When someone with interesting things to say is granted a high-profile media platform, it is wise to listen to what is being said and ask why they have been given such a platform. Comedian and actor Russell Brand's 10-minute interview by Jeremy Paxman on BBC's Newsnight last week was given considerable advance publicity and generated enormous reaction on social media and in the press, just as those media gatekeepers who selected Brand to appear would have wished.
The interview was hung on the hook of Brand's guest-editing of a special edition of New Statesman, the 'leftwing' weekly magazine owned by the multimillionaire Mike Danson. In a rambling 4500-word essay mixing political comment, spiritual insight, humour and trademark flowery wordplay, Brand called for a 'total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system.'
'Apathy', he said, 'is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people'. He rightly noted that the public is, however, 'far from impotent', adding:
commented of the Iraq war:
gullible Paxman should cast himself as a hard-bitten realist challenging a well-intentioned but naïve fantasist.
As we've noted before, the notion that we live in a proper democracy is a dangerous illusion maintained by a state-corporate media to which Paxman himself is a prominent contributor. Brand confronted Paxman directly about the limited choice of policies and politicians offered to the public:
noted before, the most effective propaganda systems provide opportunities for some dissent while the overwhelming pattern of media coverage strongly supports state-corporate aims. And the BBC, regarded by many people as the epitome of all that is good about Britain, is arguably the most powerful media institution in this equation. After all, the BBC is still the news source for the majority of the public, and thus the establishment-friendly window through which the population views domestic and world affairs. An opinion poll published in May 2013 showed that 58% of the British public regards the BBC as the most trustworthy news source, far higher than its closest rivals: ITV (14%), Sky News (6%), Channel 4 News (2%) and the Guardian (2%).
The irony is that Brand referred in the interview to the safety 'valves' that allow steam to be let off, keeping an unjust system in place. But he was only referring to recycling and driving 'greener' cars like the Prius which 'stop us reaching the point where you think it's enough now'. So when is it 'enough now' to draw attention to the destructive role played by powerful elite news media, most especially the BBC?
More than once, Brand backed off from putting Paxman and the BBC in the spotlight:
described as a 'Trojan horse for US foreign policy', and then extending to a critique of the BBC itself. There is no shortage of examples of BBC propaganda that could have been raised.
None of that happened.line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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Brand's espousal of popular views on Newsnight was sufficiently unsettling, however, that reactionary voices from the media class were quick to mock, denigrate or patronise him. Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook explained why this is the case:
told his readers that Brand is an 'unnecessary revolutionary', and that basically the current system of capitalism works fine apart from a few 'pockets of regression, little eddies in the forward current'.
David Aaronovitch of The Times declared via Twitter:
asserted that Brand is 'not only daft but dangerous'. Lustig said dismissively of Brand:
exhorted Brand in the oligarch-owned Independent on Sunday:
bemoaning the MPs who had voted against a possible war on Syria or, as she called it, 'intervention on humanitarian grounds'. She had written:
acknowledged that Brand 'articulates a strain of thinking among a growing number of young people'.
In the Observer, pro-war commentator Nick Cohen even went as far as an insidious comparison between comedian Russell Brand and fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and slyly suggested that Brand was calling for a violent revolution. Not true. Somehow Cohen had mangled Brand's peaceful call to 'direct our love indiscriminately.'
Cohen then added:line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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When the media commentariat have to resort to smears and insults you can be sure that fear of the public is playing a part. Readers may feel, then, that we are being a tad harsh on Brand. Didn't he make many cogent points, and more than hold his own against Paxman, the BBC's famed rottweiler? Indeed, yes. Brand rightly pointed out that politicians are not taking the necessary action on pressing issues such as climate:
here and here, we have pointed out that the corporate media has long suppressed, marginalised and diverted any radical challenges to the status quo. Campaigners and activists, of whatever hue and driven by whatever issue, can no longer ignore this crucial issue.
Even in Brand's 4500-word New Statesman piece, he had very little to say about the corporate media. There were two passing mentions of 'media', but no mentions of 'press', 'journalism' or 'television'. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the well-intentioned Brand, a former 'MTV journalist', presenter of Big Brother's Big Mouth and an actor in big-budget movies, should have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the corporate media.
George Monbiot declared on Twitter, perhaps only with part of his tongue in cheek, that:
@rustyrockets) is in fact the Messiah is disorienting on so many levels.'
Others applauding Brand on social media included Alain de Botton and Jemima Khan. But few prominent supporters of Brand's 'revolution', if any, have said anything that is genuinely critical of elite power; especially of the corporate media, including the BBC. We have, for example, discussed de Botton's corporate-sponsored 'branded conversations' here.
It is understandable that there was much praise for Russell Brand's Newsnight interview and New Statesman essay. To a large extent, this signifies the desperation of people to hear any challenge to the power-protecting propaganda that we are force-fed every day. But two crucial factors here are that Brand was selected to appear by media gatekeepers; and that media institutions, notably the BBC, escaped serious scrutiny. If Brand was a serious threat to the broadcaster's projected image as a beacon of impartiality, he would not have been chosen.
Noam Chomsky has a cautionary note on high-profile exposure in the corporate media: