A couple of weeks ago, British GQ put on its annual Men of the Year gala, where it hands out awards for things like Breakthrough Menswear Designer Brand alongside honors for, Politician of the Year, “Oracle,” and Hugo Boss Most Stylish. The TV personality award this year went to Piers Morgan and the Achievement of the Year went to a tennis player.
You get the picture.
The Oracle award went to the comedian Russell Brand, who ended up getting thrown out of the event by the GQ Editor Dylan Jones after nuking all the incestuous self-congratulation with a sharp joke at the expense of corporate sponsor, Hugo Boss.
Pointing to the logos plastered behind him, Brand criticized London Mayor Boris Johnson for a joke about Syria and followed up with his own “Genocide Quip”:
Any of you who know a little bit about history and fashion will know that Hugo Boss made the uniforms for the Nazis. The Nazis did have flaws, but, you know, they did look fucking fantastic, let’s face it, while they were killing people on the basis of their religion and sexuality.
Watch the video. The goose-stepping really sets it off:
When GQ’s British editor Dylan Jones collared Brand and told him, “What you did was very offensive to Hugo Boss,” Brand replied, “What Hugo Boss did was very offensive to the Jews.” Brand’s assertions about Boss’s Nazi ties happen to be true, by the way. Jones subsequently had him ejected.
Again, an editor of a major publication kicked out someone he had just deemed (ludicrously) an “Oracle,” for a joke at the expense of his major advertiser. Brand’s award page—alone amongst the 24 winners—has been disappeared from GQ’s site, as well. It’s worth noting that Jones paid David Cameron more than £20,000 for his cooperation on a book about him, an ethical violation the late biographer called Anthony Howard “reprehensible” and an elite coziness with the press that would later come to haunt Cameron in the Murdoch hacking scandal.
So Brand takes to The Guardian with a brilliant—dare I say, oracular—piece on what happened and what it means. It’s something to think about as the press scrambles for new revenue by putting on events with big corporate sponsors.
I could see the room dividing as I spoke. I could hear the laughter of some and louder still silence of others. I realised that for some people this was regarded as an event with import. The magazine, the sponsors and some of those in attendance saw it as a kind of ceremony that warranted respect. In effect, it is a corporate ritual, an alliance between a media organisation, GQ, and a commercial entity, Hugo Boss. What dawned on me as the night went on is that even in apparently frivolous conditions the establishment asserts control, and won’t tolerate having that assertion challenged, even flippantly, by that most beautifully adept tool: comedy.
The jokes about Hugo Boss were not intended to herald a campaign to destroy them. They’re not Monsanto or Halliburton, the contemporary corporate allies of modern-day fascism; they are, I thought, an irrelevant menswear supplier with a double-dodgy history. The evening, though, provided an interesting opportunity to see how power structures preserve their agenda, even in a chintzy microcosm.
This was a silly GQ event that, fortunately was attended by a few Brits who don’t to defer to anyone, God bless ‘em. It also drew the British Foreign Minister, for instance, whom Noel Gallagher sniped at from the podium:
Up went Noel to garner his gong and he did not disappoint: “Always nice to be invited to the Tory party conference,” he began, “Good to see the foreign secretary present when there’s shit kicking off in Syria.”
It’s hard to imagine anything similarly irreverent happening at, say, The Atlantic’s Aspen Ideas Festival, which hosts big-think sessions on why universal suffrage shouldn’t be so universal, or the Aspen Institute’s Awards Dinner, which this year will honor Henry Kissinger, considered (for good reason) a war criminal in much of the world, or at the Time 100 Gala, The New York Times’s DealBook Conference, or All Things Digital.
Noel once expressed his disgust at seeing a politician at Glastonbury. “What are you doing here? This ain’t for you,” he’d said. He explained to me: “You used to know where you were with politicians in the 70s and 80s cos they all looked like nutters: Thatcher, Heseltine, Cyril Smith. Now they look normal, they’re more dangerous.” Then, with dreadful foreboding: “They move among us.” I agree with Noel. What are politicians doing at Glastonbury and the GQ awards? I feel guilty going, and I’m a comedian. Why are public officials, paid by us, turning up at events for fashion magazines? Well, the reason I was there was because I have a tour on and I was advised it would be good publicity. What are the politicians selling? How are they managing our perception of them with their attendance of these sequin-encrusted corporate balls?
We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another.
Leave it to a comedian to expose the power alliance between big business, the press, and the state. The last word goes to Brand:
Now I’m aware that this was really no big deal; I’m not saying I’m an estuary Che Guevara. It was a daft joke by a daft comic at a daft event. It makes me wonder, though, how the relationships and power dynamics I witnessed on this relatively inconsequential context are replicated on a more significant scale.
For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers - he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor - influence the way he runs our capital?
Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cosy relationships with members of our government?
Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: British GQ, corporate sponsors, events, future of news, power structure