Brian Rose, scammer, Mayor of London. On journalistic ethics and a cautionary tale…
I’ve just put out two new films on the scammer Brian Rose, in addition to a longer written piece for Unherd, on his new attempt to become London Mayor. For those unaware of the backstory, I recommend starting with the Unherd article. On Wednesday I recorded a video covering most of the points in that story, but with an extra layer of humour and contempt, with the scambuster Coffeezilla, and on Friday I released the interview that everyone has wanted to hear since Brian gained worldwide internet notoriety, with Nic Gabriel, the co-founder of London Real. He hadn’t spoken publicly about Brian since he was unceremoniously dumped from the show in 2013, and he didn’t hold back on why Brian “needed to be stopped”.
Assuming that everyone remaining is familiar with the story (if not, go and read the Unherd piece and come back here), then I can start unpacking some of the interesting backstory, the journalistic dilemmas that are created by stories like this.
Also a few Rebel Wisdom viewers are, quite understandably, asking why? Why spend so much time on this guy, this story? What does it have to do with the main topics covered by Rebel Wisdom, the crisis of sensemaking, philosophy, ideas, collective intelligence, developmental thinking, and the rest. Hasn’t this become somewhat personal? These are all good questions, that I hope to answer here. In brief, I think that the Rose story actually touches on all of the key topics that Rebel Wisdom has covered since the beginning, and is in fact a perfect case study in nearly all of the self-terminating dynamics of our current system.
For a start, the crisis in sensemaking and the decline in journalism. I decided to return to the Brian Rose story after a recent piece for The Times ‘Brian Rose, the American who wants to be London mayor’, that failed to reveal any of the backstory, and apart from some vague handwaving about David Icke and conspiracy, was effectively a PR win for Rose (subhead: “The boxing, breakdancing former Wall Street banker is buff, but is he really fit to be the next mayor of London?”). It was borderline journalistic malpractice in that it didn’t mention the scandal of the ‘Digital Freedom Platform’, or any of the other controversies Brian is trailing behind him. A simple cuttings search (journalism 101) would have at least revealed the Vice article ‘The YouTuber Accused of Using Coronavirus to Scam His Followers’, even if the reporter didn’t find the 28 scathing reviews on Scamguard and elsewhere. So I realised that we couldn’t trust the legacy media to do its job in holding Brian to account.
There is also an issue of the standard rules of engagement of the legacy media. Any working journalist or editor will balk at using language like ‘liar’ or ‘scam’, and likely tone it down for fear of legal action. But what if you have incontrovertible evidence that the person is lying? Brian has lied time and time again, and is continuing to do it even during the mayoral campaign. Just a couple of examples, he claimed the ‘Digital Freedom Platform’ would be “independent of London Real” and yet it’s owned by the company that owns London Real (sole shareholder Mr B. Rose), he also claimed after he was fined for breaking lockdown that he “was arrested” (lie) and “now had a criminal record”, another lie. This was exactly the problem that journalists in the US wrestled with in covering Trump, that the usual journalistic language such as“there was no evidence forthcoming for this claim”, or a false equivalence of claim and counter-claim, just didn’t work with a total bullshitter and liar. I’ve used much stronger language in my YouTube films than would be permitted in the pages of a mainstream publication, but I would argue they are fully justified by verifiable facts, and also that the kind of direct, truthful language that cuts through on YouTube is more necessary for accountability than the emasculated compromises of the legacy media.
One of the core values of journalism is to offer right of reply to any claims or allegations being put. I’ve been asking Brian for answers to all of these questions since May last year and he has failed to address any of them. For the Unherd piece we messaged his press team and asked for answers, and they were a mix of non-answers, evasions and at least one outright lie, when they claimed when he said “I now have a criminal record, yes, it’s true…” what he meant was that he WOULD have a criminal record if he didn’t pay the fine. For what it’s worth, I’m still more than open to offer Brian an interview.
I’m trying to be acutely aware of the dividing line between necessary exposure and where that drifts into exploitation, what some have called ‘outrage porn’. There is no clear and obvious division between the two, except on some level a felt sense of when we are getting vicarious thrills from the topic, and that more discussion has no obvious purpose. I felt that the coverage of Brian Rose and London Real was getting close to that point at the end of last summer. I actually pulled out of a writing commission for Wired magazine as I didn’t want to continue to boost Brian’s signal as he was clearly enjoying the notoriety.
However, running for public office changes the dynamic. He is exploiting the electoral system for his own gains, and parasiting the associated press interest and ability to recruit more people, and more money. Given that the press is seemingly unable to do its job, I decided it was time to return to the topic. I’ve put (nearly) everything I know out into the information ecosystem, to inform any further coverage of Rose. There are four weeks left in the mayoral race now and hopefully any journalist who covers him from now on will be aware of the backstory, and he won’t be able to continue to dodge these questions about his past behaviour. From now if I am going to return to this story, I’ll be looking at what we can learn from it, not simple exposure and ridicule.
Of course, I have to admit that it’s simply a great story to cover, as a journalist, and also generates views. But generating views has never been the sole aim of Rebel Wisdom.
I also have to admit that it does feel personal in some ways. Brian Rose has systematically parasited on so many of the topics that mean a lot to me and others. As Nick Gabriel pointed out, he’s glommed onto important and meaningful topics, using the causes of free speech, of personal growth, of plant medicines, in order to gain credibility and separate people from their money. He also wraps himself in the British flag and also tries to absorb some of the kudos of London itself, my country and my home, while being diametrically opposed to all of the essential qualities of British culture.
Another reason for focusing on Rose is because the universal manifests in the particular. As one of the best documentary makers of his generation, Olly Lambert, says: “The smallest window reveals the biggest view”. So if you want to tell a story about big cultural or societal topics, you don’t make a film “about health”, you find a case study, a personal story that is tellable, and if you tell that story completely faithfully then you reveal the wider dynamics. For example, find a guy who’s lost his job, and if you tell every aspect of that person’s story then you will uncover all the wider topics like mental health impacts, the precarious nature of work in the days of the gig economy, the impact on men’s self-image and the coping mechanisms, etcetera.
As for the deeper topics raised by this story, along with all the folks feeling they were scammed out of money by his courses and the Digital Freedom Platform, and the multiple former employees, I’ve also heard a lot from people who’ve been burned by people like Rose, and are trying to understand what happened. So going forward, I’m interested to look at narcissism, how it plays out in relationships and society, and why we are vulnerable to it. And from a civilisational point of view, how much of the dysfunction of the current system is due to is rewarding sociopathy at the highest levels of business and politics? Many of the folks wrestling hardest with civilisational threat pay close attention to the question of “closing the sociopathic niche”. Arguably it’s a niche that opens up whenever a society scales to the point where bad behaviour is not punished or called out, as it would have been in a close knit community or tribe. Once people have the opportunity to exploit and burn others and then move on to find new victims, it becomes a successful evolutionary strategy. I covered this on the previous film, London Real and How Societies Collapse.
What does an immune system for the sociopathic niche look like? I think, and hope, it looks a lot like what I have been trying to do with the London Real story. Sunlight is a great disinfectant, as the old saying goes.
Check out all the films in Rebel Wisdom’s series about Brian Rose & London Real here.