Sunday, 9 December 2012

Interviewing Amy

Last week I had the opportunity to interview reality TV star Amy Childs. Amy shot to fame on ITV2 show 'The Only Way Is Essex', which has divided the people of Essex (some have adopted the show as a lifestyle template, others believe it is detrimental to the entire county's image), and divided critics.

I have only seen one episode of TOWIE and I can't say I was a fan. The cast had gone 'glamping' (glamorous camping) and my only real memory, besides the terribly stilted acting, was the enforced idiocy. Two men were shown trying to dig a toilet with bendy twigs. Nobody is that stupid. The whole thing was clearly staged. I found it infuriating.

Nonetheless, I found Amy to be a lovely woman with a keen business sense and a lot of ambition. Here's how it looked in the paper but I think the image is too small for the print to be visible, so I have pasted the story itself below.

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On Saturday Amy Childs opened her new boutique at Basildon’s Eastgate Centre. With less than 24 hours until the shutters went up, she told YA reporter Charles Thomson about her top secret new TV project and why she would never return to TOWIE.

AMY CHILDS is putting the finishing touches to her new boutique. Tomorrow she will officially open it. Fans are expected to descend on Eastgate in the hope of glimpsing the presenter, model and businesswoman who shot to fame on ITV2’s The Only Way Is Essex. Few of them probably realise that Amy has been at the Eastgate for much of the last two weeks, hidden behind the store’s shutters, personally overseeing the whole project. 

“People think I don’t do anything,” she tells me during a 15-minute break. “They see the products and the shops and they say, ‘What’s she even doing, though?’ But I work hard. I work seven days a week.”

The hard work has paid off. As TOWIE’s most successful alumnus, she is now the face of an ever-expanding business empire which, to date, includes three clothing lines, a range of false eyelashes, her own line of tanning products, a perfume, a magazine column and now plans for a national chain of shops.  

For now, the Basildon boutique is temporary – but if it proves popular it could stay. She will work part-time in the new shop, which will only sell Amy Childs products, in-between shooting dates for a lucrative new TV project she refuses to tell me anything about. 

“I’m really excited about it,” she says. “I’ve been offered so many shows but I wanted to do the right thing for me. I didn’t want to just rush into any old TV show. I can’t tell you anything, but it will be out next year.”

Amy and her fellow TOWIE stars have been the butt of comedians’ jokes since the series first aired in 2010, constantly painted as preening dimwits. 

I suggest to Amy that her burgeoning business empire throws that reputation into serious doubt. 

“It’s not true at all,” she protests. “I’ve always been business-minded. Ever since I was 13 I’ve known I wanted to own shops. I worked in a salon for two-and-a-half years before I was on TOWIE and had lots of clients who came to see me at home. I’ve always worked hard. But when I did TOWIE, doors opened for me.”

So was TOWIE a means to an end? 

“Not at all,” she says. “But I never wanted to be on the telly. I was in two minds when they asked me.”

Amy was the break out star of TOWIE’s first two seasons but departed in late 2011.

“I decided to do the show and just be myself,” she continues. “I loved every minute but nothing lasts forever. It was brilliant for me, but I needed to do this. The show got really big and I thought, ‘You’ve got to make the most of this’. I left at the right time. It’s still a great show but I’d never go back.” 

Amy’s looks and multi-faceted business model have earned comparisons to Katie Price, often cited online as Amy’s ‘idol’. She’s even represented by Price’s old manager. 

However, she laughs off the suggestion that she’s attempting to emulate the former glamour model.
“It’s so funny what the press say,” she giggles. “I said in one interview that I admired Katie and now they say she’s my idol. We are so different. I’m my own person.”

So who is her real idol? 

“Victoria Beckham,” she says, immediately. “She is brilliant. I really look up to her. She looks absolutely fantastic.” 

Amy will hit screens again before Christmas in an appearance on ‘Stephen Fry – Gadget Man’ – a move she hopes will go some way towards dispelling her airhead image. 

“He was so lovely,” she beams. “We were talking all about beauty gadgets. That’s why he came to me – I know my beauty inside-out.

“He was so interested in me. He said he was a big fan of TOWIE.”

He’s not the only one. Amy now has an army of young female admirers, including 1.2million Twitter followers. 

How does it feel, I wonder, to go from complete anonymity to such enormous adulation?

“It is weird having fans” she says. “But it’s amazing. I absolutely love them. They’re like my little family. They’re so sweet.”

Is it a burden being a role model for so many young and impressionable girls?

”I’m just myself. They look up to me but I don’t feel any responsibility because I’ve always been the same way. They love me for me.”

Gay Hairdresser Stabbing; Has copy & paste journalism turned an aggressor into a victim?

On Tuesday morning I made my way over to Basildon Crown Court, as I often do. I had been following the case of Lee Howett, a 26-year-old man from Stanford-Le-Hope in Essex, since his first appearance at Basildon Magistrates Court on Thursday, August 23rd. Howett was charged with a Section 18 'Wounding with Intent' offence. A hairdresser by trade, he had stabbed a man with a pair of scissors at Basildon rail station on June 24th. He didn't enter a plea at that Magistrates Court hearing. His case was referred to Crown because of its seriousness.

A Plea & Case Management Hearing was held once the case got to Crown Court, where Howett entered a guilty plea. On Tuesday he appeared at Basildon Crown to be sentenced for his crime.

When I arrived at court, a reporter from our rival newspaper The Echo was already in the building. We both scribbled notes throughout Howett's hearing. Howett had been waiting for a train when three intoxicated football fans had spilled onto the platform, singing and shouting. Howett shouted at them to 'shut up'.

Howett claimed one of the men responded with a homophobic comment. CCTV played in court showed that Howett then lunged at the man three times. On the last occasion, he had taken a pair of scissors from his bag. He plunged them, between one and one-and-a-half inches deep, into his victim's back. Had he hit the man's spine - and he wasn't far off - he could have been paralysed or killed. Howett was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

As my paper, the Yellow Advertiser, is a weekly title, the Echo - a daily - inevitably beat us to publication. By the time our paper hit streets, the Echo's report had already been picked up by the Daily Mail. From there it was republished by outlets from France to Florida. Europe's biggest gay news outlet Pink News ran the story. So did US websites Queerty and GayStarNews.

Many of these reports were somewhat sympathetic to Howett. Rightly so, you might think. He was a young man on a train platform who simply asked some unruly men to be quiet and was in turn abused over his sexuality. He snapped and plunged pair of scissors into his tormentor's back. It may not be the best way of dealing with the situation, but many might find it understandable.

Indeed, much of the user discussion on Pink News was supportive of Howett.

"If the 'victim' had kept his mouth shut he wouldn't have been stabbed," wrote a poster called Allex. "What goes around comes around. More of these straight thugs need to be taught a lesson."

Another user, B Ingram, wrote, "I'm not a fan of violence but I have to say, as I read more and more stories on would-be gay victims of hate crimes fighting back, I am thrilled."

Some posters felt justice was unequal for members of the LGBT community. They suggested that if Howett's victim had instead attacked Howett, his sentence would have been much more lenient. A poster called Adam wrote, "If [Howett] had been stabbed or beaten to a pulp, the men, if caught, may get a fine."

Another poster, called Another Hannah, wrote, "This is a sentence which is obviously disproportionate to the sentences given when the boot is on the other foot."

However, all of the above articles, which prompted these sympathetic responses, omit what I consider to be a vital piece of information. Here's a copy of my report in the Yellow Advertiser. See if you can spot what was left out of everybody else's stories.

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Lee Howett already had another conviction for possessing a bladed article in a public place. That conviction was for using a pair of scissors in a threatening manner. He had been found guilty of brandishing the scissors in a supermarket in Grays. He did so when confronted by staff who had caught him stealing alcohol. He was handed an 18-month community order for the crime. He had various other prior convictions too, including more than one count of assaulting a police officer.

Moreover, no evidence was presented to suggest that Howett had actually been the victim of homophobic abuse. It was always Howett's contention, but it was never proved. During Howett's Plea and Case Management Hearing there was talk of holding a Newton Hearing - a trial of issue - to hear evidence on the point and have the judge make a decision as to whether he felt Howett's claim was true. Judge Owen-Jones decided not to hold the hearing. On Tuesday, he said he was prepared to give Howett 'the benefit of the doubt'. In his summing up, he said Howett had 'probably' been the subject of a homophobic remark.

That's not quite how many of the outlets who ran the story presented it, though. The Daily Mail's intro read, "A gay hairdresser has been jailed for two and a half years after he stabbed a man with a pair of scissors in revenge for making a homophobic comment. Lee Howett snapped after a passenger waiting at Basildon rail station, Essex, abused him over his sexuality during a series of skirmishes."

It is not a matter of fact that Lee Howett was the subject of a homophobic comment. Moreover, the phrase 'abused him over his sexuality during a series of skirmishes' suggests a flurry of homophobic insults, whereas Howett alleged only one, and that one was alleged to have happened before the physical skirmishes - which Howett started - not during.

The inclusion of the alleged homophobic slur as fact, coupled with the omission of Howett's prior convictions and the use of the word 'snapped', paint a picture of an innocent bystander provoked into an uncharacteristically violent act by an extreme set of circumstances. The evidence does not fit that picture. The evidence suggests Howett's behaviour was entirely characteristic. He had prior convictions for violence and a prior conviction involving a bladed article.  The evidence also does not suggest any extreme circumstances. Being called a single homophobic name is not pleasant, by any stretch of the imagination. But nor is it sufficiently unusual to be held up as an excuse for a stabbing.

The Echo report which sparked the global coverage did not mention Howett's prior convictions. I won't criticise the Echo for that. Facts get left out of court stories, by necessity, all the time. To put everything that is said during a hearing like Howett's into a newspaper would be impractical. It would fill half the paper and nobody would read it. The job of the court reporter is to present the salient information to the reader without misleading them or giving undue weight to either party.

The Echo may have felt the information wasn't especially important. That is a perfectly valid opinion. All journalism is subjective. I have often quoted Carl Bernstein on the subject. Mr Bernstein once said that the very act of journalism is subjective, because reporters and editors decide what is or is not news. Unless everything that happens in the world on any given day - every flick of a light switch - is reported, then somebody, somewhere has made a decision as to what is or is not news.

But I found it interesting how the dynamics of the story were so drastically changed by that simple omission. Coincidentally, when I brought the story back to the newsroom on Tuesday morning, a senior staff member said it was a shame about the prior convictions because without them, it could be a great story about a put-upon gay man who, after years of taunts, snapped and attacked one of his bullies. Of course, we could have taken a decision to omit the prior convictions and write that story - but that wasn't an option we even considered.

After watching the story go around the world in the form that it did, it would have been easy to kick ourselves for not simply omitting the prior bladed article conviction and turning the Howett case into the story we wished it had been. The money we could have made! But we had a discussion on Friday and concluded fairly quickly that we had done the right thing.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Back To School

Last month I received two letters in the post at work from children at a local primary school. They were studying 'how the media affects our lives' and they wanted a real-life journalist to come in and give a talk. Ordinarily I would have politely declined, as I am no fan of public speaking, but my colleague Suzi talked me into it.

So last week the pair of us went to the school and spent an hour being grilled by 60 kids, all aged 10 and 11. Their teachers hadn't told them in advance that we were coming in and when they discovered who we were, I was susprised to hear them all gasp. It was a big deal to them, which just made me even more nervous.

Lots of hands in the air, waiting to ask questions.

Thankfully, Suzi was brilliant. Having had some teacher training, she was able to talk to the kids on a level they could understand, adopting a sort of animated persona and keeping them giggling. They were a little too young to grasp a lot of what our job entails - trying to explain government corruption to a 10-year-old is a losing battle, and the content of a lot of the court and crime stories we cover would be entirely inappropriate for their age group.

 Suzi and I answering questions.

However, they were very entertained to hear that I had just interviewed a man who was about to chain himself to a tree to stop the local council from chopping it down, and they loved hearing about the time Suzi had lunch with Prince Charles. They asked, bizarrely, if either of us had met James Bond and were most excited to hear that I had once got Daniel Craig's autograph (nothing to do with work, though!).

We got some lovely 'thank you' letters in the post a few days later. One of them said, "Throughout the amazing hour you were here we have learnt much more about the media than we expected to know by the end of this topic. We had lots of fun and are now inspired to become journalists like you."

Pictures supplied by Laura Dance.

It was nice to see that the kids were so excited to have us there and to know that they enjoyed the experience. Maybe I'll be less hesitant when the next letter comes in.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Another Tom Mesereau Endorsement!

Randall Sullivan's new Michael Jackson biography is causing a lot of controversy. It's not hard to see why. Last weekend I spotted a feature in the Mail on Sunday, taken from Sullivan's book. It included an allegation that Jackson's years of plastic surgery had left him with no nose and he had to wear a prosthesis. The story said Jackson kept a jar of fake noses and a tube of glue beside his bed.

The story is absurd, of course. Jackson's full autopsy report leaked after his death. Autopsy reports contain anything and everything about a body which is considered to be unusual. Jackson's mentioned scars behind his ears caused by his plastic surgery. It mentioned black tattooing on his head to disguise his baldness. It mentioned his dental work. What it didn't mention, though, was anything about Jackson not having a nose or anything about him wearing a prosthesis. Ergo, story is demonstrably false.

I haven't read Randall Sullivan's book yet so I won't comment on it as a whole, but the Mail on Sunday article was a travesty of journalism. At first I found it disappointing, but when I realised that it was not only Sullivan who had let the prosthetic nose nonsense into print but also his publishers', their legal team and subsequently the Mail on Sunday's editorial and legal staff, I thought it stopped being disappointing and started being sinister.

There is no way the story could go through to many legal checks without somebody realising it was deranged. It was clearly sent to print in the knowledge that it was false. And if it wasn't, every staff member who checked it before it went to print should be sacked with immediate effect because they are incompetent. On the other hand, if they sent it to print in the knowledge it was false then they should still be sacked. Either way, they are unfit to do their jobs.

Anyway, I digress. I got an email the other day to tell me that I am repeatedly referenced in Randall Sullivan's book. In his acknowledgements section he describes my Huffington Post articles about Michael Jackson as 'excellent' and I am told he references them several times.

Even more excitingly, Mr Sullivan writes in the acknowledgements that he was introduced to my work by none other than Thomas Mesereau, the magnificent civil rights attorney who secured Jackson's acquittal in his 2005 trial.

 Thomas Mesereau endorses my work to Randall Sullivan.
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I met Mr Mesereau and his co-counsel Susan Yu at the London premiere of David Gest's Michael Jackson documentary 'Life of an Icon' last year. They were both very complimentary about my work. I had appeared on the radio with Mr Mesereau a few weeks earlier where he had also praised my work. However, I was unsure if he was just being polite. He seems like a very nice man.

To learn that Mr Mesereau privately refers people to my work when they ask him questions about the Michael Jackson trial is extremely humbling. I was a journalism student when Jackson's trial was going on. I remember following it every day - reading the transcripts and the media coverage. I remember watching the verdicts live on BBC News with my mother and my brother. I could never have even conceived at that time that one day Tom Mesereau would be pointing to me as an authority on the trial he worked so hard to win.

So anyway, a big thank you to Tom Mesereau - a hero not only for his valiant work in 2005 but for his catalogue of pro bono work in the Deep South. He is a conscientious and valiant man who excels in his profession. As Mr Sullivan writes in his acknowledgements - Mr Mesereau is just about the only prominent figure in Jackson's life who has escaped significant criticism from his fans. It is an honour to have his endorsement.

 Thomas Mesereau and Susan Yu at the London premiere of 'Life of an Icon'. Picture by Angela Kande.
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Thursday, 11 October 2012

London Film Festival: Ralph Steadman Update

I promised to notify you as soon as my interview with Ralph Steadman was published. Here it is as it appeared in this week's editions of the Yellow Advertiser - Britain's biggest regional newspaper series. Unless you have a massive screen, you won't be able to read that, though, so click here to read it on the YA website.

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London Film Festival: Inside the European Premiere of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie

Those of you who have followed me on twitter for a while or who know me in person will know that the London Film Festival is something I'm very passionate about. I first joined the BFI and became aware of the festival as a teenaged film student. Since then I have set aside the duration of the festival every year to squeeze in as many galas, screenings and events as I can. In 2010, I even covered the festival for two American websites. A lot of my reviews from that year are available here.

This year I achieved a festival first by scoring tickets to the opening night gala - they're like gold dust - which also happened to be the European Premiere of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie 3D. Mr Burton was in attendance, as were cast members including Catherine O'Hara and Martin Landau. I took my younger brother - an animation student. It was his first ever movie premiere. 

On the red carpet.
Click to enlarge. Picture property of Charles Thomson.

The film itself is a remake of sorts. In the 1980s Burton made a short film titled Frankenweenie - a live action piece which borrowed heavily from Frankenstein, about a boy scientist who revived his pet dog. It appeared as a special feature on several incarnations of the Edward Scissorhands DVD. He has now revived the piece as a feature-length, stop-motion, 3D spectacular.

Tim Burton took to the stage to introduce the movie.
Click to enlarge. Picture property of Charles Thomson.

I caught Burton's last offering - Dark Shadows - on a plane from Boston to Heathrow last month. Halfway through, I switched off and opted to watch a small animated plane chart our progress across a map of the Atlantic Ocean instead. His previous two features - Alice In Wonderland and Sweeney Todd - held my attention a little better but still seemed to be lacking that quintessential Tim Burton charm. So I am relieved to report that Frankenweenie is his best offering in years.

Deeply moving in some places and hilarious in others, it is thematically similar to Edward Scissorhands, exploring the plight of the misunderstood outsider and the injustices they can face. The animation is beautiful and the script is clever enough to keep both kids and parents entertained. For movie buffs, it's also crammed with funny references to horror flicks and monster movies spanning all eras, from Bride of Frankenstein and Godzilla to Jurassic Park and American Werewolf in London.

To top off the evening, I walked away with a goody bag from festival sponsor American Express.

The American Express goody bag.
Click to enlarge. Picture property of Charles Thomson.

He's some video my brother and I took from our second row seats inside the cinema. The crowd was entertained by a live organist until Tim Burton took the stage to introduce his ensemble cast.The movie received a rapturous round of applause as the credits began to roll.

The Lost Interview

In September 2010 I received an email from an aspiring writer called Danielle, asking me to take part in a Q&A about journalism ethics and practices. My heavy work load meant that I didn't complete the interview - carried out via correspondence - until June 2011. By that point Danielle was busy with her own journalism degree and publication was delayed a couple of times. Until tonight, I had forgotten about it.

But I just received an email from Danielle to tell me that at long last - almost 18 months after it was completed - our interview has gone live. Looking over it, I had forgotten how much depth I went into for some of the questions - they are like essays on particular areas of journalism ethics.

Amongst many other issues, I talk to her about why objectivity in journalism is actually often a bad thing, the institutional problems which can lead to farcical reporting and the journalists inspired me - and still inspire me - to do what I do.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Meeting Michael Bush: Update

As I signed off my previous blog about my exclusive preview of the new Michael Jackson exhibition, I promised to post the article as soon as it was published. Here it is as it appeared in the Yellow Advertiser, Britain's biggest regional newspaper.

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The interview, which lasted roughly half an hour, produced a 4,000 word transcript. Limited space in the newspaper meant it had to be cut to 600 words. I may post an extended version of the piece online in the future.

Fear and Loathing at the London Film Festival

On Friday, the morning after my advance tour of the Michael Jackson exhibition, I set about trying to arrange another interview. The London Film Festival begins this week and I knew that a documentary was screening about Ralph Steadman.

Mr Steadman is probably best known for his collaborations with Hunter S Thompson and I am a huge fan of their work together. I even wrote my university dissertation on Hunter's gonzo journalism and to what extent its influence could still be felt in contemporary journalism.

While the pair's most famous collaboration is probably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I have two favourites; one from the early years and one from the latter. The first was their debut, 'The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved', written for short-lived magazine Scanlan's. The second is a giant coffee table book, 'The Curse of Lono', in which Hunter drags Ralph to Hawaii to observe a marathon, setting in motion a chain of catastrophic events.

Knowing the Steadman documentary - 'For No Good Reason' - was screening at the film festival a week later, I called the press office on Friday morning to see whether Mr Steadman might be in town giving interviews at any point.

To my surprise, I was told Mr Steadman was at the BFI National Film Theatre at that very moment. At midday I received an email telling me I had been allocated a slot at 2pm. I had nothing with me - no dictaphone, no camera - so had to leg it home, gather my equipment and dash to the train station.

I made it to the BFI with just ten minutes to spare but that didn't matter in the end. The gentleman before me was still waiting and we were told there was a backlog. As time wore on - and 2pm became 3pm - we were approached, variously, by PR workers, the film's executive producer and its director, all of whom explained that Ralph had a tendency to veer off on wild tangents and his interviews were all overrunning as a consequence.

 (Click to enlarge)
Photo property of Charles Thomson

Eventually, Mr Steadman loomed over me, grinning maniacally and claiming I shouldn't ask him any questions because he was a 'moron'. It was a strange beginning to a strange interview, which should be published later this week.

Before we parted ways, I asked Mr Steadman if he'd do me the honour of signing my copy of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' ('The Curse of Lono' wouldn't fit in my bag). He went a step further, drawing Hunter's face - complete with cigarette holder - then raising his fountain pen above his head and flicking it downwards, splurting ink all over the book (and my dictaphone and the BFI's table). We had a few pictures taken and then I headed home.

It was certainly not an encounter I'll forget in a hurry. As soon as the article is published, I will post it here.

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Photo property of Charles Thomson

Friday, 5 October 2012

The Michael Jackson FBI Files Revisited

Several months ago I gave an interview to Dancing With The Elephant - a blog which takes an academic look at the life and work of Michael Jackson. The blog owners Willa and Joie, who I have taken part in round table discussions with in the past, wanted to talk to me about my work on Jackson's trial and, in particular, my involvement in the release of his FBI files.

The interview finally went online today and can be read here.

Meeting Michael Bush

Tonight was the official press launch of 'The Collection of Tompkins and Bush: Michael Jackson Wardrobe'. The exhibition - which will run at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, London, until early next month - features an array of iconic outfits from all of Jackson's world tours as well as his music videos and other public appearances. Each of the costumes on display was designed by Michael Jackson's costume designers of 25 years - Dennis Tompkins and Michael Bush.

This evening I had the great honour of being the first journalist in Britain to be taken on a tour of the exhibition. My tour guide? Michael Bush.

The press launch officially began at 5.30 this evening, but I met Mr Bush outside at 5pm, where I chatted to him for about 15 minutes while we waited for the lights inside the gallery to be switched on. When everything was up and running we continued our interview inside as he led me around his favourite exhibits.

The exhibition, which coincides with the imminent publication of Mr Bush's book 'The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson', is definitely an exercise in quality over quantity. The space isn't enormous, but it is teeming with historic designs. You will see the suit Michael Jackson wore for the Smooth Criminal short film. The outfit he wore in the Scream music video. The patented shoes he invented with Bush and Tompkins so he could lean forward 45 degrees live on-stage. The outfit he wore during his 1993 Superbowl performance. The costume he used to open his Bad World Tour. And a whole lot more.

Michael Jackson's Bad Tour costume. Click to enlarge. Photo property of Charles Thomson.

The collection is not complete. Some items displayed at previous incarnations of the exhibition are nowhere to be seen in London. They include Jackson's gold costume from the HIStory World Tour, the suit he wore in 2002 for his last ever live performance in front of an audience and the jacket he wore in his Leave Me Alone music video. Also missing are various signed sketches demonstrating Jackson's involvement in the design process.

This could be because the collection has been split. According to the tour schedule, it opens in Tokyo before it closes in London - so it follows that the missing items are probably on their way to Japan. That said, I've been told that some items will be switched over on October 14th to change things up, so perhaps these missing items will manifest themselves then.

After Tokyo, the collection will go on display in Los Angeles. Then, across three days in November and December, the items will be auctioned off. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to charity. Mr Bush explained to me his decision to sell off the items in our interview, which will be published next week.

Our discussion ranged from how certain costumes were conceived and created to why Michael Jackson took such a long break from touring between 1997 and 2009. Mr Bush also spoke to me about his work on This Is It in the months before Jackson passed away and, at one point, became choked up as he explained how the death of his partner Dennis Tompkins last December reaffirmed his decision to write the book and take the costumes around the world.

As soon as the interview is published, I will post it here.

Charles Thomson and Michael Bush pose in front of two of Michael Jackson's Bad Tour jackets. Click to enlarge. Photo property of Charles Thomson.

Friday, 28 September 2012

How I Stumbled Upon A Religious Sex Abuse Scandal

Last Wednesday afternoon I headed to court, as I often do, to sit in on an afternoon sentencing hearing. I had checked the court listings that morning - which I do every day - and spotted a name which had been on the lists a lot in recent months. Barry Snow. I had some vague awareness that it was a sex abuse case but couldn't remember the details, so I rang the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) press office for the charges.

Nine counts of indecent assault, I was told. 'On children?' I asked. The press officer said they didn't think they were supposed to say either way. That was a nonsense, of course - all charges are public information - but the press officer's reticence told me everything I needed to know.

It was lucky that I headed to court that day, because the prosecution of Barry Snow highlighted an appalling oversight in the British legal system - and I was the only journalist in court to hear about it.

In the late 1970s, Barry Snow - a member of the Jehovah's Witness church - repeatedly molested a girl under the age of 10. When the girl's parents, who had connections to the religion, discovered the abuse, they reported Snow to the church as Jehovah's Witnesses are often encouraged to do. When the church confronted Barry Snow, he confessed everything.

The church, now aware that multiple crimes had been committed against a child, did not report these crimes to the police. Instead, the church dealt with Barry Snow internally. It gave him counseling and imposed 'sanctions' on him - although nobody remembers what they were. The sanctions didn't work. Roughly three years later, Barry Snow repeatedly molested another girl. His abuse this time around was more invasive than in the previous case. He had escalated.

Snow's crimes only came to police attention in recent years when his two victims found out about each other's abuse through mutual acquaintances and decided to report him. As a result of Snow's prosecution, his first victim's report to the church in the late 1970s was made public. Summing up before he sentenced Barry Snow, Judge Jonathan Black criticised the church's handling of the allegations. I wondered whether anybody would be prosecuted over their failure to report the abuse at the time.

This led me to a shocking discovery. Under UK law, there is no legal obligation for any organisation - be it a school, a church or a football club - to report child abuse to police. If a teacher witnesses your child being molested by another teacher and fails to report the discovery, they may be sacked but they cannot be prosecuted. Or, as child abuse campaigner Tom Perry put it to me, when your child attends any sort of school, club or church and a staff member sees them being abused, your child has no statutory right to have that abuse reported to anybody.

Campaigners, charities and lawyers are fighting to introduce a law which criminalises the willful withholding of information about child abuse, but some told me that the government simply refuses to listen to them - perhaps too embarrassed to acknowledge that the law has not existed for all these years. Most people assume - as I assumed - that such a law would exist. It seems like a no-brainer.

My reports on Barry Snow and how Britain's legal system is failing child sex abuse victims have sparked some debate. Articles on our website very rarely generate comments, with most contributors favouring our Letters Page, but these stories have attracted international attention. Here they are as they appeared in the newspaper, splashed across the front page and continued inside.

To join the debate, visit the online versions here and here.

"I had Michael Jackson on my knee at 10 years old!"

One of the best things about my job is that it brings me into contact with a lot of interesting people - from Lords of the land to legends of the music industry. Last week brought me into contact with one of the latter - former Temptations singer Richard Street.

Richard, who will be 70 years old next week, is currently on an extended UK tour and will soon roll up in Essex. As such, I managed to wangle a 40-minute telephone interview to promote his upcoming gig. During our chat he told me an extremely condensed version of his life story - and it was truly inspiring.

Richard's story could have been far less inspiring. It could have been deeply tragic. In fact, he could have become Motown's answer to the Fifth Beatle - for in the early 1960s, after having been a member of Detroit vocal group The Distants for a number of years, Richard was forced to quit the band in order to help support his mother. Months after he left, the Distants were signed to Motown and rechristened the Temptations. As his former bandmates shot to fame, Richard worked in a nightclub.

But, determined not to be left behind, Richard soon found his way into Motown, invited by producer friend Norman Whitfield to join the company's quality control department. There his job was to listen to all the artists' cuts for any flaws in the recordings. If he found any, they were re-recorded. If he didn't, they were passed to Berry Gordy and the other label heads, who would decide which were worthy of release.

The job also brought Richard into contact with the label's stars, from former girlfriend Diana Ross to future King of Pop Michael Jackson, who Richard recalled mentoring and playing basketball with.

By the early 1970s, Richard had worked his way back into the Temptations, just in time to record what would become their most critically acclaimed song: triple-Grammy winner Papa Was A Rolling Stone. He and his bandmates went on to win several American Music Awards and were later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Editing for newspapers is a ruthless business. The article has to be chopped until it fits into the space available on the page. As such, my 40-minute interview was trimmed to just 600 words. Perhaps I will upload an extended cut onto my website soon. In the meantime, though, here's the published version. Click to enlarge.

Click here to add comments.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

'When Are We Going To Start Being Disobedient?'

A few weeks ago I went to a couple of events at the London Literature Festival. The first was an evening with legendary investigative journalist John Pilger, whose work I have admired ever since I had to write an essay about him when I was studying for my journalism degree.

Pilger's career is now in its sixth decade. His documentary films are some of the most celebrated and respected in all 20th and 21st century journalism. His work on the forgotten victims of the Thalidomide scandal helped secure government compensation for several sufferers who had previously been denied any financial aid. As a war correspondent he has consistently revealed the stories we are never told about our troops' activities in far-flung lands and the devastation they leave behind.

In later years his focus shifted slightly from the atrocities themselves to the media's often biased or simply non-existent coverage of them. Not one to rest on his laurels, he continues to ruffle government feathers. His latest film 'The War You Don't See' - all about the so-called war on terrorism - was banned in the USA.

He appeared on-stage at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall in conversation with BBC's Robin Denselow. Topics ranged from government censorship to the pointlessness of twitter to the 'heroic' Julian Assange. I wrote a report about the event for the Yellow Advertiser, which I'm now uploading here:

‘When are we going to start being disobedient?’ asks John Pilger

(Written: Sat 14th July 2012)

Picture courtesy of Southbank Centre press office. Photographer: Garaint Lewis.

“The institution of so-called mainstream journalism lets people down,” John Pilger said bluntly at the London Literature Festival this week.

For six decades, Pilger’s books, articles and films have revealed the atrocities committed in distant lands by Western governments and the media’s apparent willingness to cover them up.

His most recent film, 2010’s The War You Don’t See, examined Western reporting on the ‘war on terror’ and what the media doesn’t tell us about our troops’ activities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was banned in America.

Interviewed by the BBC’s Robin Denselow before a sold-out audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Pilger said the media is obsessed with immediacy and bombards us with the ephemeral.

“I think we have two goals” he said of the media’s role in society. “One is to do as best we can to try and find out what the hell is going on: ie. Truth.

“Two, I think our job is to call those in charge of so much of our lives to account – and we don’t.”

Part of the problem is the ‘cosy relationship’ between journalists and politicians, he argued – and this stems from budding reporters being taught to seek information from official sources.

“It’s certainly something that those who teach journalists should think about,” he said. “Even the academic side to journalism perpetuates this idea that there is simply a narrow form of journalism and that the main source for journalism comes from above, not from below.

“I think too many young journalists believe that they’re sort of ordained as journalists if they take on a kind of fake impartiality and a skepticism about their readers, viewers and listeners – instead of a skepticism about authority.”

Pilger said this mindset was obvious in the coverage of the Iraq War.

He complained that almost all media outlets had wound up perpetuating the ‘demonstrably made-up’ story about the existence of WMDS because they had fallen into the common journalistic trap of seeking information from ‘authoritative’ sources.

“I think truth is much more important than running the voice of authority,” he said. “It will be an imperfect journey, but getting somewhere near what might be the truth is what it really ought to be about. Not getting the voice of authority versus the opposing voice and calling that impartiality.”

BBC man Robin Denselow attracted Pilger’s ire by suggested that the expensiveness of investigative journalism is a complicating factor.

“Investigations don’t cost a fraction of, say, the Human Resources staff at the BBC,” Pilger retorted, “and the scandal of the management of the BBC and their Bob Diamond impulses. That should all be going into investigative journalism.”

A ‘seismic shift’ is needed in journalism, Pilger continued: “We need a fifth estate – not a fourth estate anymore – in which we stop thinking that journalism that is beholden to the State or to the Corporate State is independent. It isn’t. It’s an extension.”

However, Pilger did not offer any suggestion as to how journalists working independently of the State or the Corporate State might fund their investigations.

Julian Assange was about the only media figure to escape Pilger’s wrath.

Describing Assange’s Wikileaks releases as ‘almost heroic’, Pilger accused the media of turning on him.

The backlash came, he said, because Wikileaks illuminated mainstream journalism’s failings.

“It arrived with scoop after scoop after scoop, telling us what we should have been told by investigative journalists and current affairs programmes... That’s one of the reasons, in my view, that Wikileaks caused so much angst and anger amongst mainstream journalists. Because it shamed journalism. It went into areas that journalists had let alone.

“I think what we’ve had is a kind of malevolent Greek chorus about Julian Assange. I think the coverage of Assange is one of the great stains on journalism. You only have to read the truly malign, almost malignant, tweets from well-known journalists. I suppose that’s the value of Twitter, isn’t it? Because out pops what they really want to say.”

Overall, Pilger isn’t especially impressed by social networking sites. Their contribution to journalism, he said, had been ‘utterly exaggerated’.

“Does it help us to make sense of things?” he asked. “I think that’s what’s missing. We’re bombarded by the ephemeral. There’s an avalanche of it.”

Twitter, he said, is just another example of the media’s growing obsession with immediacy – an obsession which breeds homogeny and robs reporting of any real depth or insight.

“I’m so pleased I had nothing to do with the constant voice in your ear when you’re in Baghdad or somewhere else,” he said of his own TV career. “You’re on duty 24 hours a day and you’re being forced to keep something going but there’s no time gap. There’s no time for reflection on what you’ve seen.

“I don’t think that leaves them anywhere to go but to the press conference. To follow where everyone else is going – to cover themselves. You’ve got to cover what the competition is doing.”

For all his complaints about journalism’s current state, Pilger said he wasn’t depressed about its future – because as long as young journalists understand the industry’s problems, they can work around them.

He explained: “The advent of young journalists understanding [the problems], but not giving up on journalism; Learning to navigate their way through systems and challenging systems if that’s possible in these economically strapped times – I think that’s very, very encouraging.”

There is no greater job, he said, than being a reporter.

“I believe very strongly in being a reporter,” he told the crowd, “and being a witness. I think that sense of being a reporter is something that I have always been proud to be – because it’s such a privilege. People allowing you into their homes, trusting you and telling you their stories.”

The event closed with an audience question about the lack of public protest in these turbulent times.

“What has happened to protest?” the audience member asked. “Why are the numbers so low? Where the hell is everyone?”

“I ask that question myself,” Pilger replied. “But it still can happen and it can happen in a mass sense. In those countries where it can’t happen, it does happen – and we should draw inspiration from them.”

He recalled that American activist Howard Zinn once said, "It's not mass civil disobedience that is the problem. It's mass civil obedience."

Before the lights went up, Pilger asked the audience: "When are we going to start being disobedient?"

Charles Thomson and John Pilger at the London Literature Festival.

An edited audio recording of John Pilger in conversation is available for download on the London Literature Festival website.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Access Privé: An Update

My appearance on Access Privé, a French news and current affairs show, aired a couple of days earlier than I had anticipated. I got a few messages on twitter from people saying they'd seen it go out on TV station M6 on Saturday afternoon. Apologies for not letting you know in advance - I thought it was set to air on Monday.

The interview was filmed on Thursday, June 7th, at the Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge. All I really knew at the time was that the show was intended to mark three years since Michael Jackson's death and would focus on the extent of Conrad Murray's culpability.

(Click to enlarge)

I was concerned about how it would turn out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was rather unwell at the time. My voice just about held out for the duration of filming. I think my illness is evident when you watch the report. I look rather clammy and tired. I'd also been rained on while on my way to the recording! But c'est la vie.

Secondly, I was worried because the interviewer, Amal El Hachimi, kept asking me about individual people and whether I thought they were culpable in Michael Jackson's death. I had never been involved in this sort of show before and I was concerned that if the editing made it look like I'd answered affirmatively, I could have found myself in a very precarious legal situation!

As it turned out, the direction of the report changed somewhat after Spica Productions TV - the production company behind Access Privé - was told by M6 that it had to tone down any suggestion that Jackson's death was linked to stress caused by rehearsals for his This Is It concerts. This decision was taken because M6 had recently acquired the rights to screen the movie This Is It.

I knew in advance that one of the show's other interviewees was Frank Cascio, but didn't know until I watched it that it also included contributions from Matt Fiddes and Dr Drew. Not the best company to find onself in, some might say, but I have no idea what any of them said because they were all dubbed over by French voice-over artists.

(Click to enlarge)

As far as I could make out, I was quoted on Michael Jackson's admission in 1993 that he had developed a painkiller dependency, what my personal interpretation was of the song Morphine, and what I thought about Michael Jackson's condition during the This Is It rehearsals.

My cumulative screentime was something in the region of about two minutes, if that, edited from an hour-long interview. My main concern had been that in cutting sixty minutes down to two, it would have been very easy to misrepresent me, even if unintentionally. Thankfully, it doesn't look like that happened.

Although M6 sent down the order that Spica Production TV should tone down any suggestions that Jackson's death was brought on by his concert rehearsals, journalist Marie Juteau - who had overall responsibility for the report - told me that she refused to cut out a segment about an email This Is It director Kenny Ortega sent to concert promoter Randy Phillips during the rehearsal period. The email was read out during Conrad Murray's manslaughter trial.

In the email, Ortega told Phillips that at rehearsals Jackson was like a 'lost boy'. He said Jackson was 'trembling, rambling and obsessing'. He told Phillips that Jackson should be psychologically evaluated, mentioned 'pulling the plug' and said that those involved had tried using 'tough love' on Jackson but it had not worked. In the final Access Privé report, I was shown speaking about the email and Marie included footage from Murray's trial of Ortega reading it aloud in court.

Besides that, not much to report. This was really just an update to explain why I didn't let people know in advance that it was going to air on Saturday.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

My Upcoming French TV Appearance: A Preview

On June 20th, French TV station France Ô will screen Conrad Murray's controversial documentary about the death of Michael Jackson - and a lot of Jackson's fans are less than happy about it. Largely shot during Murray's trial and shown around the world in the weeks after he was found guilty of Jackson's manslaughter, the documentary tells his version of what happened on June 25th 2009, the day Michael Jackson died in his care.

The documentary sparked outrage when it first aired in November last year. Jackson's fans organised a campaign and vowed to boycott, while his Estate publicly demanded that it be banned from the airwaves. In an open letter to Comcast, NBC and MSNBC, the Estate complained that Murray had 'refused to tell his story under penalty of perjury in a court of law' but had now, post-conviction, released a documentary in which he blamed Michael Jackson for his own death.

Ultimately, the documentary did Murray no favours. It actually became an aggravating factor in his sentencing hearing. In a witness impact statement, Jackson's mother Katherine wrote that Murray's comments in the documentary had added 'insult to injury' and showed that he was 'clearly not remorseful'. Judge Pastor, who presided over Murray's trial, agreed and sentenced him to the maximum possible jail term for Michael Jackson's manslaughter.

Fans have set up petitions and launched a huge campaign to have the documentary pulled from France Ô's schedule. Of course, the petitions will almost certainly be futile affairs. There's probably more chance of Conrad Murray releasing an album called Michael Jackson's Killer and outselling Michael Jackson's Thriller than there is of the show being pulled from the airwaves at this stage. If anything, the fans are most likely generating more buzz around the show, which will ultimately lead more people to switch on and see what all the fuss is about.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of these fans have never seen the documentary. I remember mentioning on Twitter that I'd watched it back in November and being sent a number of rude tweets, informing me that I should be ashamed of myself for tuning in. It was awful, the fans said, and they were boycotting it. But how did they know it was awful if they refused to watch it? How can one intelligently comment upon a documentary without having seen it?

If those fans had tuned in, they would know that for the vast majority of the show - currently on YouTube, for anyone interested in checking it out - Murray comes across as a deeply deluded individual, to whom telling lies comes as naturally as breathing. He constantly makes claims which were refuted by the evidence in his trial and the camera crew also films his defence team as they scheme to concoct outlandish theories around the prosecution's evidence.

In one scene, Murray's defence lawyers are seen wracking their brains for ways in which to counter the evidence of anesthetic expert Dr Steven Schafer, who quite literally wrote the instruction manual that comes inside every propofol box.  Lawyer Michael Flanagan is actually filmed suggesting that the defence needs to convince jurors that the coroner's verdict on Jackson's cause of death is incorrect. "We gotta get it to be a cardiac arrest," he says. The scene epitomises Murray's defence: 'Ok, our last harebrained theory hasn't panned out, what's our next one?'

In another scene, Murray - looking like a pay-per-view faith healer - closes his eyes and waves his arms in the air as he describes how the Holy Spirit came to him in a dream and promised to 'keep me safely in the secret chambers of his tabernacle'.

Any right-minded viewer watching the deranged doctor's ramblings will be left with the impression that this is a man they wouldn't leave in charge of their shopping cart, let alone their life. Far from painting Murray as a sympathetic figure, it only reinforces the perception of him as a charlatan. In the UK, it was screened under the title, The Man Who Killed Michael Jackson.

Amid all the controversy surrounding Murray's documentary, I was contacted a few weeks ago by a production company working for another French TV station called M6. The company was putting together a documentary to mark the third anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. The show would focus on the circumstances surrounding Jackson's death and, specifically, whether Conrad Murray was the only doctor to blame.

I am firmly of the opinion that Murray is the only doctor to blame for Jackson's death and thought taking part would be a good opportunity to make that point. The M6 documentary, titled Access Privé, is scheduled to air on June 25th, five days after the Murray documentary, and M6 scores far higher ratings than France Ô.

Picture: Angela Kande

I was interviewed for the show on Thursday, June 7th, at the Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge, London - about a two-minute walk from Jackson's favourite London shopping centre, Harrods. I was interviewed for roughly an hour by Amal El Hachimi from Spica Production TV, the company making the report.

It wasn't the easiest of interviews. The documentary's aim is to explore whether any other doctors were at all culpable in Jackson's death. I was repeatedly asked about the actions of other doctors who treated Jackson over the years. Questions like that are a legal minefield. To even hint that a doctor may have behaved unethically when they have never been charged, let alone convicted, is extremely legally precarious.

I wasn't too put off by the line of questioning. Amal kept returning to the subject, but I remained resolute: Michael Jackson's cause of death was acute propofol intoxication. Ergo, the doctor who administered that propofol - Conrad Murray - is the only doctor legally culpable for Jackson's death. If other doctors gave him medication over the years which they shouldn't have done, they should certainly be prosecuted for that - but the fact is, Jackson died on Murray's watch and as a direct consequence of Murray's actions.

I was asked a lot of questions about demerol, but stated repeatedly that there had been no findings in Jackson's autopsy to indicate any demerol addiction. There was certainly never any implication that it played a role in his death.

Other topics covered included theories that Jackson was worth more dead than alive, speculation that his publishing catalogue was a motive for murder and the hotly debated subject of Jackson's well-being during This Is It rehearsals. Discussing the latter, I recounted evidence given throughout Murray's trial from both sides of the fence, including both Ortega's email about 'pulling the plug' and the coroner's assessment that Jackson was 'above average health for a man his age'.

Almost every topic discussed during the interview was legally questionable but I took extra care not to say anything dangerous. My interview lasted an hour but the entire show - which will feature other interviewees including Frank Cascio - will only last 15 minutes. My primary concern is that during the editing process my considered, legally sound responses will have vital sentences lopped off of their beginnings or ends.

J Randy Taraborrelli once told me about the dangers of giving TV interviews. He said that he always took care to be fair and balanced but often found that in the editing process, vital material was cut away and what was left in didn't accurately represent the totality of his answers. I hope I'm not left feeling that way on June 25th, although it may take a while for me to find out what's actually been included, as my voice will be over-dubbed in French!

I took extra care to be fair, balanced and honest. I hope that's reflected in the edit and that I don't piss off too many fans. I don't want to be the subject of their next petition.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

'The Second Coming'

Huge congratulations to my friend Tony Best, who has unearthed a piece of music history.

In an article for black music journal Wax Poetics, Tony - a writer based in Los Angeles - has managed to secure the inside track on one of the most mythologised unreleased projects in Prince's famous and extensive vault. The vault is rumoured to contain thousands of unreleased songs, dozens of unreleased music videos and several unreleased movies.

Among those movies is an abandoned 1982 project titled 'The Second Coming', which began life as a concert film. Music video director Chuck Statler captured a live concert from the latter portion of Prince's 1982 Controversy Tour. The gig, at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, was shot on 16mm film and has long been on the 'most wanted' list for Prince's army of dedicated fans.

Prince and his management were equally excited by the concert footage. There was a feeling that it could generate real commercial success. A view was taken that if the live material was intertwined with narrative segments, it might be easier to secure a wide theatrical release. Work commenced on these autobiographical interludes but was later abandoned. The footage has sat unreleased ever since.

For, I think, the first time ever, Tony has convinced Chuck Statler to discuss the project in-depth for publication. But it gets better. He has also persuaded Chuck - who technically owns the footage - to release a number of screengrabs from the film for the first time ever in the 30 years since it was shot. You can read Tony's in-depth interview with Chuck and look at the exclusive movie stills by clicking here and visiting the Wax Poetics website.

The footage is significant for several reasons, the most important being that it is thought to be the only high quality filmed concert from Prince's early career. A number of bootlegs from the era have circulated for many years but are shot by static, rear-of-venue cameras. Chuck Statler spent some time following Prince around on tour before filming, so he could decide on which would be the best angles to shoot from. The footage is an absolutely integral building block of Prince's live videography - the foundation upon which all else was built - but, scandalously, still has yet to receive any sort of public airing.

The earliest Prince performance footage currently on the market is the musical segments in Prince's Oscar-winning movie 'Purple Rain', for which 'The Second Coming' ultimately wound up being a prototype. But while the performances in 'Purple Rain' were staged and lip-synched so they could be shot multiple times from different angles, Chuck Statler managed to capture an entire live gig from Prince's Controversy Tour, raw and untouched. The prospect of such footage one day coming to light has tantalised fans for three decades now.

Prince's next attempt at a concert movie, 'Sign O The Times', was marred by the fact that much of the video and audio - shot across several gigs in the Netherlands in 1987 - turned out to be unusable. As such, a wealth of the footage wound up having to be re-shot or re-dubbed. While 'Sign O The Times' received rave reviews, the need to tamper with the footage to such a degree is a huge regret for many of Prince's fans, who feel the gig lost its energy.

The likelihood of 'The Second Coming' seeing the light of day any time soon is remote. The concert displays Prince's raunchy side, pushing the boundaries of sexuality in music. He performs much of the show in bikini bottoms and suspenders. Since he became a Jehovah's Witness he has distanced himself from this aspect of his earlier career, refusing to play his sexually explicit hits onstage.

However, Tony's piece sheds new light on the much-debated lost movie and the release of the never-before-seen screengrabs is a real scoop.

In a way, I owe my music-writing career to Tony. He spotted me writing online years ago and suggested I contribute some articles to Wax Poetics, which I wound up doing. In fact, when you click to visit Tony's 'Second Coming' exclusive, my first ever Wax Poetics article - an interview with Motown musician Jack Ashford - has somehow found its way onto the related articles menu. My work for Wax Poetics gave me something I could show to editors - a collection of published articles. My projects for WaxPo also gave me the confidence to seek other interviews for other publications, including my own JIVE magazine in 2009.

Tony and I have our own 'lost' project. In 2009 we began work on a collaborative piece about the Jacksons music video 'Can You Feel It'. While 'Thriller' is constantly cited as Michael Jackson's first hugely innovative music video, 'Can You Feel It' is often overlooked, despite bucking the music video trend several years prior to 'Thriller'.

The video featured groundbreaking special effects and even a spoken word intro by Orson Welles. When Dick Clark screened the film on American Bandstand, he told the audience that he had initially been reluctant to show a music video because he found them boring, but had then watched it and been blown away. Tony and I felt that the video's importance had been overshadowed by the phenomenon of 'Thriller' and set about placing it in its rightful historical context.

The story required us to track down people who had worked on the project - which we did with very limited success. The company which produced the video had since dissolved. Most of the principal players in its production had since died. Of those we did track down, some weren't especially keen to speak to reporters, others had very hazy memories. We did track down one gentleman who was highly involved in the video's mind-blowing special effects, but the project faltered because of a lack of other sources. The story had been intended as a WaxPo feature, but Tony instead wrote a one-page piece about the video for the mag's RE:Discovered section.

When I flew to Los Angeles in the Summer of 2010, I was recognised at my hotel on the morning that Tony was coming to meet me. When the fans I was getting pictures taken with found out that Tony was the author of the WaxPo article, they insisted he be in the pictures too.

Picture courtesy of Wanda Peoples (Click to enlarge)

Tony was a great tour guide, ferrying my friend Angela and I around the city using the underground network, telling us jaw-dropping stories about his years working in the gangster rap industry. I remember stopping at a Barnes & Noble on our travels so I could pick up the latest Jet magazine with Prince on the front cover. He also came with us to Forest Lawn, where Michael Jackson was laid to rest. As we parted ways, he sent us to an awesome record store called Amoeba, where I found a legit copy of Prince's 'Black Album' for a ludicrously low price of about $9.

I messaged Tony on Facebook earlier to tell him what a coup his Prince piece was, but I also felt compelled to post it here too. I really hope you all go and read it.

Until next time...

Tony and I at Forest Lawn, June 2010 (Click to enlarge)

Friday, 6 April 2012

Michael Barrymore's Easter Egg - Broadcast Details

Regular readers will remember that in my last entry I detailed my thwarted attempt to interview Michael Barrymore. The one-time king of Saturday night TV visited Basildon last month to record a guest radio show for local station Gateway 97.8. I was told he had agreed to interview, but when I arrived he denied agreeing to any such thing and instead pulled me on-air halfway through the recording, turning the tables and interviewing me. His refusal to give me an interview became a running joke throughout the second half of the recording.

When I last blogged, I was still waiting to hear when the show would air. I can now tell you that it will go out at 1pm (GMT) on Easter Monday. The show is scheduled to last an hour, which surprised me because the host, Ros, was concerned about having to cut out several of Michael Barrymore's potentially slanderous flights of fancy. It will be interesting to see what material has and hasn't made the show. From what I remember, I sounded quite bewildered.

To tune in online, simply click here and then click the 'Listen live' button in the upper right portion of the screen.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Meeting Michael Barrymore

On Monday I was dispatched to interview Michael Barrymore, who was in town to record a guest slot for the local radio station. The station owners had told me Barrymore had agreed to be interviewed, but on the condition that his past not be discussed.

For international readers: Michael Barrymore, throughout the 1990s, was probably the biggest television star in the UK. Dubbed 'Mr Saturday Night', he hosted everything from variety showcases to game shows to kids' TV. Then, in 2001, a man called Stuart Lubbock was found dead in Barrymore's swimming pool after a party. He had drugs in his system and the coroner later found extensive anal injuries, although there is some question as to how and when those were sustained.

DNA ruled Barrymore out of the assault but the scandal ruined his career. He has spent more than ten years now trying to put the incident behind him. In 2006 he almost mounted a successful comeback by appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. The public seemed to embrace him - he came second on public votes - but while many of the viewers at home were willing to let go of the past, the media wasn't. Everywhere Barrymore goes, he is followed by unpleasant tabloid innuendo - something most broadcasters are unwilling to associate themselves with.

What happened to Stuart Lubbock will probably never be known and opinion on Barrymore will forever be divided by the incident. Some people believe he is holding back information, protecting somebody - but I didn't walk into the interview hoping to interrogate him about it. Many have tried and they've all failed to produce the career-making smoking gun they're looking for. If anything, the more people probe the incident, the more questions seem to arise - so grilling him about his past would probably have been somewhat of a wild goose chase.

I was interested in Barrymore's life now. Is he following the Leveson inquiry? What does he make of it? Does he feel his treatment has been symptomatic of the widespread media misbehaviour which is now being uncovered on a weekly basis? How do people react to him now? How does he deal with people's hostility? These were just some of the questions I'd have liked to put to him.

Alas, when I arrived at the radio studio, Barrymore denied having ever agreed to give me an interview in the first place - something I never quite got to the bottom of - but he did agree to let me sit in on the radio recording.

Halfway through the show, during a music break, he invited me to sit next to him. Then, once recording resumed, he began grilling me about my job. He made a running joke about having turned the tables to interview me. Our interaction dominated the second half of the show.

My take on the encounter has been published in my regional newspaper (see below). I will post details on how to tune into the show as I find them out. It'll be interesting to see how much they have to cut out. I have an unedited copy and it's a great listen.

Michael Barrymore looks suspiciously at our photographer. Picture: Mark Cleveland, Yellow Advertiser

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Jermaine Jackson Outtake

Since it was taken over by AOL, the Huffington Post has introduced a fairly restrictive word limit on blog entries, asking posters to cap them at an absolute maximum of 1,200 words. Under the current editorial policy, my piece on the Michael Jackson trial would never have been published by the website. It was also the reason I had to post an uncut version of my Troy Davis piece on my website.

With this word count in mind, I had to cut my interview with Jermaine Jackson into small chunks, which told an overall narrative but at the same time were self-contained and somewhat themed. The first, about the controversy surrounding his book and how it came to be published, was published in October. The second installment focused on he and his brothers' childhood experiences. That fairly uncontroversial segment is the one which was rejected without any explanation.

When I re-worked the piece for the Orchard Times, having those self-contained chunks was no longer a necessity and discussion of Jermaine's childhood would have been a diversion from the overall narrative. As such, the whole segment got dropped.

Rather than leaving it unpublished, I thought I'd stick up here on the blog for you all.

Through A Brother's Eyes: Jermaine Jackson Speaks - Part Two

Michael Jackson's solo career was so eclipsing that it's easy to forget the enormity of the Jackson 5's success. The first group ever to have their first four records go to number one, they sparked hysteria almost everywhere they went. Almost everywhere.

Concerts in Southern states were picketed by the KKK. Jermaine tells me about the trauma of, "checking into a hotel and they're telling you 'you don't have reservations here' and we know we have them. Then when they give us our rooms, they [are] way in the back facing the alley where all the trash was." Stories like this serve as a reminder that the Jackson 5 started out, as Jermaine puts it, as "five black guys from Gary, Indiana" - a fact overlooked by some generations who have simply never known a world in which the Jacksons weren't famous.

In fact, the Jacksons' story is one of the greatest rags-to-riches tales ever told. The family rose from a borderline poverty-stricken background - two parents and nine children living in a two-bedroom house on a crane operator's wage - to become the most famous family in America, challenging stereotypes and breaking barriers along the way.

In his book, Jermaine downplays their money woes. They weren't poor, he says, but they weren't privileged. He writes: "The best way of describing our situation was: not enough money to buy anything new, but somehow we scraped by and survived."

The group's rise to prominence is well-documented but Jermaine's descriptions of life at Motown have raised eyebrows among some fans, who believe he has sugar-coated the brothers' childhood, contradicting many of Michael's own recollections.

For example, Jermaine writes of their after-school work schedule at Motown: "[We went] to the studio for around 5.30pm, and sometimes stayed there till 10.30pm. Some people say this sounds exhausting but we were too excited to notice because we loved being at work."

This doesn't quite tally with Michael's own version of events. In 1993 he told Oprah Winfrey, "I remember going to the record studio and there was a park across the street and I'd see all the children playing and I would cry because it would make me sad that I would have to work instead."

When I put this to Jermaine he mentions a scene early in the book where he and Michael are stood at the window at Christmas, watching the local children play outside with their new toys, unable to share in their joy because of their Jehovah's Witness upbringing.

"I think that scene shows that same sadness," he says. "But I think the sadness was also balanced with our shared thrill of performing. I remember this time at the Apollo when we were in the dressing room looking down on the basketball courts, desperate to play. But we were born to entertain. Michael lost four more years of his childhood than I did, so I understand why he felt more strongly about this... Michael was probably the most sensitive out of all of us, so I think he was maybe more vulnerable to the impact of fame."

Fans have also questioned Jermaine's depiction of his father Joe's allegedly heavy-handed discipline, which Michael claimed left him so traumatised that he would vomit at his father's mere presence. Claiming that Joe's behaviour was both normal and necessary at the time, particularly because he was desperate not to see his children swept up in Gary's gang culture, Jermaine suggests that Michael's recollections may have been 'exaggerated' because he witnessed his siblings' punishments at a young age, hearing their 'screams' and seeing 'belt buckle imprints on bare skin at bed time'.

"This made him fear something long before he felt it," he writes. "In his mind the mere thought of Joseph's discipline was traumatic. That is what exaggerated fear does: it builds something in the mind to a scale that, perhaps, it is not."

But Michael often recalled being personally beaten and whipped by his father. In one 2001 interview with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, broadcast on NBC after his death, he recalled his father using extreme violence towards him and his siblings. "He would make you strip nude first," he told Boteach. "He would oil you down. It would be a whole ritual. He would oil you down so when the flip of the ironing cord hit you, you know... You had whips all over your face, your back, everywhere."

Jermaine tells me he does not share this particular recollection. He's quick to point out, though, that this doesn't mean it wasn't true. It was 'clearly Michael's emotional truth and recollection' - but just not one shared by Jermaine.

"Whatever people want to label it - beatings, whippings, spankings - it was not abuse," Jermaine tells me. "I was there. I shared the same discipline at the hands of Joseph and I have never considered myself 'abused'... In the book, I try to place Joseph's discipline and Michael's forgiveness of Joseph into a context no-one has written about before."

Still, Joe Jackson does not emerge from this book bathed in holy light. While he's portrayed more sympathetically than is common in Jackson biographies, Jermaine's recollections still detail what many would consider inappropriate discipline. Despite earlier attributing his father's brutal discipline to a fear that his children would be tempted to join local gangs, Jermaine reveals that even after the group had achieved global success and moved to California, rehearsals were still "administered under the threat of a beating."

One of Jermaine's more shocking claims is that Joe Jackson tricked a teenaged Michael into leaving Motown and signing a contract with CBS Records by pretending he'd get to have dinner with Fred Astaire as a reward. Then, he writes, Joe used that signature to try to convince Jermaine - at that time married to Motown boss Berry Gordy's daughter - to jump ship as well.

I ask Jermaine how his father has reacted to such revelations but, as far as he is aware, Joe has not yet read the book.

In 1975 Michael, Marlon, Jackie and Tito signed contracts with CBS and hopped labels with brother Randy filling Jermaine's spot. Jermaine remained loyal to his father-in-law and stayed at Motown. "There was a suggestion for years that I broke up the group by leaving," he writes, "but I've never viewed it that way. I did not leave them: they left me."

The split drove a wedge between Jermaine and the family. Joe wouldn't take his calls and the brothers were now often away on tour without him. Jermaine, used to his brothers' constant presence, found the separation almost impossible to bear. But, he says with hindsight, the distance between them would prove trivial compared to the chasm that later opened between Michael and his family. In a few years, he says, Michael would become surrounded by shady figures who assumed control of his affairs, screened his calls and locked his family out of his property. That was when everything started to go really wrong…