while Gaunt lectured him from an armchair.
As he sits now in a studio at TalkSport, dressed in a black shirt, just as his detractors would imagine him, he makes no apology, setting about other media figures from as far apart in the political spectrum as Johann Hari and Simon Heffer.
His confidence is born of his success. "I'm Jon Gaunt. I've got a column in The Sun, which gets the biggest reaction, a national radio show and I'm constantly on telly."
He says that he is not a shock- jock, which is strange when his autobiography is titled Undaunted: The true story behind the popular shock-jock. "I'm not a shock jock. It's an easy term to use but I don't set out to shock and I don't think the great talk jocks in America do, they just say what they feel. I say what I think and don't care whether it's to you or David Cameron."
The Tory leader has been a guest on Gaunt's show three times, though the presenter does not regard himself as a Tory ("No. I would vote one way locally and another way nationally.") Although he never misses an opportunity on air or in print to stress his working-class credentials, he says he has no problem with Cameron's Old Etonian background. "If he starts saying things that I agree with I'm not going to disagree just because he's a posh boy."
Indeed, Gaunty has sent his own children private.
Yet his sworn enemies in life are the bourgeoisie, the "Jeremys and Mirandas", as he calls them. "It is always white middle-class twits (with an A) who cause trouble within our disunited kingdom," he opined in a recent Sun piece on English identity.
Gaunt sees himself as the ally of the ignored masses, from whence he came. "My whole career has been aimed at talking to people who aren't represented in mainstream media and aren't involved in the democratic process. I've always seen myself as some sort of conduit for them to speak," he says. "My audience are ordinary guys and women who are struggling to turn a pound."
Gaunty himself, of course, is not struggling financially. He gleefully tells listeners of his "Jag-waar" car and his "big house" in Northamptonshire, so big that it is a running TalkSport on-air joke that he needs an Albanian worker to keep the grounds in order. "I don't think my audience, my fans, resent that. I'm the clever kid from their neighbourhood who went to college. But I'm the one who hasn't forgotten where I came from, "he says. "The only people that don't like you talking about being successful are middle class twerps – Jeremy and Mirandas whose mummy and daddy did everything for them and now they haven't quite made it."
His distaste for the middle-classes stems from his time at the University of Birmingham, where he studied drama and moved in a circle that included Le Bon and senior BBC television executive Kate Harwood. By comparison with most of his fellow students, Gaunt had a harsh upbringing in nearby Coventry. His mother had died of a brain haemorrhage when he was 12, leaving his father, an old-school, hard-drinking, hard-smoking Detective Constable of the pre-politically correct era, to bring up three sons alone.
Gaunt spent his early teens in a care home. He won a place at university after becoming a member of Coventry's Belgrade Youth Theatre, where he began long-standing friendships with Clive Owen, now a celebrated Hollywood actor, and Laurence Boswell, the respected director.
At Birmingham, Gaunty felt gauche. "I remember asking Le Bon, 'Why are we having spaghetti on toast for a dinner party?' He had to explain to me that spaghetti comes in a packet and you make a sauce that goes with it.
He must have told the others because they all took the piss. I realised that at university you can either pretend that you are one of them or you are the clown and I was not going to be either."
Nonetheless he felt obliged to sign up to the anti-Thatcher student political consensus that emerged after the 1979 election. "When I was at university all my politics came out of one file. I was left-wing, so I had to be pro CND. I walked round Coventry city centre with a fucking coffin on me shoulder when the Greenham Common missiles arrived. I can't believe I did those things," he remembers.
But it was also the era of British ska, when bands such as The Specials and The Selecter put the concrete jungle of Coventry on the musical map.
When Gaunt returned home after university he set up a theatre co-operative called Tic Toc (theatre in Coventry, theatre of Coventry), inspired by The Specials's original record label Two Tone and working with original members of that band, Jerry Dammers and Lynval Golding. Tic Toc became a hub for the city's musical and acting talent and Gaunt plays, such as 'Meat' and 'Hooligans' ("very anti Thatcher and that dole culture she had created") became nationally successful.
But the dream ended when the venture went bust. Gaunt lost his home and, disillusioned and angry, became the kind of layabout that he now rants about. "I spent six months doing nothing, staying in bed until about noon, having a bath for about three hours, then sitting around, drinking cheap lager from the off licence."
Persuaded by his wife Lisa to scrape some change from the back of the sofa and go into the city centre, he met an old acting friend, Moz Dee, who persuaded him to audition for the local BBC radio station for which he worked.
The radio microphone gave Gaunt the outlet he had been seeking, an opportunity to find his own voice and unleash some pent-up invective against the Jeremys and Mirandas.
"On air one day, I just looked up and the red light was on. It was like my road to Damascus moment," he says, a little misty-eyed. "I thought this was why my mum died, this was why my dad was a bastard to me, why I was an outsider at university and why I went bust, this is why I had my house repossessed, this is it, this is what I was born to do." Gaunt moved from Coventry to Luton's BBC Three Counties Radio where his show won three Sony Gold awards.
He was hired by BBC London but knew that his phone-in style put him on borrowed time with the corporation. "I knew full well that the moment the figures dropped those lefty liberals would have me out of the door quicker than they could order their next skinny latte," he writes in his book.
The end came in 2005 when he was offered a job on The Sun. Gaunt says the decision that he could not work for Rupert Murdoch's paper and the BBC at the same time was taken at the top. "I said what about [Jeremy] Clarkson? What about Vanessa Feltz? They said 'But she doesn't do current affairs.' It was just nonsense."
Still, he is happy enough with his current set up.
He tries to write his Sun column in the manner he delivers his TalkSport show, which he started in May 2006, shooting from the hip with minimal preparation. He reads the liberal press but detests its "Londoncentric, metropolitan view" and what he sees as its predictability. The Independent, for example, will always cover transport from a green perspective.
The "Jag-waar" driver is hardly enigmatic on this subject. When "Ed", a caller to his TalkSport show, last week suggested that cars with bigger than 3-litre engines were unnecessary, Gaunty cut the "plonker" off, telling him: "Shut up and get back to Cuba."
He says this newspaper's Johann Hari is "not old enough to shave let alone write a column." But he also attacks right-wing commentators such as Simon Heffer and Peter Hitchens ("we are not living in the fifties anymore"). When it's put to him that Hitchens also underwent a left to right conversion, he says: "He hasn't come from the background I've come from, he's not been bankrupt, he's just not real."
He also despises the output of "Radio 5 Dead", ridiculing presenters Shelagh Fogarty and Victoria Derbyshire and citing one listener to the station who revealed she ate Eggs Benedict and "three grilled cherry tomatoes" for breakfast. "If I ever attract those ponces to my show you can take me out and shoot me."
Gaunt is convinced that his upbringing gives his words a deeper truth. He is "straight". Not that he gets credit for it by an intelligentsia that "sneers" at the likes of him. "They paint me as some sort of right-wing bloody bigot, that left-wing liberal chattering class, none of which have ever done a proper day's work. I know because I used to promote them all, they've all come straight out of university and gone straight into arts and media."
The presence of loyal listeners such as Sid (Muslim taxi driver Siddiqui Khan, who gave the presenter a Christmas card before the holiday "is banned") says otherwise. "I say immigration has been good for the country, I say it repeatedly and I believe it passionately but it has to be controlled and well-managed," says Gaunty. "They can call me a fucking bigot as much as they want, or a racist, but I know what I am."
His views have made him hated by the BNP, he says. "I hate 'em. It's foul, filthy, horrible, to judge somebody by the colour of their skin." And though he is vehemently anti-abortion, he is "not anti-gay at all".
If Gaunty's not careful, an invitation to Jeremy and Miranda's next dinner party could be in the post.
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