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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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.