In a video posted last year, sandwiched between episodes on what the Covid vaccine provider Pfizer “isn’t telling you” and the “bezerker” qualities of Donald Trump as a consensus-breaking force – familiar themes for the millions of subscribers to Russell Brand’s Stay Free channel – there was a change of tone.
The subject of the daily episode was not the usual diet of conspiracy theories, critiques of the mainstream media and whimsical football chat but instead the US libel trial involving Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in which the veracity of the allegations of domestic abuse made by the Hollywood star’s former wife were being examined.
Depp, who was found to have indeed beaten his wife in a UK court appearance relating to a similar claim of defamation, was said by Brand to have come across well in the court in Virginia where Heard’s evidence was rejected by a jury. Then Brand had a moment of introspection.
He said: “Human beings are flawed and fallible and usually, personally speaking, again, from personal experience, in the places where there is the most intimacy, I’m at most risk in some ways of behaving in a way that’s ugly – always, of course, within the confines of the law, I would hope, but in ways that are not in alignment with the kind of moral codes that I like to aspire to live by at least.”
Speaking further from the converted pub in an Oxfordshire village that is his studio, Brand confessed to not always handling himself well in failing relationships, admitting to some unspecified “shameful behaviour”. “However, I wouldn’t like to have that be turned into entertainment”, he said of the media dissection of the Depp-Heard relationship. It was a forlorn hope.
Last Friday, it was through his channel on the video platform Rumble that Brand first commented on the rumours that the Sunday Times and the Channel 4 Dispatches programme were about to publish “very, very serious criminal allegations”. They would include rape.
He has denied the allegations.
Since then, Brand has performed a comedy routine for 2,000 people at the Troubadour Wembley Park theatre during which he told the audience that “there are obviously some things that I absolutely cannot talk about”. Further scheduled gigs have been postponed and he has not filmed another video for the 6.5 million subscribers. It is a rare break.
Brand, 48, first launched his internet career back in 2014 with his own YouTube series, entitled The Trews: True News with Russell Brand. There were more than 200 episodes in the first year but the sharp spike in appetite for his views came after he started to suggest that the response of governments to the Covid pandemic along with that of the pharmaceutical industry and the “mainstream media” were part of a conspiracy.
“If the response to the pandemic was about saving lives why did nothing happen until it affected the stock market?” he asked in one video.
Those views have only hardened over time, his videos suggest, and only the first 15 minutes of them are now shown on YouTube due to “regulations”. Google has said it will remove content on the site that is found to be spreading medical misinformation.
YouTube viewers have instead been invited by Brand to switch over and enjoy “free speech” on Rumble. “Being on YouTube we have to be cautious in what we say,” he recently warned his supporters. On Tuesday, Youtube said they were now stopping Brand from being able to earn any money through his channel for “violating our Creator Responsibility policy”. Advertisers pay YouTube to show their adverts before, during or after videos.
There has been a troupe of regular Brand targets including Bill Gates, whose motives for investing in laboratory-grown meat have most recently been questioned, along with Barack Obama for falling under the Geneva conventions’ definition of a war criminal. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has also been criticised for his apparent part in allowing his country to be turned into a colony for US corporate interests.
In the last year, Brand has been joined by a sidekick, Gareth Roy, a producer and stand-up director who has made content for C4, Sky, BBC Three, MTV, YouTube, FX and Comedy Central, according to his LinkedIn account. Roy echoes Brand’s views on all things conspiratorial and tees up his monologues. But the videos are carefully worded. Accusatory questions are more often asked rather than positions asserted, with the viewers, called “awakening wonders”, asked to join up the dots themselves.
There are celebrity guests such as the academic Jordan Peterson and former Fox news presenter Tucker Carlson, for whom Brand appears to have growing respect. “Tucker has become an anti-establishment figure now, hasn’t he?” Brand said recently. “He now exists in the same space as we do in independent media.”
And all of it is interspersed with adverts voiced by Brand himself for a range of products from stickers to food supplements, along with repeated requests for those watching to become $60-a-year subscribers. Some of the show’s revenues are said to go to Brand’s Stay Free Foundation, which aims to support addicts through recovery but is too new to have filed a set of accounts. One of the charities the foundation supports, Trevi, which helps women affected by substance misuse with children in their care, has already ended its association.