Michael Jackson trial: nobody’s innocent

Outside the Californian court, we're witnessing a show trial of the most sordid aspects of contemporary culture.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

There are two trials of Michael Jackson. One is going on in a court in Santa Maria, California, where a jury must decide beyond reasonable doubt whether or not Jackson is guilty of abusing young boys, plying them with alcohol, and conspiring to hold a boy and his family captive.

Then there is the trial going on in the media. This deals not in the currency of evidence, guilt and innocence, but in a somewhat baser coinage. Here we are seeing a show trial of the most degraded aspects of contemporary culture. Just as the witnesses are being paraded one by one, so too are society’s most sordid proclivities.

The media prosecution displays today’s obsession with paedophilia. Newspapers spew out page after page on allegations of how Jackson touched up boys and plied them with porn. Even humdrum evidence is whipped up into a ‘court sensation’ report. ‘I slept in Jacko’s bed’, read the front page of yesterday’s Sun, reporting evidence from the former child actor Macaulay Culkin; it’s only inside that you discover that Culkin is really just talking about sleeping. Some commentators seem to be almost hoping for some pre-teen orgy story, so they can draw themselves up and get outraged.

Behind this furore lies the fact that paedophilia has become a moral bottom line for a society that lacks firm values. If we find it difficult to tell right from wrong in everything ranging from drugs to extramarital affairs, at least we can all agree that nonces are evil.

The media defence, by contrast, displays an obsession with victims. Here Jackson himself is cast in the role of the abused, as somebody who was manipulated and preyed upon by people around him. A meek, lonely man, he was allegedly betrayed by those seeking to profit from his fame. Although it might not trump the paedophile card, this victim card has some kudos at a time when the bestseller lists are full of personal accounts of alcoholism, illness and family breakdown. Those who can claim to have suffered are today placed on a pedestal as moral, worthy individuals.

Throughout all the coverage runs the obsession with celebrity. We learn that Culkin was ‘wearing a dark suit and an open-neck shirt’ and spoke quietly and calmly. We hear about how Jackson got to know Culkin, what their relationship was like, the games they played. The question of who did what to whom is less of interest from a legal perspective, than from the perspective of the pages of Hello! magazine, which deems every celebrity shopping trip absolutely fascinating.

Then at the centre of the trial is the disturbed figure of Jackson himself. Though the guy clearly isn’t normal, and hasn’t been for some time now, in an odd way he is also emblematic of broader cultural trends. In the rushes of Martin Bashir’s documentary shown in court, Jackson described himself as ‘Peter Pan in my heart’, and told how he sought the company and solace of the young. ‘Everything I do is inspired by children. If it weren’t for children I’d throw in the towel. I’d have no reason to live.’ Jackson sees the adult world as corrupt and burdensome, in contrast to the playful innocence of childhood. ‘I haven’t been betrayed or deceived by children. Adults have let me down.’ (1)

This 12-year-old mind in the body of a fortysomething man makes for an amusing freak-show. But we are unable to condemn it outright, given the ubiquity of the Peter Pan culture outside Jackson’s Neverland ranch. After all, these are times when twentysomethings put off adult responsibilities for as long as their parents will permit, and others continue to indulge in comics, video games and robots well into their thirties (see The children who won’t grow up, by Frank Furedi). Today’s society lacks a narrative for what it means to be an adult; the ageing process is seen as a loss of energy and innocence, rather than a gain in wisdom and stature. Jackson may play with water balloons, but these days that ain’t so wacko.

Whatever the outcome of the Jackson trial, the sordid state of contemporary culture has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Read on:

Michael Jackson: Get real, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Culkin Describes Bond With Jackson, CBS, 13 May 2005

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Topics Politics


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