In an era of worrying online phenomena, the trial by Twitter is amongst the most troublesome. Mob justice is a medieval idea that never did anyone in Salem any good, and a knock-on effect is that it makes the slightly more regulated idea of trial by television seem as legitimate as a high court hearing. Some people are now perfectly happy to have their small claim cases settled by Romesh Ranganathan in a silly wig.
The most controversial recent example was HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary, in which Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two of the children Michael Jackson invited to stay with him at very close quarters over several years, rescinded previous court statements to claim that Jackson did sexually assault them on numerous occasions.
Leaving Neverland was a disturbing, compelling, convincing and often heartbreaking watch, involving confessions and regrets from many of Robson and Safechuck’s family members. But Jackson remains one of the best loved performers in history and, on top of a $100 million lawsuit filed against HBO by the Jackson estate, faithful fans immediately set about picking holes in these new claims. And so, to air them, the televised defence opens: Chase The Truth, a quarter of Leaving Neverland’s length and, to be frank, a case that would shame the Jackson family’s shabbiest lawyer.
The project seems off before you even press play. Whereas Leaving Neverland involved Robson and Safechuck publicising their alleged experiences on Channel 4 in the UK, the legitimacy of Chase The Truth, a documentary aiming to paint the new allegations as being all about money (Robson’s civil claim, it states, was for several billion dollars at one point), is damaged immediately by the fact that it’ll set you back £8 to purchase on YouTube movies. Hardly the way to spread its idea of the ‘truth’ as broadly as possible, and you’re likely to feel ripped off by the revelations. Around a third of the hour is given over to Jackson’s good friend Mark Lester, his goddaughter Lucy Lester and his bodyguard Matt Fiddes attesting to what a great guy and adoring father he was and how “awful” one of the previous accuser’s family were, plus some security details that disprove nothing. One of the least believable things in either documentary is Mark Lester claiming that Jackson was “a completely normal guy”.
Strip those away and you’re left with Jackson biographer Mike Smallcombe essentially delivering a glorified YouTube ‘truther’ video detailing the discrepancies in the new allegations. To save you eight quid, let’s get straight to the spoilers. Using earlier court testimony that Robson and Safechuck are now claiming was false, Smallcombe points out that Robson had previously claimed under oath that he took a trip to the Grand Canyon with his family at the time he’s now saying he was alone at Neverland with Jackson and the abuse began. In Safechuck’s case, he points to his allegations of abuse happening in a building at Neverland which wasn’t constructed during the period he was closest with Michael. Otherwise, some knotty legal issues come into question attempting to absolve Jackson for settling a 1993 case out of court and draw suspicion over the motives of Robson and Safechuck – it emerges that, though Robson’s civil case was thrown out on technical terms in 2017, an appeal is underway.
These are questions to be answered in a court, if the case ever gets there. In the meantime, there’s little about Chase The Truth that will change anybody’s mind, pro- or anti-Jackson; it’s full of dodgy interview edits chopping sentences around like a mock Trump rap video, and it criticises Leaving Neverland for bias in one shot and includes a lengthy chunk of Jacko singing about losing his childhood the next. The average viewer might well be inclined to believe both films, since there’s barely a trace of insincerity on display in either. The only difference is that Robson and Safechuck are in a position to know for sure.
In fact, the most pertinent aspect of Chase The Truth touches on the wider issue that, while taking allegations seriously is essential in tackling our pitiful rates of reporting and prosecuting sexual abuse, they do need to be properly examined, especially when significant money is involved. Ultimately it’s the law, not the television producers or Twitter mobs on either side, who should chase down the truth of this.
Michael Jackson denied all wrongdoing before his death.