Russell Brand, Going Up

2 September 2015 Alan Attwood

Russell Brand, Going Up

Whenever I decide that Russell Brand is intensely annoying, a bloke with whom I would not want to be stuck in a lift, he does or says something to make me question that opinion.

He’s only mentioned in passing in the documentary Amy, for example, but he’s one of the very few men who come out of it well. At least he tried to help Amy Winehouse – as one who understands addiction. That reminded me of the insightful, touching tribute he wrote after Winehouse’s death, in July 2011: “We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care,” he concluded. “We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison… Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there.”

More recently, he’s been banging on about a topic close to our hearts at The Big Issue: inequality. Starting in October 2011, we’ve had three editions focusing on what we have called The Great Divide – the growing gulf between the very rich and very poor. Our most recent was Ed#471, last November, timed to coincide with the G20 summit in Brisbane, where – predictably – the topic of inequality was not a priority issue for global leaders. Just recently, coincidentally, there have been reports about cost blowouts at the G20 – with accommodation expenses, for example, soaring from a mooted $917,000 to $2.2m.

We could devote another edition to the subject. There’s no shortage of new material. In January, to start with, Oxfam released its most recent analysis of global wealth, suggesting that the world’s richest 1% will own more than the other 99% by next year. “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering,” said Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima. “And despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”

And speaking of the richest and the rest… Early in August came a report from the US suggesting that the average CEO of the Standard and Poor’s 500 companies were paid 216 times more than their median employees. Nine CEOs were paid 800 times more than his – yes, they’re nearly all men – average employee. In the 1950s, by comparison, the average differential for a US CEO was a factor of 20.

This is not an American-only phenomenon. In August, an Age report suggested that the former Telstra CEO, David Thodey, was paid 163 times the wage of the average Australian telecommunications worker. In his final year with Telstra, his package was reportedly $14.5m – meaning he earned in two days the annual salary of one of his own workers. Thodey himself has acknowledged “there’s a real issue with income disparity between what an average person gets and some of the really big salaries”.

Acknowledging the issue is one thing. What to do about it is another. After our G20 edition, I decided that there was little more we could do to raise awareness of the great divide. The challenge is to come up with a solution. Our last story concluded: “We cannot rely on the rich to help the rest. Governments must take the lead.” Something they have proved loath to do – not least because the wealthy have far more political clout than the poor.

But now Russell Brand has entered the fray. Inequality has become one of his pet topics. After his (not entirely successful) intervention in this year’s British general election campaign, Brand has been seen on cinema screens in the documentary The Emperor’s New Clothes. Its director, Michael Winterbottom (who also made The Trip movies and TV series with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon), has said the film sought to explore why little had changed since the global financial crisis of 2008. Brand – imagine him as a taller, hairier Michael Moore – was his chosen figurehead to point out extremes of wealth and opportunity in society.

One review described Brand’s style as “angry but affable [in] this extended rant against the sins of the rich and powerful”. And his assault on the status quo cannot be dismissed as representing the politics of envy, as he acknowledges his own personal wealth. This actor, activist and author has done very well for himself. But he’s no longer his own favourite subject. Perhaps we’d find some things to talk about in a lift after all.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#492 of The Big Issue.