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Russell Brand and the dangers of trial by media

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By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

September 18, 2023 | 6 min read

As YouTube suspends the montetization of Russell Brands accounts The Drum’s Gordon Young looks at how the accusations have been reported and reviews the risks of trial by media

Brand

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary ‘In Plain Sight’ is why Russell Brand’s personal brand had not already imploded. He had never made any secret of his behavior.

I always agreed with Bob Geldof’s four-letter description of the self-declared alcohol, drug and sex addict (it starts with the letter ‘c’). The Sun’s ‘Shagger of the Year’ was famous for his misogynist behavior - comedy routines that featured sexual abuse, radio shows where he offered to deliver young female assistants naked to the likes of Jimmy Savile or when he phoned Andrew Sachs on air and left a voice-mail about sleeping with the elderly actor’s granddaughter.

His behavior got him sacked from the likes of the BBC and MTV. Frankly, even back then, in the early twenty-teens to most, he was, in Dannii Minogue’s words, an obvious ‘predator.’

I never understood back then why his career continued to flourish. Even as his antics played out on air, he found roles in Hollywood, and his new YouTube show The Trews was initially cultivated by the leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband.

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So it is fitting that the BBC and Channel 4 are just now reviewing what was known about him at the time. Did they fail to protect staff and members of the public?

Other aspects of this scandal make me uneasy. As well as crossing moral boundaries, it alleged that Brand committed serious criminal offences, including rape and sexual assault, which he strongly denies.

The Times, Sunday Times and Channel 4 all did a great job bringing these allegations into the public domain, but one wonders if it would not have served the public better if the women were first persuaded to report these crimes to the police.

Sexual assaults are complicated cases. Victims, understandably, can be reluctant to come forward. Being required to give evidence at trial can be a particular ordeal. And convictions are notoriously rare.

So you can understand them preferring to deal with Channel 4 or large newspaper groups. The documentaries can be edited in such a way as to avoid them being exposed to humiliation.

Despite this, a woman has now complained to the Metropolitan Police. However, as the legal system plays catch-up, there is a sense some in the media have already judged and convicted Brand. One wonders to what extent the advance coverage may prejudice the future inquiry.

It’s a point taken up by Caroline Noakes, chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, who told Times Radio: “It feels like this is a trial by the media. While there’s no doubt that we need to shine some sunlight on what has gone on, I think what matters most is that there is a formal police investigation and that criminal charges be brought if there is good cause.

“It’s crucially important that we get a proper investigation, and that does mean the police, and that does mean that these poor women being brave enough to come forward to the police to make official complaints so that an investigation can be done.”

The other principle at stake is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, which underpins our entire legal system. In this context, it is analogous to the freedom of speech often summed up by a quote misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

You may disapprove of Brand, but defend his right to be tried before the courts rather than through the media.

The media has a vital role in speaking truth to power, ensuring the great and the good are called to account and shedding light on injustice. But it has to be careful not to supplant the courts.

With a formal complaint being made, let’s hope due process can now run its course. However, with the story continuing to generate acres of newspaper coverage, a digital frenzy and news that YouTube has suspended the monetizaton of Brands accounts, it looks like that might be a forlorn hope.

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