Matt O'Connor: The man behind Fathers4Justice
Matt O'Connor was a divorced marketing executive with a chip on his shoulder. Then he had an idea: to campaign for fathers' rights by staging a string of high-profile stunts. Soon, he and his polyester-clad friends were splashed across the papers - and polarising public opinion. The angry young man who founded Fathers4Justice doesn't like talking to journalists, but he made an exception for Deborah Ross...
Tuesday 04 July 2006
Matt O'Connor is the founder of Fathers4Justice - those self-styled "Suffragents" who dress up as Batman and Superman and scale cranes and buildings or flour-bomb the Prime Minister in pursuit of "fathers' rights" - and I just don't know what I think about them. Do they have a just cause? Are all fathers really "superheroes" to their kids? Don't those polyester costumes chafe? If dads are so cool, how come mothers always end up doing it all?
So I phone Mr O'Connor to request that we meet, and initially get quite an earful. He is jaded, he says. He is cynical, he says. Most journalists, he adds, are "cunts". Some are even "complete cunts". As it is, he's got the News of the World sniffing round, "trying to stitch me up, waving £25,000 cheques at my ex-wife to dish the dirt". Still, I don't think he can resist the publicity, or any publicity, which has always so defined the movement, and almost within the hour he has contacted me with a number of suggested dates. When I turn up, I smile in what I hope is a very pleasant and un-cunty way. As one of those overstretched mothers who has to do everything round here while also doing everything else, this takes some doing.
Matt O'Connor lives just outside Winchester, in a rented property that is part of an old mill and is beautifully situated overlooking the river Itchen. He says, later, that he can spend hours just watching the river. I do think he can be quite thoughtful when not being angry. He is 39, and groovier than I had expected, much less chavvy, much less lager-loutish: groovy hairdo; groovy specs; groovy Philippe Starck watch; groovy bright pink polo shirt with the collar upturned a bit. He got that from Eric Cantona, he says. "I've always loved Cantona. I love that Gallic arrogance. I'm attracted to rogues and eccentrics." He actually disbanded F4J back in January after the Leo Blair hoo-ha, when The Sun claimed that a group of disaffected members had planned to kidnap the Prime Minister's then five-year-old son. He said at the time he'd created "a Frankenstein's Monster". Now he claims the Leo story was a load of tosh. "It was a Labour Party stitch-up," he says. "What better way to discredit F4J?"
Since re-grouping they have disrupted the National Lottery show - "The Family Law Lotto: Next Time It Could Be You" - and tried to disrupt the Queen's birthday parade. They had a guy all ready to throw himself at her carriage but at the last minute he failed to get over the barrier. I say that sounds less like direct, non-violent action and more like a pretty dangerous stunt to me. Can't you get shot for throwing yourself at the Queen? "I know, I know, fucking dangerous," he says, "but it's like fucking Vietnam round here. Every day I get up and it's arm-to-arm combat."
There is quite a lot of aggressive male stuff going on here. And this, I think, is what worries me the most. I mean, how much of this has to do with being a father? And how much is it about not letting a woman get - as they might perceive it - one up on them? How much of this is actually about power and ego and retribution? This is my worry but, being something of a creep, I just keep on smiling as un-cuntily as I can. Naturally.
Inside, his place is rather smart and, yes, masculine. No Batcave as such, which is a trifle disappointing, but black leather sofas, huge state-of-the-art telly, Union-Jack-decorated electric guitar, biographies of Mandela and Gandhi, framed Evening Standard splash saying: "Powder Bomb Attack On Blair!"
It's Matt who thinks up all the japes. The first was when 200 F4J members dressed as Father Christmas and turned up at the Lord Chancellor's office. "I was first though the revolving door. I just hoped everyone else was behind me or I'd have felt a right..." Idiot? Twit? Silly Billy? "...cunt!"
He is, possibly, more imaginative visually than he is linguistically. He's a designer and marketing consultant. He has designed bars and restaurants. He helped Unilever launch Viennetta. He designed the packaging for Loseley ice cream. He adores ice cream. He quotes Voltaire: "Ice cream is exquisite - what a pity it isn't illegal." He says that in an ideal world he would combine developing ice cream flavours with being a revolutionary. We think of revolutionary ice cream flavours. Lenin & Lime? Che GeGuava? Gandhifloss? We laugh. He has a big, fat, generous laugh. He's possibly good company, in other circumstances. He says he is currently working on a campaign for Jubilee strawberries. "Forget Elsanta," he says, "they're fucking shit compared to Jubilee." I'm not sure that particular slogan will make it to the posters.
I say that if I were his mother, aside from doing everything round here, I would make him wash his mouth out with soap and water. He says: "I don't know why I swear so much. I'm not proud of it. It's just letting off steam though profanity, the manifestation of primal stress." I don't know. I don't mind the C-word that much. But it is exhausting after a while.
He makes coffee and we sit at the window with the river burbling by. There's a pinboard covered in photographs of his kids: Daniel, 10, and Alexander, eight, from his first marriage and his new baby, Archie. Archie is six months, "and such a sweetie. Sleeps through the night and everything." Archie's mum is Nadine, Matt's girlfriend. Nadine lives nearby. Matt and Nadine do not yet live together because Nadine is not yet divorced from her estranged husband, with whom she is locked in a bitter dispute over their five-year-old daughter. Matt says: "It's better to have a bit of distance until things are resolved. I don't want to get dragged in more than I have to." Does Archie ever stay here? I ask. No, he says, "But I stay at Nadine's a lot." I put it to him that, probably, mothers are better at looking after children, particularly when they are young. It is, after all, the mother who tends to recast her life to look after small children while, of course, also doing everything round here. I expect him to go off on one, but he doesn't. He says: "There is a debate about that. But I think the role of gender is changing. A third of fathers now provide childcare. Still, a large number of fathers are very traditional. Very young children are probably better off with their mothers but should see their fathers for the same amount of time." What does he want exactly? He says he wants the law changed such that "equal parenting is presumed", whereas at present "the pendulum swings with the mother".
I persist. Yes, I say, the law is skewed towards the mother, but maybe it has evolved that way for a reason. "Oh?" he queries, suspiciously. I suspect I'm about to negate all the effort I've put into my delightful smile, but what the hell. I say that according to the CSA's figures for the last quarter up to March, 440,000 fathers had to be charged directly to pay for their children, and of those 127,000 (29 per cent) still did not pay. Now, he does go off on one. "Stop. I must fucking well stop you there. Look, there are shit dads just as there are shit mums. Let's not demonise dads and Madonna-ise mums. There are good dads and bad dads, good mums and bad mums, period."
Much as he fist-thumps the table, I'm afraid I can't let it go. You must see, I continue, that the negligence of many fathers has to undermine your insistence that 50/50 custody should be the norm. You can't ignore the fact that many absent fathers have no intention of raising their kids, which is hardly superheroic, whichever way you look at it, or however many rooftops you jump about on in capes. He says: "The number of men who pay goes up massively if they see their children. Seeing and paying for your children are not unrelated issues. And when I talk of child support it's not just as a cash cow, but it's about love and care and bringing them up to be good adults."
Financial provision, I say, has to come into it. "Look," he says. "I financially support Nadine's daughter. That does stick in my craw." Your point being? "You do have to support a child on both counts... but if you push dads out they'll think: why should I support this woman who won't let me see my children?" I say I agree that mothers can be mean-minded and spiteful, too, and that they can maliciously deny fathers access to their children. That's unforgivable. But you can't carry on as if fathers are never to blame. Well, you can, but it's very annoying and not especially constructive. Plus, as I understand it, if a father is not allowed to see his children, or is given very limited access, there is usually a jolly good reason for it. Courts don't want to wipe fathers out of children's lives.
He says, changing tack slightly, that the trouble with the courts is that it is all so adversarial, with both parties having to discredit the other, "and if they didn't hate each other to begin with, they will by the end". That thin line between love and hate. Is this what it's all about, really?
I ask why he decided to bring F4J back. It did attract a lot of publicity, did initiate an ongoing debate about fathers' rights, but hasn't it now had its day? Even the japes now seem rather stale and adolescent. Why have you brought it back, Matt? "That's the question I keep asking myself," he says. "I've got a successful business, a lovely girlfriend, lovely kids, why don't I just get on with my life?" Why not, indeed. "I'm just so angry at the system. I'm just so absolutely burning with a sense of injustice." Angry at the system? Or just angry? Could it be possible you're an angry person and just need somewhere to put that anger, somewhere to put that primal stress? He says no, absolutely not. "Believe it or not, I'm generally really happy when I'm not talking about family law. It's family law that makes me so angry and frustrated."
He says that when he split with his ex-wife, Sophie, and Sophie didn't want him to see Daniel and Alexander, he had to prove in court that "it was in their interest to see their father. Of course it's in their fucking interest to see their father!" Matt is bright enough, but I don't think he can see that too much anger can be self-defeating, particularly when little children are involved. I think that if I were a judge I would spend a lot of time knocking people's heads together. Maybe this is why I'm not a judge.
Anyway, has he always been angry? He grew up in Thanet, Kent, which, he says, was horrible. "It's basically a giant cauliflower. There's nothing but cauliflower. That's all they do in Thanet, grow cauliflowers." His late father was headmaster of a Catholic school. "I've been told not to say too much about him," he says. "He was an archetypal Irishman from County Kerry. He wasn't around a lot." How so? Drink? Women? "I think he liked his rum, bum and banjos, yes." His mother is an English teacher who would also like him to wash his mouth out with soap and water. "She says I show a lack of imagination when it comes to my profanities."
He went to art school, created his own successful design business and married Sophie at 27. He accepts, now, that he was "a lousy husband". He drank. He womanised. He sometimes wasn't home for days. He was, perhaps, his own father all over again. The marriage went pear-shaped, Sophie asked for a divorce and sought, through the family court, to cut his contact with their sons to a minimum. "I thought the family court would be even-handed, but every time I went I got screwed."
Do you blame Sophie for trying to reduce your time with the kids, considering what you were like at that time? "No, I don't blame her, but I should still have had the right to see my kids!" At the same time, he says, his business partner died and his design company went bust. He was, he says, suicidal, and even stood on Waterloo Bridge looking down at the Thames. It was the thought of Daniel and Alexander that stopped him. He wasn't going to give up, he decided. Instead, he was going to stay and fight. To his credit, he turned his life around within the year. He stopped drinking. He started to rebuild his career. Sophie finally allowed him unregulated access to his sons. He is now close to both of them.
But the anger did not dissipate, and in 2003 he founded F4J. And he knew how to market a cause. "I understood that if you can catapult stuff into the headlines, good or bad, then you've created something that gets ingrained in the public consciousness as a brand," he says.
At this point we are joined by Michael Cox, a barrister, one of the founding members of F4J (four sons from a first marriage) and the group's "legal brain". When I'd initially spoken to Matt on the phone, I'd asked if I could somehow get a glimpse into how F4J actually works. Could I observe one of their meetings or something? Michael is the meeting, it turns out. He's come for a "strategy meeting". Before the "meeting" kicks off, I ask Michael how he felt when Matt disbanded F4J. "I was gutted," he replies. "There is no other credible agency for change. The hopes of a lot of fathers were riding on Matt." Credible? I query. Was it, particularly towards the end when it became that "Frankenstein's Monster" and seemed to largely be peopled by extremists, men with convictions for domestic violence, men with restraining orders against them, even men who hadn't bothered to see their children in their allotted contact time? To be honest, chaps, even those who sympathised with your cause probably wouldn't have wanted to be in the same room as you. It just made you want to draw your own kids closer.
Matt says: "We went to such extraordinary lengths to try to vet people. On our membership form it said: 'Please tick if there are any allegations against you.'" Michael says: "None of the dads started off mad. They became mad though not seeing their children." Matt says he did all he could to contain it. "I'd be up at 3am on the phone to the police, telling them about a member who was planning to firebomb somewhere." Michael says: "Have you got children? Can you imagine what it would be like not to see your child?" I say I don't see how firebombing would help. Matt says: "For the last year all I did was shovel shit. There were people joining at meetings and giving cash and that cash was being pocketed." Matt further says that F4J is different now. "We're not a membership organisation any more. We're just campaigning, and I'm going to run it tighter than a duck's arse."
Time for the "strategy meeting", which takes place on a blanket on the bank of the river. It is a very pleasant way to have a meeting. Aside from equal rights for fathers, what they also want is an end to secret family court hearings. They think they should attend one, see what happens. "We want to sit quietly at the back, to bear witness," says Matt. "We want to do the Quaker thing and make injustice visible," says Michael. "What are they going to do?" asks Matt. "Bang us up, even though Harriet Harman is saying the courts should be more open? They're fucked. I don't mind a stint inside, anyway. It's a civil liberties issue." Do means always justify ends? "Our means always justify our ends," says Michael. And that's the meeting over with, really.
The afternoon dwindles away without much further rancour. We are joined by Nadine and Archie. Archie is totally scrumptious; a really happy gurgler.
Are you a different dad this time, Matt? "Yeah," he says. "I've grown up." Nadine and Matt actually met at an F4J meeting when Nadine came along to hear the other side. She is shy, quiet, seems very nice. She may be in over her head, she may not be. She seems to be behind Matt all the way, "although he is constantly on the phone. I'm trying to make him turn it off at weekends." A rich irony, I suppose, if running F4J means he spends less time with his kids. We chew the fat. We talk about Matt's autobiography, which he is writing. Should he call it Napalm Dad or Who's The Daddy?
Also, Harbour Pictures, which made Calendar Girls, has bought the film rights to his story. Who should play him? Matt says he's been asked that a lot. He says: "Those that are unkind say Johnny Vegas, while those who are less unkind say Ricky Gervais." Michael suggests Richard Griffiths. "What, Pie In the Sky? That Richard Griffiths?" exclaims Matt. "Fuck off!" I think he is truly wounded. He does appear have quite an ego. I think, possibly, he needs F4J as much as it needs him.
Anyway, we part amicably. He even, a couple of days later, sends me some Jubilee strawberries. I'll say this about Jubilee strawberries: they make Elsanta taste just as Matt said they would. But I don't know, did we get anywhere? Are they revolutionaries? Or just embittered men who can't stand not getting what they want? I suggest you decide. Why do I have to do everything round here?
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