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You're right to be angry about Russell Brand - and the establishments, old and new, that gave him his power | Gaby Hinsliff

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Russell Brand has always invited outrage. It was what he did, his shtick and his selling point: a willingness to cross the line that - when sweetened by his undeniable charisma, and by enough long words to make the crude sex gags sound more intellectual - earned him a fortune over the years.

But could that willingness to shock, to transgress in plain sight, have functioned also as a kind of shield? What could he be accused of to which he hadn't already titillatingly half-confessed, in that gleeful way that meant you never knew if he was serious or not, but which somehow made the audience complicit anyway? When he described in his insufferably titled memoir My Booky Wook being asked to write a list in rehab of the women he'd wronged over the years, and feeling "like Saddam Hussein trying to pick out individual Kurds", his candour somehow disarmed the obvious questions about what exactly he had done to all those nameless women.

The most haunting moment for me of last weekend's joint investigation by Channel 4's Dispatches programme, the Sunday Times and the Times wasn't the admittedly horrific allegations of rape and sexual assault (which Brand denies, insisting that even at his wildest all the sex was consensual). It was the way Dispatches spliced footage of Brand onstage - joking about his enthusiasm for rough sex, for blowjobs that left women choking and gasping and with mascara running down their faces - together with footage of a woman named only as Alice, describing how she allegedly experienced just that with Brand when she was only 16 and he a grown man of 31. When comics talk about themselves on stage, often it's an act. But what if it wasn't? What if the audience laughing eagerly along were really rewarding and normalising something we now call abuse, while behind them the mainstream TV and media industry he now makes a career out of railing against was enthusiastically doing the same?

It's easy to wonder, viewing that footage now, why the women at that gig were laughing. But Brand rose to fame at a time when women often felt pressure to laugh off things they secretly found uncomfortable, in the name of seeming sophisticated and free; of being the fantasy "cool girl" who, as the narrator of Gillian Flynn's iconic 2012 novel Gone Girl famously puts it, loves football and beer and threesomes and never expects anything in return. "Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don't mind, I'm the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists." For Brand, in a world where comedians were rock stars and TV runners could allegedly be tasked with getting the phone numbers of women in the audience he wanted to sleep with, it could have seemed as if that fantasy had come alive.

Because it wasn't just girls who were desperate to be cool about him. Grown men and women in TV and radio enabled his rapid rise from presenting a Big Brother spin-off show on Channel 4 to his own chatshow, and then a flagship slot on BBC Radio 2, the once-staid channel now seemingly desperate to move with times it didn't quite understand. Listening to clips of that show now - the interview in which he offers a female aide to Jimmy Savile effectively as bait, or the lewd remarks about a female newsreader - it's hard to believe they were ever broadcast. But then, as the former BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey put it, the pattern of his entire career was transgression followed by promotion, reinforcing the idea that bad behaviour pays.

When his BBC career eventually imploded, over an obscene prank call that Brand and Jonathan Ross made on air to the actor Andrew Sachs, Hollywood snapped him up. When that star too waned, he reinvented himself in Britain as an anti-capitalist, anti-mainstream leftwing thinker, surfing the coming wave of Corbynism and lionised this time by a liberal political establishment anxious to show young people that they got it. The then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, famously submitted to an interview with Brand carrying more than a whiff of political cool girl vibes, but the editors of Newsnight, Question Time and the New Statesman were equally seduced by his edgy glamour - and yes, for a while he wrote a column for the Guardian, too. When all that dried up, Brand evolved into a YouTube wellness guru peddling conspiracy theories about Covid-19 or the war in Ukraine, building a cranky rightwing following to replace his leftwing one.

Naturally, when he suggested there might be some kind of shadowy political "agenda" behind calling him a rapist, the emerging populist establishment rallied round. "You're welcome on my GB News show any time," tweeted the station's anti-vaccine presenter Bev Turner, while the Daily Telegraph's resident lockdown critic Allison Pearson said her first thought on reading such stories was to wonder "why They want to silence this person". Even Elon Musk, the CEO of X (nee Twitter), chipped in that the mainstream media "don't like competition".

Some will question why the allegations against him are only surfacing now, though the obvious answer is that the timing matters a whole lot less than the substance of what these women have to say. But look how long it took female surgeons to volunteer last week's awful accounts of being groped in operating theatres, only to be lectured by one retired anaesthetist in a letter to the Times about needing to "toughen up". Imagine how police might have responded a decade ago to women reporting being attacked by a notorious womaniser, after willingly entering his home; consider too the torrent of hate and threats that has previously greeted women identified online as accusing high-profile footballers of rape.

Think of the months, even years, of resource-intensive investigation required for newspapers to expose alleged predators, from the DJ Tim Westwood to the banker Crispin Odey (both of whom have denied the allegations), and of the expensive lawyers often ranged against them. (Comedians who tried to raise the Brand allegations onstage were allegedly warned off, the standup Daniel Sloss told Dispatches, while Alice claims she got an "aggressive" response from his lawyers after taking her concerns to his literary agent three years ago.) Know too how many men there are out there whose behaviour is notorious, yet cannot be proven to a libel lawyer's satisfaction. An establishment out to bring him down? Now there's a joke. Save your righteous anger, if you have it, for the establishments both old and new, that for so long raised him up.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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