Arena Magazine Talks To...Matt O'Connor - June 2006
The Interview 10.03.06
From sex-wars superhero to political pariah - controversial campaigner Matt O'Connor finally breaks his silence. In his first major interview since disbanding his controversial pressure group, Matt O'Connor tells us about his marriage, his mistakes, and why he's not proud of what his organisation achieved.
Words by Mark Alexander. Styling by Rossana Buttrazzi. Spiderman Costume by Angels The Costumers. Photography by Peter Rad. New York-based photographer Peter Rad was responsible for this month's portrait of Fathers 4 Justice founder Matt O'Connor (page 116). His filmic shoots have appeared in Life and The New York Times, as well as the campaign that pushed Channel 4's Shameless.
Fool's justice? O'Connor: caped crusader or misguided egotist? We rummage through his dirty laundry to find out.
If Matt O'Connor's story was turned into a Hollywood script, things would have started the same, but ended very differently. For here is a textbook tale of a little man with a big rage who aimed his fury - in defence of his own children and of loving parents nationwide - right at the cold centre of the Establishment's heart. His armoury included a bunch of ordinary men dressed as superheroes and his enemy was injustice and all of its grey servants: the judges, the government and the Royal Family itself. He was the David that took on Goliath. And lost.
In theory Matt O'Connor should be a national folk hero. The members of his organisation, Fathers 4 Justice (F4J), risked their lives to bring the world's attention to how our legal system is scandalously biased against men, and that tormented dads and their kids are routinely run through its blades - and shredded. And all because of some dismally anachronistic attitudes and assumptions about gender and parenthood.
But, in reality, F4J were heroes only to other broken fathers. To a watching nation they were, at best, an overweight gaggle of irksome berks and, at worst, a gang of dangerously misogynistic radicals who couldn't escape the murky pall of the accusations that wafted over them. They were wife-beaters, racists, drug-takers and thieves, chuntered the rumours. And, so the irresistible logic ran, they were not to be trusted around kids.
O'Connor, now 39, was raised in Kent. His father a Catholic headmaster, and mother, a history and English teacher, were politically minded and closely associated with the Isle of Thanet Labour Party. O'Connor loathed school. Burdened with a stammer he was introverted and, in his words, suffered deeply from a "malevolent unhappiness". Eager to spend as much time away from from Dane Court Grammar as he could, he joined the striking miners.
By 18, O'Connor had started to gain his now-legendary confidence at Canterbury College of Art, where he was later turfed out for spending "more time in the sack than in the classroom". He kept his expulsion hidden from his mother by launching a successful career in marketing, but in 1990, his father died unexpectedly. Then, four years later, her got married and although the partnership lasted only six years, it started a chain of events that would culminate in his organisation being accused of plotting to kidnap the prime minister's son and, ultimately, to a Miramax film deal that may yet turn his tale's unsatisfactory ending into a happy, Hollywood one.
How did you meet your wife?
She agreed to go out with me for a bet. We had very similar personalities. We hit it off.
And what, eventually, went wrong?
I rushed into it. Typical head-first O'Connor type of tactic. The first few years were great, and then we had two kids. I was a diabolical husband. I was working in the City. There was a degree of hellraising and that didn't configure with supporting a partner with young children.
Did you have affairs?
Oh fuck yes.
Hovering around the Mick Jagger mark.
Presumably that was the basis of the divorce?
Totally. It was a difficult divorce for both of us. I was to blame for the breakdown of the marriage and I think she was responsible for making the divorce worse than it perhaps needed to be.
What access did you get to the boys?
They stuck me in a contact centre to see them. You just feel like, "Hang on, what have I done, apart from being a shit husband?" I was literally criminalised and treated like a pariah. And that was baptism of fire, when I started to feel very passionately about the equal parenting movement.
In 2001, the couple agreed an out-of-court settlement that would give O'Connor access to his children. But it wasn't just his marriage that had fallen apart. Matt's partner in the marketing company he'd founded had died and, as a result, the company was failing. He was living in a camper van, planning to invest what remained of his cash into a restaurant project. It was in this low state that, in autumn 2002, he founded Fathers 4 Justice.
How did you make the leap from disillusioned divorcee to political activist?
I watched a Granada Tonight TV programme in 2002. I saw Bob Geldof talking about the family courts. I had nearly lost my children so I thought if I don't do this restaurant, I'll set up a campaign. We didn't have enough covers, so I decided to do F4J. My accountant thought I was bonkers.
It seems like quite a sideways leap.
Well, I'd had a hell of a couple of years going through court system. And the whole time, underneath the surface, I was seething with anger. Until you've been through the court system, nothing can prepare you for how much you'll get shafted. The last time I was in court I had a stand-up row with the judge and said to him, "I'll put you out of a fucking job." It's an anger that's still burning in me today.
What was the worst case of injustice you heard?
A boy wanted to live with his father but the judge wouldn't have it, so he sent a tipstaff (court official) to the house, but the boy refused to come out of his bedroom. The tipstaff spent two hours smashing down his door to remove this child who was absolutely traumatised. They forced him to live with his mum but he ran away and wound up in a home. Eventually, about a year later, he was reunited with his father. Those sort of things are bordering on evil.
What exactly is it about the present legal position that you think is unfair?
You have no right to see your children. What you have is a right, if you are separated, to apply to see your children. Then you go into a court system that is completely secret, where judges operate with unfettered discretion. The government proclaims to be acting in the child's best interest, which is the most wicked deceit. I think politicians are scum. Solicitors and barristers are the fungus beneath the scum.
In societal terms, what do you think are the differences between the way people view mothers and fathers?
There is a presumption that mums are Madonnas and dads are demonised. I find it astonishing that so many people and groups say kids are better off with Mum. Hang on a minute, Mum might go out and bring back the next Ian Huntley, the next Ian Brady. No one bats an eyelid about who Mum brings home, yet Dad, the biological father, is forced to leap through burning hoops. Utter madness.
How much did you invest in F4J?
At the beginning I put in £50,000.
There seemed to be a lull before you actually hit the headlines. What happened?
When you are building something up from scratch, it takes time to build momentum. The first thing we did that led to arrests was (in February 2003) painting a CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) office door in Ipswich. We had to wait 20 minutes for the police to turn up. I was fucking freezing. I had to ring them about three times. I even stuck my hand in the paint so I could get caught purple-handed.
Why were you so desperate to get arrested?
I wanted to demonstrate to the others that you could get arrested and survive. I wanted to get people into law-breaking, to overcome the fear factor that societies use. The fear of being arrested, going on trial and spending time in jail. If you don't have that fear then what is to stop you?
My strategy was civil disobedience and rattling the cages of the three major British institutions: the government, the Church of England and the constitutional thing - the Queen. I was trying to create something where we'd be iconic, and that's where I came up with the superheroes idea; this kind of Pythonesque, absurd notion of middle-aged men dressed in tights. We weren't supposed to take ourselves seriously.
Wasn't there a danger people would assume you were all mental and therefore unfit to raise kids?
Yeah, but we had fuck-all money. We couldn't afford to run a nice touchy-feely advertising campaign. All we had was a ladder and a van.
What was the high point for you?
The powder bombing (of Tony Blair) in Parliament. We used condoms for the bombs because children sometimes are the result of split condoms. We had the idea of filling them with purple powder. The guys would tie it underneath their belts and have it hanging down where their bollocks are. Basically, they'd look like they had oversized bollocks. There's no way a security guard at the Houses of Parliament was going to give them a squeeze. I was listening to Simon Mayo on Fine Live's Prime Minister's Questions. I'd given it no chance of success really. I think it was about 12.19pm when Simon said, "Something's being thrown at the chamber of the House of Commons. It's purple powder." I was hugging and kissing the bloke in the car beside me so much I nearly bashed the Mini in a bloody cornfield.
After high-profile demonstrations on the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and the Foreign Office, Fathers 4 Justice was beginning to see unstoppable. But with the success came ruptures within the organisation, resulting in a purge in June 2005 and investigation by ITV1's Tonight programme. Rumours and accusations at the time included O'Connor making enormous profits, of him sleeping with several female activists and of various members being wife-beating, drug takers and racists.
Did F4J membership reach 12,000?
How many paid the £30 membership fee?
I don't know, but it wasn't 12,000.
What sort of proportion was it?
I don't know, 50-60 per cent at least.
There were accusations over how the subscription fees were used...
I'm not going into that. All I'll say is that we were running a campaign with banners going out and expensive legal actions. We ran it as a not for profit company and people can see income and expenditure at Companies House, simple as that.
Did you refuse many ill-advised schemes?
Yeah, lots of things. I personally refused to sanction the door-stepping of the mothers who denied fathers access to their children. I constantly, constantly, constantly fought a battle on that front.
Things started to go wrong last year. What was your life like at the time?
My life was fucking hell, it was purgatory, It was my penance for being a shit father and a shit husband. I hated my life last year, I absolutely detested it. Unlike Amnesty International or Greenpeace, with F4J you were working with damaged goods, people on the edge who couldn't see straight and were generally wacking the guy beside them. It was fun for the first year, and it turned into a Frankenstein fathers thing.
There were rumours that you were sleeping with members of F4J. Were you?
Fuck no. the only woman I met in F4J was my girlfriend, who I now have a baby boy with.
There were also reports about fathers being violent towards their wives...
We tried to tighten up the rules, but we couldn't afford to go to the Criminal Records Bureau and shell out a tenner a time to get people checked and vetted. I made numerous mistakes; it should never have been a big organisation. I should've kept it tight, almost like a small agency. Anybody associated with it was an opportunity for the media to pick on that guy's character and smear the entire organisation. That was a fundamental design flaw.
How did you feel about working with fathers like that?
If the guy had done the crime and done the time, was a loving father and there were no issues between him and his ex-wife, then who's to say that he could never see his kids again? We rooted out as many people as we could, but it was an issue.
Did some fathers see F4J simply as an outlet for their anger?
There was a lot of damaged pride and egos. The question is, were they like that before they went into the family law system? When you're not going through a living bereavement of not seeing your kids it fucks you up. The problem is nobody gives a shit about fathers. And the worst thing is, other dads haven't realised that it could happen to them.
What was the biggest problem internally?
A lot of people became adrenalin addicts. They got hooked on dressing up like superheroes. But after Batman at Buckingham Palace, the campaign had reached its sell-by date. There was a danger of us becoming a public irritant. But we had all sorts of problems at the end of 2004, and I take responsibility for not acting decisively.
People were stealing money at local level. New members were joining and people were pocketing the cash for membership fees. We made it internet based when we found out. At that time a substantial amount of infiltration happened from the police, probably Special Branch.
What evidence do you have of this?
All I can say is that we had members in Scotland Yard and I got fed information.
When did you realise F4J was out of control?
There was a problem in November 2004 at a co-ordinators conference and it should have been dealt with in a certain way and it wasn't. I don't want to go into specifics, but it should have been dealt with very, very harshly.
What was that?
I'm not going into the ins and outs of it. There were issues and we didn't act. I actually regret that because I think we could have sorted out a lot of problems there and then.
Was your leadership being questioned?
My leadership was questioned from day one.
Hero or zero? O'Connor, never one for armchair politics, has launched a new pressure group called Agents for Change.
On January 18 2006, O'Connor announced that Fathers 4 Justice was to disband. Earlier that day, the press had reported that his organisation planned to kidnap Tony Blair's five-year-old son Leo. O'Connor denied any knowledge of the plot.
What's your theory about the kidnap plot?
It's a beautiful example of the Labour spin machine. There was absolutely no way that story could have appeared without Tony or Cherie Blair's approval. When it came to bringing down F4J it seems they were happy to use their little five-year old boy on the front page of The Sun.
Did the plot against Leo Blair exist, tough?
I would imagine there was a conversation. Somebody from Special Branch would have recorded it and someone would have leaked it to The Sun. The paper would have gone to the Downing Street press spokesman. The story would have gone to the Blairs, and they would have said yae or nae.
Why do you think the Blairs gave it the go ahead?
Put it this way, if it was my child and I was in Tony Blair's position, I wouldn't want the fucking story appearing because I wouldn't want to give anybody ideas. So one has to question why it was done. All I can say is that it was a beautiful piece of PR work. What better story to finish off F4J than to say to these fathers, who are supposed to care about their kids, were going to kidnap a five-year-old boy? How evil, how dastardly. We probably had more publicity out of that than anything else we'd ever done. I thought, this has reached the end of its natural life. We need to move on to the next stage, raise the level of debate. It was important for us to go out in a blaze of glory rather than on a damp squib.
So that was your blaze?
It was a fucking blaze alright. The day the Leo Blair thing broke, I'd had a gutful. I had done Channel 4 News at Winchester Cathedral and had my six-week-old baby in the pram with two mobiles going. This woman lurched towards me and grabbed me by the hand. She was from Sky News. I was fatigued, I'd expired. I had nothing left to give. I'd been up for 48 hours and I thought, I'm not getting into a slagging match with a journalist, I'm out of here. I walked back up the street and I just told my girlfriend to keep walking. I said "Fuck off, leave me alone, the party's over."
Do you know who was behind the plot?
You hear names. I wasn't there so I don't know and I'm not prepared to speculate.
What, ultimately, did you get out of F4J?
I learned a lot and met some amazing people. I don't think I was necessarily the right person for it. I wasn't mentally strong enough and perhaps not the most sensible person. But equally, if I'd been a sensible person I wouldn't have started it in the first place.
You said you regretted starting the campaign, do you still feel that way?
I don't think I can be proud of anything, not until we actually achieve something tangible.
Where do you go from here?
I'm going to carry on quietly campaigning for equal parenting and I'm off down the political path.
What will you be campaigning for?
Agents for Change (O'Connor's latest pressure group) will have a series if campaign capsules under a broad libertarian agenda. If anybody thinks I'll be packing up and going home, they can forget it. It if all goes to plan, this will make F4J look like the Boys Brigade. It will be the same kind of irreverent, mocking, subversive antics, but a more grown-up version.
And there's the film...
We've got a really good British team who did Calendar girls. I hope it'll be gritty. I don't want it to be some spit-and-polished airbrush thing. It's important that people understand we were deeply flawed as individuals but those flaws didn't prevent us from being great dads.
You seem more excited about the campaigning, though.
I'm chomping, but I'm under orders from the women in my life not to do anything quickly. I'm going to take time out and spend more time with my boys.