A very special guest shambled his way into the Guardian newspaper’s morning editorial conference and took a seat next to editor Alan Rusbridger on a striking yellow designer sofa.
As fawning journalists fluttered their eyelashes and giggled into cups of Fairtrade coffee, the Hollywood star, who was wearing a grubby white vest, a scarf covered in crosses and a purple beanie hat, shared a range of largely Left-leaning views on the big stories of the day.
It was Russell Brand, recently divorced from U.S. pop star Katy Perry. After five years in Los Angeles, the comedian, actor and bestselling author was back in the UK, hoping to launch a new career in the current affairs business.
The August 2013 meeting kicked off a series of high-profile and doubtless lucrative collaborations between Brand and various pillars of Britain’s liberal media establishment. Eventually, it would also set him on the path to becoming a conspiracy-peddling crank. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
In mid-September that year, Rusbridger persuaded Brand to write a 2,300-word article for the Guardian (the first of several columns) offering ‘his side of the story’ after being ejected from a GQ awards party for cracking a risqué joke about sponsor Hugo Boss’s historical links to the Nazis.
The August 2013 meeting kicked off a series of high-profile and doubtless lucrative collaborations between Brand and various pillars of Britain’s liberal media establishment
A very special guest, Brand, shambled his way into the Guardian newspaper’s morning editorial conference and took a seat next to editor Alan Rusbridger on a striking yellow designer sofa
The following month, Brand edited that other bible of socialism, the New Statesman. His edition featured contributions from such celebrity chums as actor Alec Baldwin, Oasis singer-songwriter Noel Gallagher and Left-wing Canadian writer Naomi Klein, along with an essay by Brand himself, who wittered on about ‘revolution’ for 4,500 words and joked that he wanted to rename the weekly periodical ‘Nude Statesman’. To publicise the initiative, Brand was promptly invited on to Newsnight by the show’s new boss Ian Katz, a chum of Rusbridger who’d just moved to the BBC after years in the Guardian’s deputy editor’s chair.
‘What gives you the right to edit a political magazine when you don’t even vote?’ asked veteran host Jeremy Paxman.
‘I was politely asked by an attractive woman,’ said Brand.
Paxman, who was horrified at having to interview someone he regarded as an unqualified political lightweight, later told friends that Katz’s determination to book him had sparked a furious dispute. He resigned shortly afterwards, publicly complaining that the hallowed show was ‘now made by 13-year-olds’.
The Newsnight encounter, in which Brand declared Paxo’s beard to be ‘gorgeous’, nonetheless garnered plenty of attention, picking up millions of views on YouTube over the ensuing days.
So it went that, 12 months later, Brand was invited back on to the show to promote Revolution, a book pegged to the theme of his New Statesman edition which he’d largely written from the country pile of his then-girlfriend, heiress Jemima Khan.
This time, he crossed swords with the BBC’s former economics guru Evan Davis, accusing him of being ‘mates with like CEOs and big businesses’ and of ‘cosying up’ to London Mayor Boris Johnson. He further alleged that the BBC had ‘shamefully sabotaged’ the Scottish referendum to ensure victory for the ‘No’ campaign.
The 2014 Newsnight interview, which came after an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week, was followed by a turn on Question Time in which Brand was criticised for talking over a female guest — but gained plaudits in the Left-leaning Twittersphere for dubbing co-panellist Nigel Farage a ‘pound-shop Enoch Powell’.
It was again a ratings hit, featuring an extraordinary segment in which BBC host Davis asked Brand about a section in his book that appeared to promote a bizarre — and, some say, anti-Semitic — conspiracy theory alleging that the U.S. Government deliberately staged the 9/11 terror attacks for financial gain. ‘I think it is interesting, at this time when we have so little trust in our political figures, where ordinary people have so little trust in their media, we have to remain open-minded to any kind of possibility,’ he said.
‘Do you trust the American government? Do you trust the British Government? What I do think is very interesting is the relationship that the Bush family have had for a long time with the Bin Laden family.’
In any sensible world, a pundit who spouted such unhinged — and in certain contexts dangerous — views would be shunned by respectable news outlets. But Russell Brand’s foray into politics — fuelled by this extraordinary amount of exposure on the BBC’s airwaves — would instead be consistently championed by the Left, who appeared to regard him as some sort of genius capable of persuading apathetic young voters to join the Labour movement.
The 2014 Newsnight interview, which came after an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week, was followed by a turn on Question Time in which Brand was criticised for talking over a female guest
October 2014 saw Alan Rusbridger’s Guardian staging an event at a theatre in Central London where Brand was subjected to a fawning cross-examination by star millennial columnist Owen Jones.
Beamed to 200 cinemas, their seats filled with readers who had chipped into the newspaper’s membership scheme, the talk saw the narcissistic former junkie endorse a range of eccentric policies, from nationalising the supermarket chain Tesco and breaking it into self-governing collectives, to banning security guards and abolishing the Queen, while endlessly expressing support for the former communist dictator of Cuba, Fidel Castro.
Impressed by the audience Brand could generate, and again seemingly unfazed by the sometimes bonkers and occasionally sinister fringe views he’d expressed, Ed Miliband subsequently decided to seek an endorsement from the former comedian and presenter of Big Brother’s Big Mouth.
The Labour leader travelled to his North London home during the 2015 General Election to take part in an interview for Brand’s then fairly new YouTube channel.
Jones was delighted, telling Guardian readers that ‘Ed Miliband’s best route to young voters is Russell Brand’, waxing lyrical about his ‘ten million Twitter followers’ and a few days later putting his name to a fantastically deluded comment article headlined: ‘Russell Brand has endorsed Labour, and the Tories should be worried.’
Brand, for his part, responded by declaring Jones, perhaps a little generously, to be ‘our generation’s Orwell’. It was all to no use: Three days later, the Conservatives won an outright majority at the General Election. Be that as it may, Brand remained a hero of the chattering classes.
In 2014, the Guardian’s George Monbiot had nominated the former sex addict as his ‘hero of the year’, dubbing him ‘the best thing that has happened to the Left in years’ whose politics were a ‘refreshing change from the stifling coherence of some of the grand old men of the Left’.
In 2015, readers of Prospect magazine voted him the world’s fourth ‘most influential thinker’.
A self-confessed narcissist, Brand revelled in the attention. And, with his Hollywood career now firmly in abeyance, he decided that the best way to make waves as a political pundit was via YouTube. His personal channel, which had initially been created to share promotional clips for a short-lived chatshow called Brand X, began broadcasting a regular show called The Trews.
Its name, Brand said, was an amalgamation of ‘true’ and ‘news’. Each episode saw him hold up a newspaper and comment on the day’s headlines ‘truthfully, spontaneously and with great risk to his personal freedom’.
That was one way to put things. Another is that the format provided him with a forum to talk, unchallenged, on whatever subject he fancied. And it quickly emerged that some of the most popular shows — in terms of the number of people who watched and shared them — were the ones that promoted questionable conspiracy theories.
He later launched a podcast called Under The Skin, on which he welcomed guests with an array of fringe views, and gradually his output evolved to become ever more eccentric, constantly challenging the consensus of what he likes to call the ‘mainstream media’ on a variety of issues, including climate change (he is fond of sceptics).
In 2015, readers of Prospect magazine voted him the world’s fourth ‘most influential thinker’. A self-confessed narcissist, Brand revelled in the attention
In 2015, Brand had begun dating Sky Sports presenter Kirsty Gallacher’s sister Laura, a lifestyle blogger keen on meditating, crystals and making her own beauty products. Under her influence, he made another canny shift to his output, interspersing increasingly wacky political punditry with a range of New Age beliefs, describing viewers as ‘awakening wonders’ and encouraging them to attend wellness retreats he began to run in Oxfordshire.
The birth of the couple’s first child, Mabel, followed by their marriage in 2017 — and the subsequent birth of a second child, Peggy — saw them settle down at a £3.3million house in Henley, Oxfordshire, where Brand built a studio in a garden shed.
In an interview around this time, he described a typical day in his life there by saying: ‘I get up, I meditate and I pray. I go and see Mabel and Peggy. I go for a run with the dog around fields nearby. I do some writing, some recovery-related stuff. I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu quite a lot. I go to the gym. It’s sort of like a luxury penitentiary — a really, really open prison, sort of, E or F category prison.
The new life was also highly lucrative. With nearly 20 million followers on social media, and around six million viewers of his online films, he started to generate serious income from online adverts, especially for crypto-currency, debt advice and other products popular with his eccentric fanbase.
By 2020, the couple were able to pay themselves a £1.4million dividend.
Then came the pandemic, and with it a more sinister turn, in which Brand began to attract huge audiences by sharing content questioning the safety of vaccines and suggesting that Covid was deliberately created as part of a plot by pharmaceutical companies to achieve ‘power, profit and control’.
A frequent target was Bill Gates, pilloried via Trumpian clips with titles such as ‘Bill Gates Has Been HIDING This And It’s ALL About To Come Out’ in which Brand has argued that the Microsoft founder is orchestrating a ‘great reset’ and suggested he’s part of a cabal secretly plotting to create a ‘one world government’. Another film was headlined ‘How Did They Cover This Up?’ next to a photo of a vaccine injection.
Last year, after being suspended from YouTube for promoting vaccine misinformation, he moved to Rumble, a video site also used by misogynistic social media star Andrew Tate.
Here, Brand has recently devoted himself to advancing Russia’s agenda regarding the war in Ukraine, which he appears to believe was deliberately engineered by the U.S. government in order to protect local neo-Nazis.
In a series of videos with such titles as ‘They WANT War (And They’re Not Russian)’, ‘You’ve Been LIED To About Why Ukraine War Began’ and ‘They Planned It All Along’, he has consistently parroted pro-Putin talking points, often shouting, with arms outstretched, or jabbing wildly towards the screen.
A similar technique was employed on Friday, when he used a video to claim that rape allegations were now being circulated as part of ‘a co-ordinated attack’ by ‘mainstream media outlets’ determined to silence him. The great irony, of course, is that it was mainstream media outlets that enabled his foray into alternative politics in the first place.