Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland was broadcast this week. It was not a model of investigative journalism. There was no evidence of dogged research trying to get to the facts, no extensive interviewing of all parties, just a tabloid-style exposé of Michael Jackson’s alleged sex crimes. True or false it’s a tragic story either way.
The testimonies of the two accusers would probably not do well subject to legal scrutiny. They had previously defended the musician under oath and in numerous interviews, then years after he died changed their story to mount unsuccessful multi-million dollar suits against his estate for abuse damages. These suits are currently being appealed so the transmission is timely.
I had presumed Jackson innocent of the sex charges against him but the near total certainty in the media this week that he wasn’t does call for a reconsidering with the possibility that he was indeed abusing children all along. We will never know for sure. Testimony is all there is and given what’s at stake it needs to be scrupulous. Sceptics like me are easily put off by partiality and Leaving Neverland made no attempt to be even-handed.
The film had no objective voices, no input from knowledgable insiders, nothing from the star’s entourage or the music industry, only revelations akin to therapy sessions, cloistered and subjective. There were plenty of strings added for effect. The parents who might’ve been admonished were given a pass. I am open to having been wrong about Jackson but presentations like that, especially with enormous sums of money on the table, are liable to engender cynicism.
And there are the wider issues to consider. Taking people down on accusation alone, however morally satisfying, has an effect on standards of proof. We should be wary of their erosion. It’s true not all of human congress is a court of law and there are differing standards depending on the context. Criminal justice requires a high bar. Tabloid journalism in contrast only needs a plausible story, sometimes not even that, yet an accused can be ruined just the same, guilty or not.
I think that public platforms of any kind, whether legal, political, moral or cultural are not an appropriate redress for victims of abuse. They are too much invested in their own process. The proper place for catharsis ought to be a therapist’s couch, or among trusted friends, through open and honest relationships that are nurturing and compassionate, not in front of a journalist or a film-maker with an agenda. Not unless, that is, your motives are more than therapeutic. As counsel for the accused once said: “Who needs a job when you can sue Michael Jackson?” Likewise, who needs therapy when billions are in the pot.
Do I think these guys, Robson and Safechuck, are capable of fabrication for a payoff? Conceivably, yes. American culture is horribly addicted to money. It’s also horribly puritanical in a world with a long history of repressed sexuality, a world where currently presidents and Supreme Court judges can walk away from accusations when others can’t, where substantial gains are to be got from playing the victim, a world where it’s useful to target celebrities and hold them responsible for the pathologies.
The departed are especially useful because they can’t fight back thus making good scapegoats. They might be guilty scapegoats, they might not. In the postmodern context it doesn’t matter. It’s their function that’s important, whether dead or alive, sinister or sublime. Next to none of that works for me with my deep aversion to media morality and my discounting of anyone who sells their story. When I read that the men in this documentary had been on Oprah their assertions were discredited before I’d even heard them.
Scepticism held until the last hour of Leaving Neverland when family members, the wives in particular, spoke. At that point suspension of disbelief began to take its course. Brothers, sisters, mothers and wives talked poignantly about the shocking moments of disclosure when they were told what they did not want to hear. These were the most powerful and persuasive scenes in the film. They didn't amount to evidence or much in the way of corroboration, they were simply believable.
If all the family are involved in a ploy here to extract money they would be among the most consummate of performers. Especially touching was the prospect of two mothers forever unable to forgive themselves for passing their young sons over to a paedophile for dubious benefits. It remains possible they and the other relatives are being duped by the accusers into accepting a version of events. Possible but how likely? There was a lot of personal detail, particularly mundane occurrences, shared in the various testimonies. The case for Michael Jackson’s innocence just about survives but is left threadbare.
Some are arguing for a boycott of the music itself. I certainly wouldn't go along with that. Apart form anything else it was far from being all the work of one man. Though obviously talented "The King Of Pop" was effectively a brand, the records a product of many contributors: producers, arrangers, engineers, programmers, songwriters, lyricists, musicians and more. My own interests as a music-maker are in the recordings themselves and the exquisite crafting that went into making them, very much a collective effort.
The performer at centre stage was an illusion of sorts, someone to dazzle the masses, a capitalist construct and a contrivance to be projected upon for the pleasure fix of fantasy and escape. Elevating any individual to such a towering position, massively over-rewarded for being gifted, is an absurdity of human culture, one that future generations will surely evaluate and come to correct.
Perhaps this fallen idol’s lasting contribution will be cautionary, a lesson not about sexuality, a much more complex issue to address, but about the way we live, tethered to ridiculous platforms inhabited by bloated public figures, mesmerised by image and wealth and the thought that with just a small twist of the wheel we could be up there with them. It’s a foolish notion and is the one that lies at the heart of this tragic tale. Reed’s long documentary only added to it.
we should be wary of taking people down based on accusation alone
SINISTER OR SUBLIME
commentary • 07.03.19