TV UK, 6 March

The Michael Jackson saga: a case-study in postmodern epistemology.

Dolan Cummings

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It could be a case-study in postmodern epistemology. Can we ever know the truth about Michael Jackson? Is there indeed a single truth to know?

Michael Jackson: the Footage They Didn’t Want You to See (Channel 5 last Monday) was a riposte to Martin Bashir’s Living With Michael Jackson, shown last month on ITV1 (1). Essentially, it was hagiography disguised as exposé. While Bashir had portrayed Jacko as a wacko with a creepy thing about kids, this film revealed that he was in fact a brilliant philanthropist with an unfortunate skin problem. Ostensibly it was an independent production, but it is impossible to take this claim seriously.

For a start, the film used Jackson’s own footage – his staff had filmed the making of Bashir’s documentary. This at least gave us some laughs at Bashir’s expense. While he made harsh judgements in the final cut of his own film, he was almost unbelievably sycophantic to Jackson’s face, gushing about the spiritual atmosphere at Neverland, and revealing that seeing the popstar with his kids made him want to cry. (Actually, maybe that was Bashir being clever.)

Best of all, Bashir chatted to Jackson’s make-up lady (insert ‘busy woman’-type gag here), tutting and shaking his head at the fact that the truth about her wonderful boss never gets out. Journalists are so duplicitous. So much for the presentation. But the frequent reminders that Jackson had no editorial control over the film were too much.

Certainly, Michael Jackson: the Footage They Didn’t Want You to See exposed Martin Bashir’s hypocrisy, and we are inclined to believe up to a point anyone who successfully challenges media distortion. But our credulity is stretched when such an exposé is so obviously in the service of a nutty millionaire, editorial control or not. In this case, the truth-telling posture only muddies the waters and casts doubt on the whole enterprise of objective journalism.

With war looming, this is a disturbing problem. Reportage of the 1991 Gulf War was notoriously distorted, with journalists shepherded around by the US army and fed nonsense stories like the one about the Iraqis hurling Kuwaiti babies from incubators. The Space Invaders-style footage of ‘surgical strikes’ was hardly convincing either. It was the overwhelming and yet unreliable role of the media that famously led the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard to announce that the Gulf War never happened.

This time around the Gulf War hasn’t happened: indeed it hasn’t been happening for some time now, and may continue not to be happening for some time to come, give or take the odd bombing raid. But ‘The War’ already has a vice-like grip on the media. It is now possible to be a full-time war reporter without there being a war, never mind having to dodge bullets on the ground.

By the time the storm troopers get off their asses and hit the sand, reporters will be so used to taking their information from the Pentagon that it probably won’t occur to many of them to look anywhere else. The truth is, though, that there is probably little point. The war is being played out, or not, for Western audiences, and therefore television is the real front line.

We would learn more of the truth from a candid camera in Neverland (sorry, the Pentagon press room) than from any intrepid reporter in Iraq.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See A Thriller documentary?, by Jennie Bristow

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