From Princess Diana onwards, Martin Bashir has made a career interviewing the Really Big Names, and they don’t come much bigger than Michael Jackson. This programme wasn’t, however, entirely an interview, and wasn’t entirely revealing either, although it left plenty of unanswered questions.
Bashir spent eight months (on and off) with Jackson at his Californian home and during trips to Las Vegas and Berlin. The result was part-interview, part-documentary, with an instant-buddy style that had more than a hint of Louis Theroux to it, an impression heightened by Bashir’s slightly Theroux-like voice and dig-at-the-edges manner.
For the first half hour, Jackson came across sympathetically as the victim of his father’s violence and emotional abuse, whose immense wealth had allowed him to withdraw into an isolated and eccentric lifestyle. Then Bashir asked him about his face, and in the same honest, gentle, childlike manner with which he’d revealed the dark secrets of his youth, he flatly denied having had any cosmetic surgery. After that, it was hard to believe a word he said.
At that point (probably not by coincidence), the programme turned its attention to Jackson’s children. We saw his four and six year olds, whom he dresses in masks for fear of public recognition. Their mother was nowhere to be seen, and Jackson later said that she’d given them to him as a gift. We also saw the infamous baby-dangling incident at a Berlin hotel, with contradictory stories about the baby’s provenance – first from a relationship, then from a surrogate mother Jackson had never met (but who was, apparently, black, despite the baby’s entirely Caucasian appearance).
Bashir described the Berlin trip as “disastrous”, and Jackson as displaying a worryingly manic side. Both seemed slight exaggerations, although perhaps necessary ones in the build-up to the final topic – Jackson’s relationship with other people’s kids. Back in California we met his friend Gavin, a 12-year old who sometimes spends the night in his bed. Jackson explained that he spends these nights on the floor, although the phrase “the most loving thing you can do is share your bed with someone” might be open to misinterpretation.
Like Louis Theroux after a hard-core wrestling match, Bashir professed himself “very uneasy” about what he’d seen, although it seemed more likely that this was what he’d been after all along. If it was, then he went away largely empty-handed. Despite some pointed questions about the appropriateness of a 44-year-old man sharing his bedroom with someone else’s child, all he got from Jackson were protestations that it was all beautiful and innocent.
Then Jackson pulled the plug, leaving Bashir to admit that, despite his earlier “nothing’s off limits” boast, he had in fact given his subject editorial control over what was broadcast. Two media superstars went into this programme hoping to enhance their public images, but in the end it didn’t do much for either of them.
Michael Jackson: The Footage You Were Never Meant To See, Sky One
It’s a fair bet that when Martin Bashir made his now-infamous programme on Michael Jackson, he wasn’t expecting the singer to bite back with a programme of his own, based on camcorder footage taken while Bashir’s crew were filming. In retrospect, they both really should have known better.
As presenter Maury Povich kept reminding us, Jackson himself had no editorial control over this film’s contents. However, that hardly mattered, since it was clearly the Michael Jackson industry’s corporate response, with almost everyone who appeared either a member of his family or on his payroll in some capacity. This is turn made the statement that no-one received any payment for appearing seem rather disingenuous. Not long into the show, and we were back where we’d been a few weeks ago, unable to be sure if anything was quite what it seemed.
The footage we were never meant to see turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, and a fairly small part of the film. Most of the camcorder footage duplicated what Bashir had already shown, although there were a few juicy bits added on. These were mainly Bashir telling Jackson how wonderful he was, and questions and answers that had been omitted from his edited programme.
They showed that Bashir had, at best, been inconsistent in his views on a number of topics (particularly those involving children) but, with the possible exception of the Berlin Zoo incident, they didn’t amount to proof of serious misrepresentation of Jackson in Bashir’s programme. What they did prove was that interviewers butter up their subjects, and editors cut material to tell whatever story they want to get across. If Jackson didn’t know that after nearly 40 years in showbiz, then his grip on reality is even worse than everyone thought.
The rest of the film comprised testimonies from Jackson’s entourage, and these proved at least as thought-provoking as the Bashir out-takes. Jackson’s former wife, Debbie Rowe, just about kept her voice steady while explaining that their kids were Michael’s, not hers, but broke down when talking about their births, putting it down to the memory of Michael’s overjoyed response. Jackson’s makeup artist, meanwhile, cited the terrible burns he suffered to his scalp in an on-stage accident, and this was used to suggest that Bashir had failed to properly explain the reasons for the unnatural shape of Jackson’s face.
Like so much that had been said by both sides in the two programmes, it almost, but not quite, made sense. At the end of Round Two, the overwhelming impression was that Bashir and Jackson hadn’t been entirely frank with each other, or with us. Time to forget the whole nasty business, and move on.