Robert Webb vs Russell Brand: why comedians are the last interesting people left

Comedians, uniquely, have nothing to sell but their opinions, and the way they package those opinions. They don’t say attention-grabbing things to publicise their other work: saying attention-grabbing things is their work.

When I first started at the New Statesman, we used to have a weekly interview slot, which I gratefully volunteered for on the basis a) it’s always nice to get out; b) I was excited to meet people off the telly.

Very quickly, I realised that celebrity interviews are, largely, less like a sexy tango - all blushing feints and cheekily taken liberties - and more like trying to excavate a diamond mine with a teaspoon. Occasionally, you might get lucky and hit a rich seam of anecdotal nuggets; more often you’d return home with nothing more than “some quotes of roughly the correct length”. Once, in a 20-minute slot in a hotel room, the actress I was interviewing calmly informed me the person before me had asked exactly the same question I had, in virtually the same words. From that moment on, I knew we were unlikely to recreate “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale”.

I feel sorry for actors, in particular. It sounds phenomenally reductive to say that acting largely involves standing on the right spot and saying the right words, because clearly some people can turn that into pure poetry and others just sound like, well, me in the school play. But try to explain that, and it goes a bit …

"I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play… Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian … YOU SHALL NOT PASS … Sir Ian, Sir Ian"

 

Under these circumstances, no wonder journalists ask celebrities so much about their private lives.

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Actors also suffer the same problem that politicians do: why be interesting, when you can interesting yourself right into a whole heap of trouble? Or even - like Godfrey Bloom - right out of a job? A high-profile political interview is now often as controlled and negotiated as one with a celebrity. First, the publication is chosen with care to reflect the audience that they want to talk to, with reach vs likely meanness carefully weighed against each other.

Outlets deemed insufficiently sympathetic won’t even get a look in: don’t hold your breath for David Cameron to give an interview to the Mirror, or Harriet Harman to sit down with the Daily Mail. In fact, print journalists have long grumbled that Number 10 press conferences often see them overlooked altogether: Cameron knows that the broadcasters’ commitment to impartiality means they have to tread carefully. (Remember how Eddie Mair turned Boris Johnson over when he filled in on the Marr show? And how did that work out for Eddie Mair’s career?)

This caution is one half of a vicious circle: the other half is the increasing appetite of a hungry news-beast. My colleague Raf once compared the effect of Twitter and 24-hour rolling news on politics with that of high-frequency trading on the economy. There is increased volatility, sure, but that’s mostly increased noise: it’s now possible to pop out for lunch and entirely miss a political “scandal”. No -gate has been left unturned.

So politicians deploy boredom as a defence mechanism. Danny Alexander is the master of this: you can send him out on any talk show you like, without having to worry that he will accidentally commit news. I bet it would impossible to get him to admit his calf was attached to his thigh if he suspected you were leading him into a trap about how legs have suffered under the coalition.

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Into this void strides the one type of interviewee that I have found consistently entertaining, informative and willing to plunge their hand into the fire of public debate.

Comedians.

I remember interviewing Reginald D Hunter, and asking him why he thought there were fewer female stand-ups than male. In my head, I winced as I thought how reluctant I would be to answer such a question. The pitfalls are obvious. The Internet Hordes (TM) would be swift and merciless. I was inviting him to walk into a trap.

And then he did something miraculous. He just answered the goddamn question.

Or take another memory: an ice-cold balcony outside a London restaurant where a celebrity packed party was being held a few years ago, when I still worked at the Daily Mail. Opposite me at the table, a little-known comedian I’d seen a couple of times on telly. Someone passed him an ingenious little bottle, which I was assured was full of the kind of powder that mysteriously makes you much chattier and more interesting, at least to yourself.

When I tentatively averred that maybe this wasn’t the best thing to ingest in front of a Mail journalist, he replied. “Please write about me. I need a good scandal. Look at Jason fucking Manford. His tour’s sold out.” (Mr Manford had recently been caught exchanging racy chat with a lady who was not Mrs Manford.)

I don’t think he was joking - like I said, he was not a terribly successful comedian - but it did make me think that comedians are perhaps the most free of anyone who enjoys a big platform. It used to be that rock stars could get away with being hellraisers: now, a singer or band is just the tiny cog in a vast machine, and you’d have to be selling a hell of a lot of records to make your management team happy that you were a loose cannon.

Look at Miley Cyrus, supposedly the current “wild child of pop”. Boggle as she poses for sexy photos that will drive huge amounts of media attention to her records - how rebellious! Marvel as she wears small shorts while turning up on time for performances and turns out impeccably produced videos where she licks ironmongery!

Sorry, everyone. Someone decided that this is what sexy is now.

 

Contrast the constraints on the utterances of the singer, the actor and the politician with the unique position of the comedian. The Daily Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, is fond of saying that he is kept in check because he “faces an election every day”. Well, Russell Brand faces an election every night, as he sells out another date on his tour. Dara O Briain faces an election every week as he fronts his latest show. They need to be interesting to survive.

With many comedians making a decent chunk of their revenue from tours, they are far less easily dented by a media-stoked scandal. In some cases, it might even help: do you think the fans who buy tickets to see Frankie Boyle perform live care what the Mail thinks of his jokes? If they do, it’s only to pride themselves on liking something that’s anathema to what they no doubt see as the curtain-twitching moral majority. And that means that even if they cock up - as Boyle undoubtedly did with his jokes about Katie Price’s son - their sheer popularity demands their rehabilitation. Even after Boyle became too hot for Channel 4, he had a Sun column.

Comedians, uniquely, have nothing to sell but their opinions, and the way they package those opinions. They don’t say attention-grabbing things to publicise their other work: saying attention-grabbing things is their work. They are, too, less afraid of Twitterstorms and media bunfights than mere mortals: they are used to their words having an effect. Once you’ve faced down a hail of piss-filled bottles, the ire of the feminist blogosphere probably loses much of its terror. They’re also used to failing, whether it’s the joke that dies or the one that provokes thumb-sucking comment pieces in the Guardian.

In fact, the only comparable occupation to the comedian in our media landscape is that of the columnist. No wonder columnists are generally so resistant to comedians encroaching on their pontificating turf. Worse, comedians have a couple of notable advantages: for one, they are funny. That might sound like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but when you’re trying to engage people with politics, a few laughs don’t half help the medicine (read: opinions on disability benefits) go down.

Secondly, comedians are the ultimate freelancers: they might sell out by doing voiceovers for Money Supermarket or corporate gigs for UBS Warburg, but otherwise they are answerable to no one except their audiences. Quite a lot of them get paid very handsomely by the BBC. “Aha, so you’re in the pay of Big Licence Fee Payer, are you?” is not a killer line. That kind of freedom is invaluable should you need to mount a high horse: with great power comes great openness to charges of hypocrisy over that compromise you made to get your power in the first place.

Finally, comedians have a ready-made audience. We were once told that social media would democratise the dissemination of opinion: in fact, with Twitter at least, what mostly seems to have happened is that Big Beasts elsewhere have converted those fanbases into followers.

That’s worked hugely in comedians’ favour, particularly as topical panel shows are not only cheaper than other kinds of comedy, but they’re faster. That means they have become one of the prime forums for news to be digested and debated in a way that’s accessible to a mass audience. As a journalist, you know your story has really broken through when they’re taking the piss out of it on Mock the Week or Have I Got News for You. That translates to vast numbers of fans, and to a vast potential audience for anything else they might like to say. A couple of examples: Dara O Briain has 1.5 million Twitter followers; Russell Brand more than 7 million; David Mitchell 1.2 million. (For comparison, Ed Miliband has about 250,000 and David Cameron nearly 500,000.)

In the wake of Russell Brand’s New Statesman essay, and Robert Webb’s response to it - not to mention David Mitchell and Steve Coogan squaring off over press regulation - I’ve seen a lot of wry tweets along the lines of “ho ho ho, is our entire political discourse going to be dominated by comedians?”.

Well, wake up and smell the laugh track: it’s already happened.

Russell Brand, whose essay in the NS elicited a reply from Robert Webb.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”