Sunday, 17 November 2013

Conjuring a Chorus of Boos; The Truth About Michael Jackson's UK Comeback

I feel compelled to write this blog today because as I sit here in front of my computer, it is seven years - to the day - since I experienced an epiphany of sorts about the media's coverage of Michael Jackson. I had followed his trial quite carefully, of course, comparing court transcripts to media coverage and being distressed by the horrendously biased reporting. But those reports were often at least rooted in fact. Journalists would misrepresent genuine testimony, in most cases simply 'lying' by omission.

What happened seven years ago was different.  I witnessed firsthand the construction of a purely fabricated story; one which shot around the world, once again making Michael Jackson a global figure of ridicule, and became immediately accepted as 'fact'. To this day, I read occasional press reports which mention this fabricated event as though it were an objective truth. It has even been listed as a significant career event in Jackson biographies.

Witnessing the creation of the myth was an experience that has stayed with me ever since. For an enthusiastic journalism degree student, it was a shocking and saddening insight into the media's more sinister machinations.

On November 15, 2006, Michael Jackson attended the World Music Awards at London's Earls Court Arena. It was his first official appearance in the capital since his acquittal in June 2005 and I was fortunate enough to be there. Some fans queued all day to secure prime positions in front of the stage but I had to go to university and then travel into London in the evening. Nonetheless, my friends and I easily claimed a spot against the front barrier, just off to the side, immediately beside the mixing desk. We spent part of the evening chatting to the sound and security staff, who tipped us off that they'd been in rehearsals and heard Jackson rehearsing 'that save the world song'. We met Katie Melua and got an autograph as she watched some of the show from the side of the stage.

It seemed like everybody was there for Michael Jackson. At any gap in the ceremony, chants of his name would erupt around the arena. Other performers on the bill included Enya, Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli, but they mostly received tepid responses and their performances were often book-ended by increasingly loud chants of 'Michael! Michael! Michael!'

The night was plagued by delays. Lindsay Lohan, on hosting duty, fluffed almost every line she spoke and had to record all of her links multiple times. The turnaround between acts was slow. At one point there was a half hour or more of just nothing at all: an empty stage.

When Michael Jackson eventually appeared, to collect a Diamond Award for album sales over 100million, the place exploded. I have seen Paul McCartney. I have seen Madonna. I have seen Prince. I have seen George Michael. I have never in my life, before or since, witnessed any artist provoke the response that Michael Jackson provoked that night. He received the most sustained, thunderous reception I've ever seen.

He remained on stage for several minutes to deliver two short acceptance speeches - one for his Diamond Award and one for a Guinness World Record presentation. For the duration of his speeches, I hardly heard a word he said, despite the booming sound system. Most artists receive a big cheer as they walk onstage, then the audience settles down. Michael Jackson provoked hysteria. Shrieking and crying. It didn't lull once from the moment he appeared on that balcony until the moment he disappeared backstage again. It was an unforgettable sight.

He emerged again later for a brief performance of sorts. He walked onstage to another cacophonous reception as his record-breaking humanitarian single We Are The World played over the speaker system. He sang a few lines and seemed to look pleadingly towards the mixing desk. My suspicion is that the fans were making such a din he couldn't hear himself. It was like one of his concerts from the 80s. I saw bodies pulled from the crowd and rushed away in wheelchairs.

A few minutes later the sound people bizarrely turned the track off just as he started singing again. No matter. The place just went even crazier. It was an emotional moment, watching him receive such a rapturous welcome after the previous summer's events. After standing for a while on the runway that jutted out from the stage into the crowd, he began to exit, but as the cheering swelled - the audience not wanting to lose sight of him so quickly - he stopped and turned around. Playfully, he lifted a finger to his lips as if to ask the question, 'Shall I stay or shall I go?' The shrieking intensified.

He stood for a while, smiling, and just soaking in the adulation, then raised his fist into a triumphant black power salute. With that, he turned and coolly strolled off-stage, the applause continuing fiercely as he disappeared from view. I have never seen a human being cause such chaos. It was deafening.

You can watch a video of the performance here:

The following day I was back at university. As I walked along the corridor towards my first lecture, I met two female classmates. Looking at me pityingly, they asked: "How did it go?" I began telling them about the awe-inspiring reaction Jackson had received; how shocked I was at the scale of the outpouring. It had been one of the most incredible spectacles I'd ever witnessed.

I noticed they were now looking at me as though I were a crazy person. I asked them what was wrong and it transpired that the media was not quite reporting the night's proceedings as they had happened. Once I gained access to the internet, I discovered multiple publications were claiming he had been booed offstage.

"Michael Jackson walked offstage to a chorus of boos last night," the Mirror's Tom Bryant wrote. "The crowd, expecting a proper version of his song, booed the star who then scuttled offstage."

Scuttled offstage.

Watch the above video. Jackson not only does not 'scuttle offstage' to 'a chorus of boos' - he remains onstage long after his performance ends, absorbing the most emphatically positive reaction I've ever observed at an awards ceremony.

The Daily Record's Julia Kuttner wrote an almost identical story: "Michael Jackson walked off stage to a chorus of boos last night - just four lines into his first performance in the UK for nine years. Jacko had picked up a gong at the World Music Awards in London minutes before. But after singing only the chorus to his charity single We Are The World, he stopped to repeatedly tell the audience: 'I love you'. Jackson scuttled off the stage after he was booed by the crowd, who were expecting a proper version of the song."

The Evening Standard also got in on the action. Reporters Chris Elwell-Sutton and Valentine Low wrote: "His much-vaunted reappearance turned into an embarrassing disaster. His entire performance consisted of one mangled line, several missed high notes and an exit to a chorus of boos from the audience. 'I love you', he told them - although whether the feeling was reciprocated is open to question."

I was in complete disbelief. Had one rogue reporter claimed Michael Jackson was booed offstage, I wouldn't have been so angry. Every profession has its bad apples. But for multiple reporters to have attended an event at which Michael Jackson demonstrably and categorically was not booed offstage, yet to all then write articles claiming he was, demonstrated a clear conspiracy between multiple parties to fabricate and perpetuate a bogus story. 

That myth went around the world. Michael Jackson getting booed offstage became the biggest source of mirth on many a topical panel show and celebrity chat programme. It prompted further stories. The Guardian's Martin Hyde repeated the lies, declaring Jackson the 'ex-King of Pop' and claiming he had only managed a few lines 'before the booing began'. The Sunday Mirror captioned a follow-up story: "Plastic freak's comeback was truly diabolical."

Even celebrity publicist Max Clifford was hoodwinked into commenting on the bogus story, telling the Daily Record: "The one thing that always stood him in good stead was, as a performer, he was one of the greats. This week, he destroyed that image. The reports from the awards say he sang one mangled line, several messy high notes and exited to a chorus of boos. As a performer that was incredibly damaging, and that's all he's got left. I think Michael is probably beyond help."

Researching the story years later using newspaper archive service Infotrac, I discovered something very interesting; an earlier report from the Mirror which completely contradicted the fabricated version it later settled on. In at least one edition of the November 16 paper, a story by Eva Simpson and Caroline Hedley read: "He's back! Michael Jackson was the biggest winner at the awards where he gave his first public performance for nine years. The star was honoured with a Diamond Award for selling more than 100 million albums in his career. Hosted by Lindsay Lohan, the starstudded event at London's Earl's Court saw Jacko give a stunning performance of We Are The World. You sure are, Jacko."

So it would appear that at some point an editorial decision was taken that instead of continuing to report what had actually happened, the newspaper was going to rewrite the night's events to tell the exact opposite of the truth - and several other publications were going to do the same. 

It seemed to me that the media had already decided what story it wanted to tell about Michael Jackson's appearance in London - it was just an irritation to them that he hadn't played ball. When his appearance prompted a powerful outpouring of adulation - fans being rushed away in wheelchairs like the tours of his heyday - it didn't suit the industry's preconceived narrative. Certain figures were intent on Jackson being the 'ex-King of Pop'. When Earls Court actually went just as crazy for him as it would have done 20 years prior, it didn't fit - so they simply ignored that inconvenient turn of events and conjured a 'chorus of boos' from thin air. If Jackson wouldn't play his 'ex-King of Pop' role like a good boy, they would attempt to manufacture it. It was classic British tabloid muscle-flexing. 

The frustration and the sadness I felt that day when I observed this lie being willfully peddled, and the powerlessness I felt just watching TV presenter after TV presenter, comedian after comedian, recycle the nonsense for the consumption of millions who were not there and would never know it was all made up, bubbles back up whenever I remember the debacle. It was a sorry day for journalism - but the profession has had many of those where Michael Jackson is concerned. 

I'm not sure why I've never written anything about it before, but a friend posted a video from the event on Facebook earlier today to mark the anniversary. It was the last time I saw Michael Jackson perform live, but the memory is always tinged with sadness and frustration for what happened in the following days. It's about time somebody set the record straight on this particular fallacy.