When Brand met the Belfast Orange, or why the comedy of new media helps us unlearn…

There’s an interesting conference at the University of Ulster coming up on the 10th December, which seems to be asking some of the right questions about social media, its uses in protest and the implications for democratic politics.

The event blurb notes:

Over the course of the last twelve months, Northern Ireland has witnessed social media playing a central role in the nature of politics and protests. The period in the wake of the decision by Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days the Union Flag flies over City Hall in Belfast saw a huge growth in online interactions and protest organisation relating to decisions made by politicians.

Even the would-be ‘leader’ of a ‘beautiful and plausible revolution’ Russell Brand has been to see the folks at Camp Twaddell, the place where a group of loyalists and Orangemen have been camped out since being thwarted by a Parades Commission decision last July. 

In many respects it is a successor to the Loyalist flag protest, Northern Ireland’s first experience of the loosely organised, distributed form of protest we’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Moving around some fixed points, like Naomi Long’s east Belfast constituency offices protesters, were able to move quickly almost at moment’s notice and made it difficult/impossible for the PSNI close down.

The protest initially encompassed a wide spread of activity, from legal protest to obstruction of the highway to arson, attacks and threats of serious physical harm, particularly aimed at individuals associated with the Alliance party. Not that quite so “plausible or beautiful” then.

But it is significant to note that it arose out of a common grievance from one Northern Ireland’s most marginalised communities. They succeeded at wrong footing and then tipping the balance against the current formal leadership unionism.

The format of the flegs protest (if not its politics) is in line with the techniques and approach of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, or the Indignados in Spain. It’s the same sort of disruptive populism that brought the five star party to such recent prominence in Italy.

Populism works online in part because the hierarchical filters of the older platforms have been removed making everyone a player, democratic mandate or not. Citizen with a vote, or not. But it also works because we are all learning how this new paradigm unfolds.

In the way when kids first got a hold of MySpace or Bebo, we are still in an adolescent stage, where just reaching out to say ‘fuck you’ to a wider system you feel is failing to address (or wilfully ignoring) your concerns is about the most powerful thing we feel we can use it for.

Willed ignorance of the BBC is one accusation in Medialens’ David Cromwell’s critique of Russell Brand’s recent (and compelling) cat fight with Jeremy Paxman. He complains “Brand was selected to appear by media gatekeepers; and media institutions, notably the BBC, escaped serious scrutiny”.

We’ve seen here in Northern Ireland how stories can blaze for days, weeks even, without a hint that anything is going on at the Beeb.

That’s in part because of how the corporation is compelled to act. They must think about the ongoing consequences of anything they could tell us, before they tell us.

Cromwell’s piece features a picture of the foyer in the BBC’s original Broadcasting House in London. Emblazoned in gold is a long Reithean prayer in Latin, which comprises the hope…

…that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.

The challenge is new media is not yet clear. It can give public voice to the voiceless but it has no means to project much other than the power to disrupt or pull down.

It’s akin to the role played by ‘Comedy’ in the earliest formalised democracies in Greece, which give voice to dissent, and point up the errors of the great and the powerful within the relatively safe, yet powerful, context of drama.

Comedy’s counterpart ‘Tragedy’ was more of an ordered exploration of a serious shared dilemma head on. In confronting the Populis it also informed them of the complex issues facing those they had elected.

Everywhere within the social media world the former is in much greater evidence than the latter. But ‘Comedy’ was also about unlearning old ways and opening up new possibilities.

As my colleague John Kellden has noted, “people are pretending there are spectator sports to be played. In a global network, there isn’t.”

The new comedy of the digital commons may be distasteful to the old Reithean values of the current establishment. It’s not as though those old tragedian values are wrong or can be uselessly thrown away. Howard Jacobson commenting on Brand got it just about right:

I was reminded of those interminably tedious clowns in Shakespeare who mix madness with matter. These are impossible to reason with, since the moment you tackle them on matter they take cover in madness. Pertinent they might sometimes be, but they are seldom there when the essential business of the play is being settled.

Rather it is that as social and political beings we have a long long way to go to get a solid understanding the Bacchanalian circus that is currently social media. We need to get beyond that block and fasten down the real (and tragic) business of the day.

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  • “It’s the same sort of disruptive populism that brought the five star party to such recent prominence in Italy.”

    ‘Disruptive populism’ would seem an apt term for the socialist, armchair and militant, adoption of rights issues two generations ago as a tool to deliver constitutional change, backed up by the use of violence, if necessary; it also led to the formation of the DUP and SDLP and the much less significant APNI.

    New media does make it much more difficult for the powers-that-be to control events but I’d caution against unquestioning acceptance of official assertions such as ‘a Parades Commission decision last July’. Sam McBride seems to be one of the few journalists who’s prepared to explore the background to such claims.

  • between the bridges

    Now that’s what i call a Friday thread! from brand to the bard everything and nothing, social media allows a level of interaction and self promotion ideally suited to specialist cliques and wannabe special people…

  • Son of Strongbow

    Howard Jacobson did indeed nail Brand exactly. An “impish buffoon” if ever there was one.

    God only knows what the Twaddel Crew made of him. A surreal marriage made in hell-knows-where IMHO.

    I suppose the new media needs the likes of Brand to help fill the void. Simplistic right-on preachafying goes down well amongst the Twitterati.

    Back to Jacobson; now there is someone who could actually drive the resolution of the plot when the “clown” has long exited stage left.

  • Alias

    The “what is your alternative?” rebuttal is an over-used fallacy, particularly in Northern Ireland’s politics. It supposes that evil is acceptable if it claimed to be a necessary evil. In reality, the alternative to removing the flag from City Hall was not removing the flag from City Hall. If the necessary evil spiel fails to dismiss dissent, the next trick is to resort to dismissing dissent as populism.

    The best comedy is when governments dismiss widespread opposition to some policy or other as populism, thereby revealing their own contempt for the popular opinion that elected them (i.e. democracy).

    While not elected, a favourite tactic of the EU is to dismiss democracy as populism (with the implication that the poor ignorant masses simply can’t know what policy is best for them). And, of course, the “what is your alternative?” spiel was widely used in promoting Ireland’s bail-out of the Eurosystem. Again, the alternative to using Irish taxpayers’ money to bail out French and German backs was not to use Irish taxpayers’ money to bail them out (thereby allowing the French and the Germans to bail out their own banks).

  • foyle observer

    ”God only knows what the Twaddel Crew made of him. A surreal marriage made in hell-knows-where IMHO”

    According to some star struck fleggers on the old facebook, they were, well, star struck! Absolutely over the moon about it by the looks of things.

    But the really funny thing is the fact that these fleggers saw absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that Brand’s PR manager wanted no photos taken and subsequent to this visit, no comment from Brand!!!

    In Willie Frazer speak, i ‘wounder’ why!

  • Mick Fealty


    I suspect its the other way round. Brand is merely channelling the genuinely scatty and anarchic way comms operate in webbed structures.

  • Morpheus

    What is Russel Brand well known for? What ‘revelations’ were made in the papers over the weekend regarding the Camp? I think it’s obvious why he turned up 🙂

  • Rory Carr

    What ‘revelations’ were made in the papers over the weekend regarding the Camp?

    Gosh, Morph I couldn’t tell you. We, er, haven’t had the weekend yet – in London anyway.

  • Morpheus

    On a serious note the party who can master the use of online media will reap the rewards on election day. Why beat the streets when a well placed, snappy blog will reach a much greater audience at much less expenditure? Have a look at the number of blogs from politicians in the Belfast Telegraph’s ‘Debate NI’ section coming from all the main parties. They have multiplied recently and they start people talking (although i wouldn’t go as far as saying ‘debating’ because that it ain’t)

    If Facebook has taught us one thing this past 12 months is that you don’t have to be highly (or even barely) educated to get involved. LAD highlights that on a regular basis.

    One draw back for Unionism, as Ruth has found out, is that they have to be much, much smarter. They can’t say online what they would say at a protest in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They can’t say what the hardliners want to hear online.

  • Morpheus

    Last weekend Rory, don’t be a tool

  • Son of Strongbow

    Surely the demographic for local voters tends towards older people? It is also more probable that new media users are younger so no matter how well the political parties’ back room staffs are working their thumbs off I remain to be convinced that there will be “rewards” come polling day.

  • Mick Fealty


    Yep and the tendency at the moment is towards a general disengagement… But more people of all ages are online and connectable that way… and as the teenagers of ten years ago approach thirty they take their digital tendencies with them… and in the wink of an eye they’ll be forty…

    But it’s not really about age or demographic so much as the disaggregating effect the digital comms networks have on the way knowledge created and disseminated…

  • Son of Strongbow

    There is apparently some disaggregation in the attitudes of some politicians to the new media. Whilst their ‘official’ personas embrace blogging etc they don’t seem to like lesser beings utilising digital platforms within the confines of council buildings.

    They treat the connections enabled as simply a one–directional stream to allow their cleaned and edited pronouncements to be dispatched into the ether. They don’t seem to grasp the concept that they are involved in a media designed to allow for live dynamic interaction.

  • samii

    Not surprised Brand turned up one freakshow meeting another. My sister lives nearby and has to put up with the famine song, up to our knees fenian blood being blasted over Ardoyne each night for the past THREE months.

    The Shankill butchers keeping watch and clocking cars forcing people to vary routes or simply avoid the place. Bigots coming from as far as Scotland including Brian Robinson tribute bands playing directly in front of the spot he murdered Paddy McKennna. If Castlederg was bad how sick is that?

  • “That’s in part because of how the corporation is compelled to act. They must think about the ongoing consequences of anything they could tell us, before they tell us.”

    .. or the BBC may pull a story and put out a different version of events as happened at the time of the debacle at Drumcree in 1996. Presumably the change of story followed a directive.

  • aquifer

    With the British parliament about to outlaw effective lobbying by charities and voluntary organisations, maybe we will see more flashmob instant assemblies in response to political issues.

    Instant and emotional communications have their dangers. The Rwandan genocide was spurred on by radio, as were massacres of socialists and democrats during the Spanish civil war.

  • Charles_Gould

    It would be good to have a series of workshops focussed on participation from ordinary people who actually live in the Ardoyne, allowing each to discuss issues raised by the other in a constructive setting.

  • fordprefect

    I’m sorry, I’m lost here. Could someone please enlighten me as to why Russell Brand visited “Camp twaddell”?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Brand is merely channelling genuinely scatty an anarchic about the way comms operate

    And meanwhile you’re channelling Clockwork Orange. “genuinely scatty an anarchic” ? Is this a typo or what ?

  • Charles_Gould

    I think he wanted to connect to ordinary activists, rather than the politicians who generate apathy.

  • Mick Fealty

    Fixed it. Thanks for the heads up!!

  • Neil

    Well Brand says he wanted to see parts of Belfast, and he also visited Ardoyne.

  • Comrade Stalin

    .. or the BBC may pull a story and put out a different version of events as happened at the time of the debacle at Drumcree in 1996.

    Indeed. Brand visiting Twaddell is all part of the Athboy Strategy.

  • babyface finlayson

    I heard he turned up at the camp dressed in a brown paper suit.
    The PSNI arrested him for russelling!
    The old ones are the best.

  • FuturePhysicist

    So a comedian gets invited to this place by one of the Peace People and some old ways get “unlearned” … so we’re relying on stupidity and ignorance to save us, well it’s never worked before!