Sex, lies and celebrity
Sexual misconduct is inseparable from celebrity culture and the capitalist media apparatus. But, asks Paul Demarty, can Russell Brand ever get a fair trial?
Ours is a country proud of its disgraceful libel laws, so we must necessarily start this article with the routine disclaimer: Russell Brand has not been convicted of any sexual offences connected with the recent allegations against him. Indeed, as I write, he has not been charged with anything either, although the Metropolitan Police have confirmed they are investigating (with their usual scrupulous attention to detail and sympathy for potential rape victims, no doubt).
Of course, at this point it is difficult to see - even if sufficient evidence were found to charge him - how a fair trial would be possible. Could a jury be assembled of grown British adults who have not read the disturbing testimony of those women interviewed by Channel 4 and the Sunday Times, who were not alerted to his confessedly insatiable priapism?
The question of whether justice can be done, or seen to be done, rather haunts bourgeois-liberal opinion in what we call the ‘post #MeToo era’, and in this country further back to the Jimmy Savile scandal a decade ago. Inevitably, a connection between Brand and Savile was found by the investigators - an email exchange, in which Brand seems to offer Savile a naked massage from his PA. All a bit of a joke, he will no doubt say now - but, as the saying has it, jokes never sound funny in court.
When Savile’s crimes started to dominate the news cycle, and allegations surfaced against many other dinosaurs of light entertainment, there was a certain undercurrent in the coverage that seemed to blame the 1970s. The recent past seemed the most foreign country of all. The sheer level of access Savile enjoyed in a credulous establishment; the extravagance of his crimes: we were unnerved that it had all happened so recently. I cannot have been the only fan of David Peace’s neo-modernist ultra-noir Red Riding novels to suddenly have the sense that the hallucinatory cruelty of the fiction had been superseded by reality.
So pronounced was this historical dimension that it appeared, in inverted form, in the output of Spiked - then still merely contrarian, and not yet the publication of the world’s most insufferable Orbánista try-hards. Former editor Mick Hume called the various police investigations “a strange exercise in putting the past on trial”. But he was just as wrong as everyone else. The “past” being put on trial, we know from subsequent revelations about the likes of Harvey Weinstein, was still ongoing.
Whatever the truth of specific allegations against Brand, we have seen and heard enough to confirm the suspicion that this problem is endemic to celebrity culture, and to the role celebrities play in the success and failure of capitalist media organisations. Its dominant cultural forms - light entertainment and news, for all practical purposes - are heavily driven by personality. Loyalty is built up by allowing the fantasy of friendship to be projected onto the celebrity. From the screaming crowds of early pubescents at the boy-band concert, to the death threats sent to pro-wrestling heels and soap opera villains, everything depends on this fantasy, that the performance of love (or hatred) towards the audience is real. As the Hollywood cliché has it, sincerity is everything: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
It is this that grants celebrities their leverage. They must be laden down with money, no appetites left unsated. Brand himself described his sudden fame as like being “thrown into a washing machine of tits and money”. Periodically, this country gets in a lather about the salaries of prominent BBC employees, as if the BBC was an outlier in its generosity to the ‘talent’. In reality, this remains fairly universal. The internet, it is true, has created a layer of celebrities relatively independent of legacy media and its vast temptations. Primarily, however, its results have been fairly superficial at the very greatest heights of fame. Taylor Swift’s fans have more ways to get their revenge on haters and unsuitable boyfriends than Britney Spears’s fans did; little else has changed.
This need to coddle the star ensures that - in the case of the usually male performers who demand constant sexual satisfaction - many rapes are permitted, and many ‘grey-area’ encounters swept under the rug. Those professionally engaged by the celebrity or organisation who may be eligible for his predations have no recourse but to watch themselves. Laws against sexual harassment offer no protection in practice, because a thousand others will happily take your place; the labour market at the top of these media companies is just far too competitive to risk it.
It is thus unsurprising that there is such a tendency for vast delay in allegations emerging; we did, after all, have to wait for Jimmy Savile’s death to find out what ‘everyone knew’ about him. The delay makes criminal justice all but impossible, even if it was not up to Wayne Couzens’ old colleagues to investigate; though the production-line aspect of celebrity sexual misconduct tends to leave behind more witnesses than typical stranger rapes, thanks to the coterie of flunkies and hangers-on involved, there is always the fear of self-incrimination. Complicity is built into the system. Nobody wants to be the next Ghislaine Maxwell.
We did not, of course, have to wait for Brand’s death for these allegations to emerge. Here we may as well discuss some of the political context. After 2013, Brand re‘branded’ himself as a sort of sub-anarchist political guru. He was rather taken with various mass protests of the day; he went around telling people not to vote, but, after meeting Ed Miliband, urged his followers to vote Labour in 2015 (it did not seem to make much difference). He slowly drifted into the ‘wellness’ world, where his faintly Jesus-like presentation and flightiness in the face of cold, hard facts was always an advantage.
In recent years, his political profile has become more … ambiguous. The turning point was the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic; Brand joined those expressing scepticism about the virus’s origins, about its effects, the usefulness of lockdowns, the safety of vaccines, and above all the motivations of those deciding on the world’s pandemic response. This is often described as a shift to the far right, but that is something of a simplification. To take anti-vax sentiment as an example: it was not too long ago that its main vectors were greenish leftwing types - ‘crunchy liberals’, as they used to call them in the US, though there has always been a fringe religious right element as well. Brand could not fit the profile better - from the veganism to the hippie hair.
In lieu of an effective pandemic response, however, governments were all too keen to merely suppress voices of dissent. I do not mean to say that this conspiracy-theorising was anything other than ridiculous: merely that its expression was a fitting response to what, in retrospect, was almost the worst of all possible worlds - sweeping restrictions on ordinary life in return for which we got … a virus ripping its bloody path through the world regardless. Those who had the ‘hippie’ left version of such ideas were aggressively marginalised, then, and the only people who would listen to or platform them were on the radical, ‘populist’ right.
But if the media needs celebrities, celebrities need their audiences; and sooner or later the tail wags the dog. Taylor Swift, after all, caved in to her deranged fans and dumped Matty Healy. Brand’s brand, so to speak, is a rather smaller and more valuable thing than hers. There is a feedback loop here: the more Brand was ostracised as a far-right conspiracist, the more dependent he became on support from the far right, and then the more he was ostracised …
In any case, his audience - such as it is - contains many people, who, true to form, believe this all to be a put-up job. There is a small element of truth here. After all, we take it as read - according to our account of celebrity culture above - that very many famous men are guilty of the same kind of rampant sexual exploitation as those alleged against Brand (and cheerfully boasted of in the rock ’n’ roll memoirs of an earlier era, for that matter). The people who get caught are the people we choose to see; and Brand has put himself in the crosshairs more than once. It is undeniable that there is a concerted effort to drive him offline, seemingly backed by the government; and many involved in this ‘cancellation’ will not only be concerned by his alleged crimes of 2008-13, but his present-day impertinences.
Brand is, in short, a soft target. He does not have the backing any more of a powerful media organisation that actually needs him. (It is notable that all the allegations in the reporting date from the time before that was true.)
Yet we have the allegations we have. These allegations are, at the very least, credible. They are, furthermore, congruent with the observable data of capitalist celebrity culture. Indeed, though Brand of course denies that any sexual encounter he has had was non-consensual, there is surely some justice to conservative writer Mary Harrington’s observation that, given his claim to have slept with thousands of women, “at that rate of throughput it’s hard to see how he could remember every detail of each incident” (especially since, by his own admission, he was taking an awful lot of drugs at the time).
In short, they deserve on their own merits to be investigated seriously and, if substantiated, put before a jury of his peers. Just because you are paranoid, it does not mean they are not out to get you; but equally, just because they are out to get you, it does not mean you did not actually do it. No amount of incoherent babble about the World Economic Forum will change that.
Yet now we are back where we started: the sheer difficulty of obtaining justice in practice in these cases. Weinstein was jailed; many others walked. Savile died peacefully and at liberty - perhaps he might have been hauled up on some charge or another, in an ideal world, but the spate of police investigations after his death produced instead fiasco after fiasco.
Celebrities will abuse their privileges so long as they are backed by vast capitalist concerns. Capitalism backs such peculiar privileges because it needs, in its innermost essence, to circulate lies about itself, to endlessly coopt all cultural expression into its falsity, to distract and to divert. (For all the silliness of Brand’s YouTube output, it was at least a step up from Big brother’s little brother.) Without a vastly more egalitarian culture, sex pests will be discovered in the heights of celebrity. But no such culture is possible on the basis of our current, intrinsically inegalitarian, social relations.