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  1. Diary
1 November 2023

My investigation into Russell Brand

Also this week: how Friends defined a generation, and the charm of children’s TV.

By Rosamund Urwin

On my train ride home from work the day our investigation into Russell Brand was published, I overheard two men discussing the allegations. Swigging from beer bottles, they looked like blokeyness personified – and I, unfairly, believed that I knew what they would think. Instead, they talked about how brave women must be to accuse such a powerful man of sexual assault (Brand denies the allegations). It’s a view that many people have expressed to me in the six weeks since the joint investigation between the Sunday Times, the Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches emerged: how much rests on the courage of the first women who come forward.

This is particularly true in the hyper-digital age. The former comedian has been reborn as an alt-right influencer and attracted an online army, which was deployed to dismiss the claims as a mainstream-media conspiracy. This shifted the power even more in favour of the accused over the accusers. There’s a pack mentality online, too, with a Who’s Who of the most loathed people on the internet – Andrew Tate, Katie Hopkins, Jordan Peterson, Laurence Fox – all lining up to defend Brand. If you spend too much time online, especially in the cesspit of Elon Musk’s X, it can feel like this is all part of a powerful backlash to #MeToo. In the wider world, though, I think there has been a positive shift. There are conversations about sexual harassment – in schools, in medicine, in parliament – that simply weren’t happening a decade ago.

But I don’t believe the UK has yet experienced a #MeToo earthquake like that which occurred in the US after the New York Times published its allegations against Harvey Weinstein six years ago. There are still household names here about whom whole industries have heard awful stories, and yet they continue to work. The difference is that the UK’s strict defamation laws prevent these stories from coming to light, or lead to them being published without the most pertinent part: the name of the alleged perpetrator. If we really want to give victims a voice, we need not only a cultural shift but a change in our libel laws as well.

A tiny teammate

When Channel 4 joined the investigation last autumn, I told its journalists that I had a very hard deadline: May 2023, when my second child was due. Perhaps predictably, we missed that target, and I found myself in the awkward position of trying to work with my newborn son in tow. On the day we published, my husband had to bring our baby to the Sunday Times offices so I could feed him between final edits.

Investigations of this scale are always a team effort and I have been in awe of our brilliant lawyers and editors. But it is my Times colleague Charlotte Wace for whom I feel the deepest gratitude. She went above and beyond: not only with her extraordinary reporting, but because she was sometimes left holding the baby.

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[See also: The rise and fall of Russell Brand]

The one where we lost a friend

I was ten when the first episode of Friends aired, making me one of those millennials whose idea of early adulthood was honed by the sitcom. You could cope with your job being a joke and being broke – as the earworm theme tune went – so long as you had your friends as a substitute family. The show was televisual comfort food but it also permeated our lives. It gave us in-jokes, a way of speaking that many of us mimicked, and an idealised notion of how those tricky years when you are technically an adult but haven’t really grown up yet should look.

This is why many Friends fans feel that the sad death of Matthew Perry at the age of 54 is like the curtains being drawn on their youth. Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, may have been the character I most wanted to be, but it was Perry’s Chandler who arguably had the greatest influence. He had the best lines – many of which I can still quote – and Perry delivered them with that memorable, unorthodox cadence. He was a superlative comic actor and it feels desperately unfair that someone who brought happiness to so many – myself included – found it so elusive for himself.

[See also: The fatal flaw in the “final” Beatles song]

Not just for kids

In her charming 2019 essay, the author and academic Katherine Rundell advised us to read children’s books “even though you are so old and wise”. Having a toddler myself, I’d extend this wisdom to children’s TV – so long as you can avoid the garish dystopian nightmare of Paw Patrol. Best are two CBeebies shows: the delightful Hey Duggee, which has a soundtrack to rival Succession, and Bluey, which has only one flaw – that the dog parents it portrays raise the bar too high for us human equivalents. This is a golden age for children’s TV; don’t let it be wasted on the young.

Rosamund Urwin is the media editor of the Sunday Times

[See also: The white heat of politics]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts