Sunday, April 29, 2012

Celebrity Opinions

My son watched @RustyRockets appearance before the Parliament Home Affairs Committee on 24 April 2012 with some delight. Mr Brand is not the first celebrity to be invited to present his opinions to a select committee - we have recently seen several celebrities pontificate on privacy and press freedom, including the actor Hugh Grant.

Brand's opinions on drug addiction are based largely on his own experience as a former addict, and he presented these opinions eloquently and with considerable wit, sometimes at the politicians' expense. He argued that taking drugs should not be seen as a criminal or judicial matter, and users should be shown more compassion.

Not surprisingly, his appearance is widely reported in the media, but from different angles.

The Telegraph columnist Damian Thomson was guardedly positive.
Like lots of supposedly cutting-edge comedians, Russell Brand is actually as pleased with himself as any of those bow-tied light entertainment “legends” who spent their sunset years on Celebrity Squares. Also, he’s a recovering addict, so that’s another layer of smuggery. But this week he appeared before a Commons select committee and – incredibly – talked a certain amount of sense about drugs.
But Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell was scornful.
When Russell Brand appeared before Keith Vaz’s Home Affairs Select Committee, which is reviewing drugs policy, it was hard to determine which of the  pair of them was the more  stupid, self-regarding or  publicity-seeking — the comedian or the MP. Brand turned up late, looking as though he hadn’t washed for a month, in torn jeans and a tatty singlet, draped with more crucifixes than you’d find in the Vatican. His contempt for the workings of Westminster could not have been expressed more eloquently.
By taking evidence from celebrities, Parliament is perhaps creating the unfortunate impression that it regards the opinions of the rich and famous as more important than those of the rest of us. Having thoroughly dismissed Brand's argument, Platell then criticizes the committee (especially its Labour chairman Keith Vaz) for inviting Brand to give evidence in the first place, calling this "a silly, self-aggrandising gesture" and suggesting that Vaz is a man "who craves the limelight almost more than his star guest".

The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde had already made the same point, calling this "an exercise in publicity-seeking".
Chaired by the odious Keith Vaz, whose advance towards the red benches appears to be as ineluctable as it is sensationally ill-deserved, the committee this week followed up its decision to call Amy Winehouse's father to discourse on the cocaine trade with an invitation to Russell Brand to address them on drug addiction. To substitute one genuine expert with a tabloid celebrity may be regarded as unfortunate; to do it twice begins to look like a clear strategy.
The Government has a long history of ignoring expert scientific advice on drug policy. So what is the purpose of inviting celebrities instead? Hyde and Platell share the view that publicity is the sole purpose - the medium (as someone once said) is the message. My son had never watched Select Committee proceedings before, so I guess it's an achievement of a kind to make something accessible that is usually excruciatingly boring.

But let us think more broadly than this. Brand's opinions are unlikely to change many minds. Those who are already sympathetic to Brand's position may be entertained; those who are hostile to his position will be disgusted by Brand's manner as well as by his opinions, and this will reinforce their opposition to them. Thus the political effect of hearing Brand's evidence may be to make it harder for the governent to adopt the kind of policies advocated by Brand (as well as by large numbers of experts whose evidence receives far less publicity). Brand's advocacy is therefore probably counterproductive, in the sense that it weakens the political will to change.

Brand is a comedian, not a politician, so it may be unreasonable to expect him to understand the political effects of his actions. But what about the politicans on the Select Committee? Are they really so vain and stupid that they cannot appreciate the political effects of their actions, or have they calculated these effects as a cunning plan to preserve the status quo?

Even the BBC is not immune to the cult of celebrity, as @mjrobbins argues. Everything that's wrong with BBC Question Time in one graph (Guardian 14 June 2013)

Appearances on BBC Question Time

"Scientists on Question Time? Boring!" says @RatParl, arguing that "The QT circus isn’t the right place for scientists." (Rational Parliament November 2013). Instead, he advocates a separate forum where experts of all disciplines could point out the folly of the celebrities and populist politicians on the Question Time panel. (Although one can often achieve much the same effect by following intelligent and well-informed people on Twitter.)

Russell Brand calls for more compassion for drug users (BBC News 24 April 2012)

Russell Brand says drug addiction should be treated as a health matter
(Guardian, 24 April 2012)

Marina Hyde, Why bring Russell Brand to testify to a select committee instead of an expert witness? (Guardian, 26 April 2012)

Amanda Platell, Brand and a pathetic Commons cabaret (Daily Mail, 27 April 2012)

John Sutherland, Studying Russell Brand at A-Level? Boring! (The Telegraph,, 7 May 2014)

Damian Thomson, Even Russell Brand understands that you can't sell cocaine like tobacco (The Telegraph 27 April 2012)

Lord Reith appears as @BBCExtraGhost (Storify November 2012)

Updated 10 June 2014

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