Russell Re-Brand: The Joker in the pack?

As we enter the final stages of the 2015 General Election campaign, a new and controversial figure has taken centre stage: Russell Brand.

His appearance isn’t entirely unexpected. Brand has long illustrated that he has been socially and politically engaged throughout his career as a professional comedian. In April 2012 Brand appeared before the Home Affairs Committee in Parliament to promote a compassionate approach to drugs policy and abstinence-based recovery, shortly before debating Peter Hitchens on Newsnight regarding the same subject matter.

These and other activities have required something of a change in public perceptions, as he was previously largely renowned for his sexual conquests, drug recovery, and resignation from the BBC after one of his radio interviews humiliated the comedian Andrew Sachs and his family. Therefore it is understandable that the public’s re-acquaintance with Brand 2.0 – “comedian and campaigner” as he was introduced by David Dimbleby on Question Time in December 2014 – has been turbulent. The public re-branding of Brand started to gain greater momentum in October 2013, when he was offered the role of guest editor for the New Statesman. This in turn led to a clash with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, where Brand justified his view that people should not vote, claiming “it’s not that I am not voting out of apathy, I am not voting out of absolute indifference…from the lies from the political class”.

Early in 2014, it was clear that Brand’s newfound engagement with the proposition of revolutionary politics, and the exposition of social, political and mass media-based corruption was no flash in the pan. His ‘The Trews’ Youtube channel emerged with its first four minute episode in February 2014, and grew in both stature and popularity throughout the duration of the year. The channel documented his various campaigning endeavours, his interviews with high profile activists, and regularly receiving between 200-500,000 views an episode. Brand’s year of political campaigning and commentary reached its peak in December 2014 with the release of his book Revolution, and a appearance on the BBC Question Time panel opposite UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

Brand & Miliband – The joke’s on you (tube)?

By contrast, Russell Brand has had a fairly quiet 2015, including the build up to the General Election. However, early in week four of the campaign, Ed Miliband was spotted leaving Russell Brand’s flat raising speculation that he had been interviewed by the comedian for The Trews. This was confirmed on Tuesday 28th April, with Russell Brand releasing a trailer of the interview on his Youtube channel, and the full fifteen minute conversation with the leader of the opposition being released a day later, having now been viewed more than 1.173 million times.

This also stimulated considerable coverage in traditional news outlets. Findings from our most recent election campaign report show Russell Brand was joint ninth most reported political figure between 23-29 April. This is more significant considering the generally low frequency of celebrity appearances in the media (3.7% across the whole campaign) and the lack of celebrity endorsements as a theme of media coverage (0.8% across the whole campaign).

While this illustrates the immediacy of the impact of Brand’s introduction to the media agenda and his clear A-list status as a news-worthy source, it is also apparent that Brand is often reported negatively when it comes to his approach to politics (or perceived lack thereof). The Daily Mail opted for the headline ‘Do you really want this clown ruling us? And, no, we don’t mean the one on the left’. The Star wrote ‘Red Ed & Brand talk total ballots’. The Sun went for ‘Monster Raving Labour Party’. Each of these headlines and respective stories highlight that the weekly increase in negative coverage of Labour (also shown in this week’s report) was amplified by Miliband’s decision to be interviewed by a figure whose contributions to political discourse is deemed, at best irrelevant, and at worse damaging to electoral conduct.

Part of this perception of Brand does appear to stem from the notion that he is simply a comedian. It is commonly regarded that humour and serious subject matter do not mix well and are best kept separate. David Cameron’s reaction to the Brand/Miliband interview epitomised this position – “don’t vote, that’s his whole view. That’s funny, it’s funny. But politics and life and jobs and the election is not a joke. Russell Brand is a joke. Ed Miliband to hang out with Russell Brand, he’s a joke”. This derogatory term used to describe Miliband is fairly representative of the Prime Minister’s choice of language used to undermine his closest rival throughout the campaign. However, beyond the interchange of personal insults between the two, David Cameron has also reiterated the notion that Brand’s occupation and tendencies to discuss politics and social inequalities with an, at times, facetious, satirical exuberance, means any of his comments are of little to no consequence to the wider debate.

It remains to be seen whether Russell Brand will remain a prominent figure in the news media over the final days of the election campaign. His declaration for Labour caused a bit of a stir over the bank holiday, but it is unlikely his planned Youtube interviews with Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas on Wednesday will command much wider commentary. Nevertheless, his brief, but bright inclusion in the news agenda has raised several intriguing issues concerning the ambivalent role of humour in political discourse and the continuous challenges to its inclusion.

Michael Cotter


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