BY PAUL T HORGAN
It is one of life’s small fortunes that Russell Brand did not overly intrude on my television-watching up to the point I ditched my TV licence over two years ago. It was actually the increasingly dominant televisual culture of the kind that Brand represented (and that I was paying the BBC to watch) that prompted me to restrict myself to catch-up and streaming services (excluding iPlayer if any of the BBC’s hired goons are reading this) as a substitute for channel-hopping linear broadcasts. Brand’s televisual appearances were almost exclusively confined to the insipid section of the broadcast spectrum, which I shun. That he was indulged for so long was perhaps due to the relative uniqueness of his obviously-curated image and his distinctive manner of speaking.
Brand’s appearance was clearly confected, and was lifted lock, stock, and barrel from Peter Wyngarde’s depiction of period playboy Jason King in the early-1970s adventure show ‘Department S’. This forward sexual style was mildly lampooned in a sketch by Harry Enfield mocking that whole ghastly era:
His mode of speaking and use of vocabulary resembled that of an accomplished sesquipedalian but not-so-successful autodidact from the slums of East London in the mid-to-late Victorian era. It is easy to imagine Brand being plucked through a time portal from the streets of Limehouse just after guiding a gentleman to a den of vice in return for half-a-crown, being divested of his third-hand frock-coat, and battered topper, given a recent edition of Pears Cyclopaedia to catch up on past events, and then pushed out into the world.
This whole schtick utterly seduced liberal media types, and Brand was the toast of the town for the better part of a decade, allowing him to apparently effortlessly scale the heights of legacy media on both sides of the Atlantic. Book deals, TV appearances, Hollywood films, and a short-lived marriage to a quasi-burlesque popular singer followed. It couldn’t last. Brand’s big mistake was to think that, after his seemingly irresistible rise to the top of entertainment media, he could leverage this for a career on the fringes of British politics as a YouTuber.
It worked for a while.
Brand was very successful. British politics has been rather febrile since 2010 compared to the previous two decades, and Brand rode that political febricity. The clash between Brand and Nigel Farage on the BBC’s Question Time was heralded, at least by the BBC, as some kind of Fight of the Decade. It wasn’t, but this did not harm Brand’s standing. Calling Farage a ‘pound-store Enoch Powell’ in December 2014 may have delighted The Guardian and its sincere readers, but it did not impact Farage’s career in the slightest. He is the architect of Brexit. By early 2015 Brand had the Leader of the Opposition making a pilgrimage to his door, and in an excruciating interview, Ed Miliband even fell into emulating Brand’s vocal style, presumably so he could ride the adolescent vote to Downing Street.
It didn’t work.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn seems to have been a disaster for Brand’s political ambitions as a polemicist. There was only room in British politics for one bearded utopianist, and Corbyn completely eclipsed Brand and stole his followers. Corbynism had no room for Brand, and Brand’s superficiality could not function with the Marxist dogma and freakish alliances that underpinned Corbyn’s non-specific pronouncements. There was also the whole anti-Semitism culture that Brand simply could not assimilate. It was time for a reinvention. Brand retreated to online (or alt-)media and sustained a lucrative following for his shows peddling the alternative politics that sprouted in the wake of the pandemic.
It is not entirely to the credit of The Times, Sunday Times, and Channel 4’s Dispatches that they have published their allegations about Brand over recent days. It should have been earlier than when Brand had established himself in opposition to the conventional media represented by the organisations that have investigated him. Like Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris, Gary Glitter, Clement Freud, and Max Clifford, Brand was well past the peak of his career. The only distinction is that Brand, when these revelations have been alleged, is not drawing his pension or decomposing in an unmarked grave. Alleged pests should be held to account when their star is brightest, not when it is fading or extinguished.
The accusations are the result of detailed and corroborated investigations over a number of years, and at the time of writing have not been publicly challenged by Brand’s lawyers, as Brand’s female accusers have been in the past but in private and with threatening letters from Brand’s representatives. The news media have learned the lessons from the fallout of the baseless claims, championed by Tom Watson while an MP, of an elite paedophile ring centred around Whitehall and Westminster. The false accusations from a fantasist harmed the reputations of innocent men, some too old or infirm to be able to contest them, and others who had passed away who were unable to defend themselves. Lives were ruined, as Harvey Proctor related about his experiences in a recent interview on this site.
The BBC and ITV both had to pay substantial sums to the late Lord McAlpine when they bandied his name in association with this myth. The wife of Commons Speaker John Bercow lost a case for defamation in the High Court and had to pay damages and costs over a tweet of hers that hinted at questions about the former Conservative Party official. The comedian Alan Davies had to cough up for his own contributions to the Twitter pile-on. Guardian writer George Monbiot, unable to afford damages for his own defamatory tweets, instead promised to perform work in kind for charities.
The actions of online media organisations have come in for criticism for shutting out Brand. This is undeserved. These organisations are private commercial entities, and have to look to their methods of revenue generation. They should not have to wait for legal determinations and are free to treat Brand as they please, as they are mindful of the commercial consequences and customer sentiment which is far more responsive than the due process of law. The News of the World was shut down months before any of its staff or management were prosecuted for illegal access to voicemails, and despite numerous acquittals, it was not re-opened. Online media organisations would be very sensitive to an advertiser boycott, and advertisers rightly do not want their wares being peddled in a forced association with a person subject to such serious accusations.
While this might appear that media organisations are kicking a man when he is down, Brand has to a large degree brought all this upon himself.
It may not be fair that these organisations were perfectly happy to make money from Brand’s participation, but this was obviously before the currently legally unrefuted allegations of Brand’s activities were placed in the public domain. Media organisations presumably did business with Brand on the basis that he abided by certain standards of decency, despite his all sexual braggadocio, some of which was highly questionable at the time but was ignored. This braggadocio was part of Brand’s brand but it has now been seen to have allegedly crossed a line. The police have now opened an investigation.
It is unlikely that any media organisation will shut down if it is revealed that they knew or should have known about Brand’s alleged unsavoury activities while he was working for them. Channel 4, Brand’s main employer for a number of years at the height of his fame in the UK, will not be forced to close in the manner of the News of the World following the Milly Dowler voicemail hacking revelations. But the people running these organisations and those in senior positions directly associated with Brand will have questions to answer about how they conducted their careers in media.
For me, my passive avoidance of Brand has quite failed. His face has been peering out of every screen I access in search of being up-to-date with current events. In his heyday, Brand was rather the novelty, exuding an apparently safe and consensual version of questionable sexuality along with an exotic manner of speaking. He was allowed to scale the peaks of a global media that now condemns him with barely-concealed glee.
It is to be hoped that media bosses, and also starry-eyed girls, have learned an important lesson. People who appear edgy and sexually dangerous in an entertaining fashion on screen or stage may actually be rather too edgy and genuinely sexually dangerous in real life.
Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.