Russell Brand battles through a rigged BBC Question Time

The Russell Brand v Nigel Farage debate on Question Time was a bit of a disappointment to me and I shouldn’t have been surprised, as it has always been a bit of a rigged game, set up to favour establishment puppets like Nigel Farage and the Tory-Lib-Lab stealth coalition of neoliberal cronies. He looked as sounded as nervous as I’ve ever known him, which was unusual as he is normally such a brilliant performer under even the most nervy situation, often more so the higher the stakes. The debate was in Canterbury, Kent, where stoked up fear of immigration is high. Alongside “Poundshop Enoch Powell” (Brand’s brilliant stand-up phrase for Nigel Farage), was Tory MP, Penny Mordaunt, Labour MP corporate drone, Mary Creagh (who voted moderately for use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas, voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war and voted very strongly for replacing Trident with a new nuclear weapons system) and the Rupert Murdoch-run Times assistant editor, Camilla Cavendish. All chaired by bluer than blue establishment bigwig, David Dimbleby. In a week when shocking torture revelations were revealed, where the United States is gripped by continuing mass civil disturbance over racism and brutal policing, we had a bland first question that lasted over 15 minutes, about whether politics was becoming too divisive. Talk about a non-question.

Brand was cold-shouldered by all the panellists and though he made some good points, his speech was slow, laboured and hesitant. Perhaps he was over-awed by the huge expectation of so many people, perhaps he was mindful of presenting himself in as serious a way as possible. In my mind, he was and is best when being irreverent, not giving a shit, and saying exactly what he feels, breaking protocol. He seemed to be kept on a very short leash tonight, perhaps of his own doing, given the widespread attacks on him primarily from the Sun, but also the “snidey” Channel 4 and equally snidey Guardian, who pretend to be his friend, while stabbing him with snarky comments. But Brand has more than done his bit. It is too much to expect that if the public pour all their hope on one man that he will single-handedly bring some reason and humanity into politics. Undoubtedly, there will be other opportunities for him in mainstream media in future to better that performance.

As the inevitable question about immigration arrived, with the inevitable responses by Farage, it was left to Brand to point out the corrupt banking system is the real cause of inequality and injustice, not the easy target of people who look different, stoked by a hysterical media and compliant liberal press and Labour party who feed in to the entirely false debate that “there’s not enough room” and “we have to close the doors”. Poverty has been caused by the rich and Brand was right to mention it. But no one backed him up on the panel, certainly not the Tory MP and journalist. Definitely not the former City broker, and shamefully not the Labour corporatist Creagh, who plays at being an equal rights campaigner, but presided over a government that Farage rightly accused of borrowing PFI money to fund NHS investment at extortionate interest rates that we are going to be paying off for a very long time.

But where Farage misleads, and where Brand failed to nail him on the question of the NHS, was that that money would not have been cleaner in the City, as Farage disigenuously suggested. In fact, the City made a profit on that money as that borrowed money and its interest and financial derivatives are inevitably traded in a variety of ways in the City, and throughout the financial centres of the world. A lot of corporatists made a lot of money out of that. And Farage wouldn’t change that, he’d make it worse and would inevitably open up the NHS to more stealth privatisation, before an eventual outright sell-off. A serious debate about this should be requisite for a publicly-funded organisation such as the BBC. But, instead, Auntie, as Brand likes to overly-familiarly call it, is deliberately avoiding such a debate, siding with the corporate-backed politicians of the three neoliberal parties and the racist Ukip, preferring to allow meaningless soundbites like “free at the point of use” while the whole system is hollowed out and sold to private interests.

So, despite a nervous performance from the comedian and amplifier of good causes, he still managed to land the soundbite of the night. “Poundshop Enoch Powell” was spot on, but in and of itself not enough. It is time to focus on exactly why Farage is so wrong, on why he misleads and to recognise that his issues of a corrupt Europe run by banks (while refusing to criticise the equally unaccountable and opaque City of London) and to talk about open door policies, when he fails to recognise that it is big business that is exploiting workers in Britain and Europe, is to miss the opportunity to bury Ukip, despite the support by easily inflamed and easily led and the plain old bigots. But we shouldn’t focus only on the Ukip bigotry, because we have to see how Labour is complicit in this neoliberal agenda, and also backed up by superficially leftist media such as the BBC, the Independent and the Guardian, with their co-opted lefty journalists who refuse to critique the organisations they work for. It is time also to recognise that, try as they might, the Green party is attempting to work within a political system that is not fit for purpose. The west is in a crisis situation. It is on life support, to be honest, as is the climate. Brand’s vision of grassroots activism, interdependent communities and a compassionate and empathic spiritual connection to people and planet is important and tragically undervalued, mocked and outright attacked.

But despite his rather muted performance, around the world fires are beginning to rage at blatant injustice, because the stitch-up I witnessed last night, that I witness on so many mainstream media approaches to major issues, be they about police brutality, war on terror, NHS or the neoliberal ideology, backed by supposedly liberal organisations like the BBC and Guardian, simply has to be challenged with passion and that will rightly shock and appall the establishment. That passion may well flare up in ways that spill into violence, and of course, in places like Ferguson, that already has, but though violence can never be condoned or encouraged, it is a natural response to repression, state violence and societally restrictive attitudes, whether of morality or convention. If heartfelt passion is brutally put down, ridiculed, or worse still ignored, it inevitably morphs into other forms. Violence is counterproductive, nonviolence will always be the core of the people’s resistance movement against corrosive corporate capitalism, but sometimes, the voice of the voiceless will be heard in ways that conventional society will not be able to accept as valid, but will nevertheless have to listen to. Humanity cannot compromise on truth and justice. As the saying goes, No Justice, No Peace

The woman with the dyed hair in the audience, who called Farage a racist and vowed that she was after him broke protocol and spoke from the heart, with burning passion that emerges from a deep compassion for the oppressed and in a way that others in the audience could not bear to acknowledge as legitimate (one woman calling her the rudest woman she had ever met). The man who attacked Brand with misplaced passion, backing Ukip, provoked her into action. The passion in her words are what Brand has always exemplified and even in his muted, spiritual humility that he displayed, with hands clasped together in prayer, apologising for his sexism and for interrupting a woman, even here, in the audience, that compassionate fire which is at the centre of Brand’s engaged spirituality, was able to express itself and impress itself on the evening.  Farage may have come out of the event looking more reasonable than he should have, and Brand may have missed an opportunity to really nail him (there will be other opportunities in the next few months, I have no doubt). But the “Poundshop Enoch Powell” jibe will live on and perhaps also, there will be ways to engage in such fraught political debates in ways that are not so divisive, that bring us together to heal, rather than drive us apart, increasing the pain. The countdown to the 2015 election has begun, and it’s time we all contributed to driving a different political narrative, one that speaks from the heart of the people of this country and does not comply to the spurious view that putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years is the only way to be politically engaged.

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4 Responses to Russell Brand battles through a rigged BBC Question Time

  1. steviejacktravel says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece. I didn’t see the ‘debate’ because I suspected it would be a sham, but I suppose I might ‘have to’ look it up on iPlayer. but I thought RB’s own interpretation of the event (shared in a post, entitled ‘Answer time’, via his facebook page this morning) made for a fantastic and useful read, as always:

    “I’ve just got home from recording bbc tv’s political debate show Question Time and if you saw it and found it anti-climactic, I know how you feel.

    Nigel Farage in the flesh, gin blossomed flesh that it is, inspires sympathy more than fear, an end of the pier, end of the road, end of days politician, who like many people who drink too much has a certain sloppy sadness. Camilla Cavendish who I was sat next to, seemed kindly and the two politicians from opposing parties, that flanked Dimbleby melted into an indistinguishable potage of cautious wonk words before I could properly learn which was blue and which was red. For my part I sat politely on my hands, keen to avoid hollering obscenities after a week of hypocrisy accusations and half-arsed, front page controversy.

    Only the audience inspire passion or connection. Humanity. The usual preposterous jumble that you see in any of our towns, even if groomed and prepped by Auntie, they comparatively throb with authenticity opposite us, across the shark-eyed bank of cumbersome cameras.

    The panelists have been together in “the green room” chatting, like before any TV show, and that’s what QT is, a TV show, a timid and tepid debate where the topics and dynamism of the discussion are as wooden and flat as the table we gamely sit around.

    There is a practice question prior to the record, so the cameras can position and mics can be checked and the audience can practice harrumphing. In my dressing room at the modern Kentish theatre, before my sticky descent, I can hear them being prepped “ask questions, quarrel, applaud, keep those hands up”.

    The practice question is a soft ball rhubarb toss about clumping kids or something and even though I’m determined to concentrate like a grown up, my mind drifts back to the Canterbury Food Bank I visited before arriving, partly to learn about it, as a researcher told me there might be question on them and first hand knowledge would make me look good, and partly because, y’know, I actually care.

    In a warehouse in a retail park Christians and sixth formers assemble bags of what would rightly be considered “staples” in a kinder world. Tins of food and packets of biscuits and it’s good that we’re near to the “White Cliffs of Dover” because it feels like there’s a war on and the livid coloured packaging goes sepia in my mind as Dame Vera scores the melancholy scene.

    The Christians are as Christians are, kind and optimistic. The donations come from ordinary local folk “We get more from the poorer people” says Martin, a quick deputy in a cuddly jumper. “More from Asda shoppers than Waitrose.” As I contemplate cancelling my Ocado (or whatever the fuck it’s called) order Chrissy, the lady who runs the scheme says that this year people who received packages previously have now donated themselves. Previous recipients often volunteer an all. Here older folk and the students diligently box off the nosh and I determine to give them and their heartening endeavor a shout out on the show and my writhing, nervous gut begins to settle.

    Chrissy explains how the Caterbury Food Bank has brought people together, not just those it feeds but those who volunteer. “It seemed like a good way to worship Christ” she says. Martin, who I am starting to gently fall in love with, observes that supermarkets profit from the enterprise as Food Bank campaigns encourage their customers to spend more there. “Do you think there’s an obligation for the state to feed people?” I ask “or room for a bit more Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple type stuff?”
    They smile.

    Many who use their facility are people that work full time and still fall short, others have suffered under “benefit sanctions”. “They’re very quick to cut off people’s benefits these days” says Martin.

    “People think that Canterbury is affluent, but all around us are pockets of the hidden hungry”. The hidden hungry. “I’m gonna use that” I tell him as I scarper. He makes a very British joke about charging me as I get in the car and I tell him I nicked some jammy dodgers, and we laugh so that’s alright.

    I think about the hidden hungry as I settle into my QT chair and get “mic’d up”. Farage entered to a simultaneous cheer and jeer, they cancel each other out, like bose headphones and leave an eerie silence. David Dimbleby says something about it being panto season and someone in the audience says “oh no it isn’t” and I love him for it, even though I’m pretty sure he was one of the UKip cheerers.

    And a pantomime it is, well not so entertaining, no flouncing dames or doleful Buttons or rousing songs, just semi-staged tittle-tattle and bickering. The only worthwhile sentiments, be they raging or insightful come from the audience, across the camera bank. The man who brings up politicians pay rises, the man who demands I stand for parliament (so that he could not vote for me judging from his antipathy), the mad, lovely blue hair woman who swears at everyone, mostly though the woman who says “Why are we talking about immigrants? It’s a side issue, this crisis was caused by financial negligence and the subsequent bail-out”. This piece of rhetoric more valuable than anything I could’ve said, including my pound-shop Enoch Powell gag. More potent than the one thing I regret not saying because time and format did not permit it. That the people have the wisdom, not politicians, that the old paradigm is broken and will not be repaired. That the future is collectivised power. Parliamentary politics is dead, they, it’s denizens, wandering from aye to neigh from Tory to UKip know it’s dead and we know it’s dead. Farage is worse than stagnant, he is a tribute act, he is a nostalgic spasm for a Britain that never was; an infinite cricket green with no one from the colonies to raise the game, grammar schools on every corner and shamed women breastfeeding under giant parasols. The Britain of the future will be born of alliances between ordinary, self-governing people, organised locally, communicating globally. Built on principles that are found in traditions like Christianity; community, altruism, kindness, love.

    In the “practice question” Farage says it’s okay to hit children “it’s good for them to be afraid” he said. There is a lot of fear about in our country at the moment and he is certainly benefitting from it. But the Britain I love is unafraid and brave. We have a laugh together, we take care of one another, we love an underdog and we unite to confront bullies. We voluntarily feed the poor when the government won’t do it. These ideas and actions that I saw in the food bank and across the camera bank are where the real power lies and this new power is the answer, no question about it.”

  2. Giulio Sica says:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree it was a brilliant and insightful piece of writing from Russell and watching the Question Time debate over again, I believe he actually made some very good points, even though he was subdued and somewhat nervous. Who can blame him, considering what he has faced int he way of criticism. They are scared of him no doubt, and Farage was genuinely nonplussed at the “Pound shop Enoch Powell” jibe, which was a genius one-liner that will run and run. Thanks again for reading.

  3. Icaro Kosak says:

    I am a bit nonplussed about Russel’s performance. Didn’t he know that question time is rigged? That you have to be over prepared when you enter the ring? Didn’t he study the participants’ history and their character before? Didn’t he know that it all boils down to statistics and numbers and the one who has the best grasp of numbers wins? Didn’t he know that QT is a neo-liberal playground? Didn’t he know that the BBC is scared stiff of the establishment and backs it and not the people who pay for its existence? Did he inform himself ? Did anybody at all advise him? Did he really think that clasping the hands in silent prayer would do the trick or that sitting there like a little boy having been told off would be impressive? Was he out of his mind attacking the political punch and judy aspect of politics and parliament and in the same breath attacking Farage in a silly and vitriolic manner? Didn’t he know that he should have been aloft of all the panellists and pursue his own agenda bringing the debate back to his ground instead of being dragged about like a goat carcass in an Afghan polo game? He should have completely ignored the crypto fascist panel and talked his guts out to the audience in front of him, as he does so brilliantly, and land a volley of deadly punches at the establishment not just one at Farage. Spirituality is the greatest endeavour of man, its sure, but you do not win a political debate by silently reciting Bismillah arahman arrahim, ohm mani padme hum or ave maria gratia plena, unless you are Ghandi, that is. But that is a long game. Lets hope that Russell learns quickly from that debacle and becomes intimately aware that 9 million hands are clasping his, and that if he is not strong and centred they will tear him to shreds.

    • Giulio Sica says:

      Quite a harsh critique, if i may say, but there are interesting points in there and I recognise that you appreciate Russell’s qualities and the difficulties he had and that he will learn from them. I do think he was too contrite to the criticisms, but can you imagine what it must be like to get the criticisms he receives, so constantly. he tried to be respectful to Mary Creagh and her misplaced opportunistic use of the sexism accusation (couldn’t she have reserved it for Farage?) and I do agree that perhaps he was too meditative, which may have prevented him from going into full irreverent comedic warrior mode where he is at his best. He was ambushed, and, yes, he maybe should have been prepared, but he is trying to be all things to all people, and when he remembers that he is best doing it his own way, he will beat them at their own game, because he is smarter, and has more integrity and is a true man of the people. And though the punch and judy side of politics can be unsavoury, you have to admit the “Pound shop Enoch Powell” and the “City farted and are holding their nose pointing at immigrants” were two of the most memorable lines. He is a master of such games and he will come back stronger. Thanks for the comments, appreciate you reading the blog.

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