Sweet-talking in forked tongues
February 27 2003
By flattering Michael Jackson to deceive him, Martin Bashir has degraded ethical journalism, writes Miranda Devine.
The reputation of journalists has just plunged a few more rungs towards the gutter thanks to the latest Michael Jackson special, which Channel Nine aired on Tuesday night. Take 2: The Interview They Wouldn’t Show You was Jackson’s rebuttal to the deeply damaging two-hour documentary by British journalist Martin Bashir, in which the 44-year-old singer was portrayed as a sinister weirdo with a penchant for sharing his bed with young boys.
But, with footage taken by Jackson’s camera, Take 2 exposes how Bashir used one of the most powerful tools of his trade – empathy – to persuade Jackson to open up, and then betrayed him.
Bashir’s documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, laid out a compelling cirmcumstantial case for Jackson as child molester. There was the admission from the singer that he often invited children to sleep in his bed. There was mention of the 1993 allegations by 14-year-old Jordy Chandler that Jackson had molested him. And there was Jackson’s eccentric behaviour, including the celebrated baby-dangling incident off a hotel balcony in Berlin.
Most convincing of all were Bashir’s reasonable voice telling the audience of the deep “unease” he felt while making the documentary and his damning conclusion.
“Neverland is a dangerous place for a vulnerable child to be,” he said. “I was angry at the way his children were made to suffer.”
But in Take 2, Jackson’s footage shows Bashir saying quite the opposite. “Your relationship with your children is spectacular,” Bashir is heard telling Jackson, his voice dripping with sincerity. “It almost makes me weep when I see you with them because your interaction with them is just so natural, so loving, so caring.”
After a day when Jackson invited a group of underprivileged children to spend the day at Neverland, Bashir tells Jackson: “The problem [with your bad press] is nobody actually comes here. But I was here yesterday and it’s nothing short of a spiritual kind of thing.”
There would hardly have been a journalist on the face of the planet who didn’t squirm a little while listening to Bashir butter up Jackson, recognising the familiar technique of drawing him out, listening sympathetically, seeming to understand his troubles.
The ambiguous nature of the intimacy that builds up between interviewer and interviewee is something most journalists will grapple with at some time in their career. It is a murky ethical area that writer Janet Malcolm harshly described as “morally indefensible” in her controversial 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer.
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Malcolm was writing about a 1983 bestseller, Fatal Vision, in which the author, Joe McGinniss, teamed up with a US Army doctor, Jeffrey MacDonald, who was charged with murdering his pregnant wife and two children. McGinniss said he would write a book proving McDonald’s innocence, lived with him during the trial and became his best friend. But after MacDonald was convicted, McGinniss betrayed him, portraying him as a drug-addled narcissist with a repressed hatred of women.
In a more recent book, Beat the Press, published in the United States last October, authors Al Guyant and Shirley Fulton take a club to their former profession. They say journalists set out to manipulate their subjects into saying something “stupid, guilty, foolish or worse”, using sneaky tricks to “coax information” from reluctant people.
Of course journalists use their wiles to obtain information. At journalism school I was taught that silence is the most powerful interviewing tool of all, that it is human nature to try to fill gaps in a conversation and if the journalist resists that urge, the interviewee will rush to speak and usually divulge more than intended.
Such techniques could be regarded as “tricks” but are really just about listening. Journalists interview unsavoury characters all the time – politicians, organisations, crooks, bureaucrats and even pop stars – to extract information which otherwise would be kept secret from the public. There are inevitably elements of deception involved, not least the repression of the journalist’s revulsion for the subject.
Yet most journalists regard theirs as a noble calling, which, even with its faults, and its unscrupulous practitioners, is crucial to the functioning of democracy. The fabled US journalist, Joseph Pulitzer, wrote in 1904 that “an able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery”. But he also warned that “a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself”.
What Bashir has done to Jackson goes far beyond the bounds of responsible journalism. He perpetuated a fraud on a man who has been charged with no offence, deliberately lying and concealing his true motives. Bashir has said that in eight months of close scrutiny and unprecedented access, Jackson committed no crime and was nothing but loving and kind to his own children and others.
Bashir had no “smoking gun”, yet still he clung to his deception. “I didn’t set out to ensnare him with a child,” Bashir said in one online interview. “I am not, repeat not, accusing anyone of being a child molester or a pedophile or anything like that.” Sure.
Bashir may be convinced his duplicity was justified in the interests of children who might be hurt by Jackson in order to tell the world the truth about a monster. But there is something deeply disturbing about his approach. Ultimately he perverted his journalism for no reason than to make a more dramatic show. He used his skills to con Jackson and his audience.
But in the end, all any journalist has is their reputation. Bashir made his name interviewing Princess Diana and has probably ended his career by interviewing Michael Jackson. Who would ever trust him again?
wrote by: Miranda Devine