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Editorial: The Populist Brand

Why do Russell Brand, Daniel Wootton and even Rupert Murdoch claim they are the victims of impersonal dark forces?

Photo: Alamy
From the october print edition

Even before the details of the multiple allegations against Russell Brand were made public by Channel 4 Dispatches and The Sunday Times, the comedian and media personality had turned serious claims of rape, assault, and emotional abuse into another populist ‘culture war’.

To millions of followers on his ­various social media channels, Brand said he “absolutely refutes” the “serious allegations” and claimed that all of his encounters were “absolutely, always consensual”.

Brand, who was very much part of the mainstream media with his regular slots on Channel 4 and BBC Radio 2 a decade or so ago, then turned his aim from the message to the messenger. Without naming Dispatches or The Sunday Times, he described the ­“narratives that these two mainstream media outlets are trying to construct”.

Brand claimed: “I’m being attacked, and plainly they are working very closely together.”
Beyond six million followers on YouTube, 11 million on X (formerly Twitter), and 33 million on Instagram, Brand’s claims of a media conspiracy received widespread support from some familiar figures even before any details of the alleged offences were published.

These included the owner of X, Elon Musk, Tucker Carlson (sacked from Fox News) and Alex Jones of Infowars (who has to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars for defaming the families of the Sandy Hook massacre). The kickboxer and ­influencer Andrew Tate, charged with rape and human trafficking in Romania, replied to his video: “Welcome to the club Russell Brand.”

What is this Club?

The multi-billionaire media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, in his recent complaint on retiring from Fox News that he is a victim of ‘elites’, revealed himself as the Godfather of this right-wing grievance club.

Apart from being nearly all men with an acute sense of victimhood, their beliefs converge around conspiracy ­theories about Covid vaccines or the “real” reason Ukraine is at war. The sense that these men are being silenced because of their political views, rather than their ­personal behaviour, is the obvious ­corollary.

GB News presenter Dan Wootton, who responded to serious and detailed allegations in this newspaper about using multiple fake identities to solicit compromising sexual images, ­similarly said he was a victim of “dark forces” and an attempt to cancel him.

After Wootton’s on-air attack on Byline Times and his accusers – and the defending of Russell Brand by GB News presenters on social media and the channel itself – the chair of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee wrote to the hard-right broadcaster, asking it to explain its “discussions with GB News presenters on their responsibilities on due impartiality and professionalism when seeking to front coverage of news events”.

Of this newspaper’s special investigation into Wootton, Dame Caroline Dinenage asked GB News “what, if any, investigations or processes have been undertaken since the recent complaints about Mr Wootton were publicly raised” and the “policies and procedures available to staff … to raise issues about the conduct of individuals or the culture at the organisation”.

Though it is reassuring that law-makers are looking for accountability, it is striking that the same established media outlets – which have so vitally exposed and covered the horrific allegations about Brand, ­raising questions about the press culture that protected him – have been virtually silent when it comes to Wootton.

Some parallels are clear to see – particularly around the current brand of this ­personality-fuelled populism, which ­positions itself above traditional politics.

According to his former partner, Wootton was on the ‘soft left’ a decade or so ago. Around the same time, Brand was also seen as a left-wing figure, courted by Labour Leader Ed Miliband in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. What radicalised them to turn to the populist right?

The pivot appears to put such figures beyond the law and social norms, and in the realm of conspiracies at the hands of the hated ‘liberal consensus’ and ‘mainstream media’. One of Brand’s accusers, who says he started a relationship with her when he was 31 and she was 16, claims he has known these accusations were coming “for a long time” and even suspects he was “building himself an audience for years … that would then have a great distrust of any publication that came forward with allegations”.

Like Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Boris Johnson) before him, Brand is attempting to invert specific charges of abusing his personal power into a wider culture war, in which he is a victim of impersonal power and abuse. It’s a weird but permanent hybrid: right-wing ­libertarianism cross-fertilised with 60s counter-culture libertinism.

Brand and Wootton are not only ­significant because of the damage caused to the victims alleging wrongdoing against them – they also say something bigger about the entire political-media culture that we all swim in.

At its worst, it is a culture that seeks to distort and divide and make people question the very concept of a shared reality and truth itself. The conspiratorial and fearful instincts that figures such as Brand and Wootton feed have a real-world impact: not only on the people who have been affected by their behaviour on a ­devastating ­personal level; but their ­contribution to creating a politics in which progress on civil liberties, equality, ­discussion of our country’s history, responses to the pandemic and – most ­significantly of all – the climate emergency (deteriorating at an alarming rate before our eyes) are all called into question.

And for what? Meanwhile, the real problems facing people every day are ignored.
As Carole Cadwalladr explains in a special interview in the October edition of Byline Times, this ideology is turbo-charged by the fragmentation of the ‘mass media’ into the myriad forces of social media. Though monopoly power has actually increased – witness the rise of Musk and Zuckerberg – the tech giants are underpinned by an ethos of political unaccountability and personal irresponsibility.

The impact of the turmoil in modern media on the politics of populism couldn’t be clearer. But populism has few – if any – solutions. Professing to represent the interests of ‘the people’, it is the people who are ultimately its biggest victims.

If Britain is to rebuild itself from an era of self-destruction fuelled by this populism – crumbling public services, growing inequality, a toxified political-media ­culture – it must find new ways to do ­politics and reform our press. This edition of Byline Times hopes to point the way on how we might be able to do that.

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