It was the day that Charlie Brooker’s role as Twitterati royalty was turned on its head, and the writer was forced into a bewildered fire-fighting exercise as the angry Tweets rolled in. The reason? A Guardian column that saw him resemble that other giant of rib-tickling, sententious hyperbole, Bill Hicks, more than ever before.
Just as the late American comedian saved his strongest sermonizing – Old Testament style – for those he viewed as poisoning the public psyche, so too Brooker hit his finest form for years by slagging off tabloid journalists for the same crime. For Hicks’ infamous: ‘if you work in marketing: kill yourself’ read: ‘you’re wasting your life actively making the world worse.’
But where these comic soul mates begin to diverge is that Brooker, with his trademark, just-smelt-a-fart face, has to accept some pretty legitimate accusations of hypocrisy.
For a start: his own growing media profile has long relied upon ‘the warm cave of celebrity chef shag-shocks and tragic tot death- porn’ (a classic Brookerism) to thrive. From savaging TV with his early TVGoHome website, through to repeating the trick on Screenwipe, Brooker has gorged on the gruel served in the D-list celebrity workhouse with the same enthusiasm as any tabloid: he just made sure his shit came out the other end smelling a little smarter.
The newspaper that pursued the News of the World phone-hacking scandal so vehemently – Brooker’s Guardian (for it is, make no mistake, Brooker’s Guardian, despite his defense of ‘just being a freelancer’ – or was that same exemption for tabloid freelancers subbed out of his column?) – also commission their fair share of celebrity fluff. Their ‘Lost In Showbiz’ column is a high-brow take on low-brow culture that they probably imagine aligns them with the traditions of Chaucer, but the problem with this approach is that it ties you inextricably to the same appetites you’re sneering at, as Brooker knows as well as anyone.
Then there is his most high-profile project to date – a weekly current affairs show jointly created with David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr – that thumps its left-wing agenda against your cranium with all the dull insistence of a depressed male stripper’s testicles in a public exhibition no one is really enjoying. Just as Brooker imagines tabloid hacks must require ‘a mental leap beyond the reach of Galileo’ to delude themselves that they’re contributing to honourable journalism, it must require a similar feat for Brooker to imagine that 10 O’Clock Live is genuinely contributing to constructive political debate in this country, when in reality its attention-deficit attempts at both debate and satire resemble the ‘banter’ levels of the average 6th form common room.
There is a telling taunt in Brooker’s acerbic symphony. He tells tabloid hacks: “chances are you’re quite smart. And you probably love to write – or did, once…” I suspect this was the point that Charlie really got to them. The implication is clear: unlike him, they’ve sold out. Everyone starts off thinking they’re going to win a Pulitzer or write the Great British Novel at the weekends, but most of us end up churning out lowest common denominator candy floss for shadowy, media ring-masters with dubious tastes in right-wing governments. But not Charlie.
In this, there is more than a grain of painful truth. But what Charlie Brooker really has that most journalists do not isn’t a more accurate moral compass, or even just the ability to turn a wicked phrase. What sets him apart is the balls and entrepreneurial spirit it takes to set up your own satirical website in the late 90s, rather than stay with PC Zone until you’re made deputy editor and then retire in a death-rattle of averageness like the rest of us.
And here, for all the hypocrisy of the piece, is where intuitive journalists should stop debating how offensive Charlie has been and start asking themselves how he got in the position to offend them in the first place. It wasn’t with a degree from Oxford or via a Daddy in the Guardian news room. It was having the kittens-head-sized-cojones required to carve out an identity for himself in an industry where a million voices are bleating at once.
For all it feels a bit like Charlie has shat on his own kind, he is still making a salient point. Very few of us aspire to write malignant gossip about other people’s sex lives. Some of us may have to do it in order get started. But transcending all that takes an extra quality few people have.
We may not like it when his guns are turned on us but Brooker, like Hicks, can get away with being holier-than-thou, not because he’s very funny but because he embodies the essential truth of what’s he’s saying. I’m a journalist. I’ve wasted parts of my life actively making the world worse. But I’m not offended by the smug hypocrite – I admire and envy his right to be one.
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