Friday 27 November 2009

How the Godfather of Soul won me a Guardian Award

Charles Thomson, award winning writer. That's how I shall be billing myself from now on.

On Wednesday evening I received a prestigious Guardian Award for my work on the late, great Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

The Guardian ceremony is the biggest and the most respected awards bash for young journalists in Britain. I was nominated back in September for 'Feature Writer of the Year'. The ceremony took place on Wednesday evening at the Proud Gallery in Camden.

At first I was disheartened. The runner up in my category was announced - it wasn't me. The winner was announced - that wasn't me either. 'That's it', I thought. 'I lost.'

But then something unexpected happened. Colin Murray, our host for the evening, announced that this year the judges had changed the format of the feature writing category. There was one particular article that the judges felt needed to be recognised, he continued. The room was abuzz with chatter. Over the noise, I heard Murray say something about James Brown - and almost fell off of my chair.

In what has now become a blur, I was presented with the special commendation award for feature writing. As such, I shall be swanning up to London at some point in the near future for a week of shifts at the Guardian.

It was an honour to receive my first journalistic award for a piece about James Brown. When I was 18 years old and just starting out, James Brown was the first artist who gave me a chance. He allowed me backstage at what would become his final concert on British soil. He let me put a question to him during his pre-show press conference and he put me on his personal guestlist for the concert.

Two months later he died. My question to him in London had been about an album he was working on. As time went by, I began wondering what had happened to it and why it was never released.

So I decided to find out. I tracked down everybody I could who was involved in the recording process; band members, session musicians, studio owners and engineers, backing vocalists, songwriters and managers. What emerged was an insight into the final two years of James Brown's life; the recording, the touring, the ill health and ultimately, his death.

To say that the article was a labour of love would be an understatement. From my first interview - which took place in London with the legendary Fred Wesley - to the article's eventual publication, the process took over a year. My work on the piece during that year was stop-start; sources had to be tracked down and then interviews had to be scheduled. Investigating the final two years of James Brown's life proved an expensive hobby too, what with all the lengthy transatlantic telephone interviews.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who consented to interview - this is your story and I am privileged that you allowed me to tell it. Thank you to the judges - this article is the most significant that I have written and to have it acknowledged by the Guardian Awards is surreal.

And thank you to Mr Brown, who has book-ended this first chapter in my journalistic career. At 18, just weeks into my journalism degree, Mr Brown became my first high profile interviewee. At 21, the award which drew a line under my academic career was presented to me for an article inspired by that meeting with James Brown.

Me (centre) accepting my award from Guardian writer Hannah Pool and Radio 5 DJ Colin Murray. Photographer: Teri Pengilley

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Daily Mail previously rapped for Jackson 'paedophile' comments

On Friday evening I wrote of an article which appeared overnight on the Daily Mail's website calling Michael Jackson a 'common paedophile'.

The article appeared the following day in the print edition of the newspaper and contained baseless allegations that the star had seduced and molested a string of young boys.

A Press Complaints Commission webpage shows that the newspaper, which famously supported the nazi party, has previously been lambasted by the PCC for printing exactly the same allegations.

The PCC ruling states that the Daily Mail referred to Jackson as a self-centred paedophile.

According to the ruling, the newspaper was forced to 'both remove the article from its website and annotate its archive accordingly.'

Seemingly the newspaper has not learned from its mistakes.

Elsewhere, a 1996 article reveals how David Jones, author of the latest Jackson hit piece, was actively involved in a Daily Mail plot to smear a writer at the Independent for disagreeing with the newspaper's political views.

Polly Toynbee tells how the Daily Mail attempted to label her a 'marriage-breaker' simply because she began dating a separated man.

She writes:

"First hint that something was up: people start getting calls from a David Jones of the Daily Mail, digging for dirt. Colleagues in this office get calls. Mr Jones is ferreting away among friends, collecting quotes. The story he seems to be creating is the age-old saga of idyls destroyed by scarlet Jezebels. Mr Jones is throwing around words about me like 'marriage-breaker'.

"I am puzzled. I try to imagine how they can turn this everyday concatenation of domestic circumstance into A Story.

"...Suddenly I find it frightening. Neighbours are getting calls - some of them people I have never met. On Tuesday a man came over from No. 6, deeply worried by a call from the Mail asking detailed questions about what hours he had observed any men coming and going at my house. He suspected it was a burglar casing the joint. My 11-year-old son was terrified, but even more so when the house actually was broken into that day, for the first time in years. A coincidence, I am sure."

Scared by the way she was being pursued, Toynbee contacted a friend at the Mail. Subsequently, Jones claimed that he did not like the story but had been told to work on it by a senior reporter. Toynbee responded: "Unhappy bunny or gleeful weasel, my heart does not go out to Mr Jones or his employers."

Sunday 22 November 2009

Jackson biographer sheds further doubt on 1993 allegations

Jackson biographer J Randy Taraborrelli has used his Facebook page to comment on the death of Evan Chandler. Here are his comments.

"I actually knew Evan Chandler. I met him several times in the 1990s. I had lots of secret meetings with Evan Chandler, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on. I was pretty young, sort of green and wish I had my present level of expertise to be able to have applied back then. I have stories about that guy that I have never published.

"He was about as inconsistent as they come. He was so determined to get me on his side, I thought he was just a tad scary. If you read my book you sort of get how I felt -- feel -- about him. When [the book] came out he called me screaming at me for not just buying his story 100%. He actually threatened me, and I thought... okay, pal, now I know who you really are."

The writer also says that he hopes and believes he will one day score an interview with Jordan Chandler. Personally, I am skeptical.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Controversial newspaper labels Jackson a 'common paedophile'

The Daily Mail today ran an article about Evan Chandler's suicide even more ludicrous than The Mirror's offering on Thursday.

The newspaper, which famously supported the nazi party and recently came under fire for publishing a homophobic article about the death of Stephen Gately, labelled Jackson a 'common paedophile' and explicitly stated that he routinely molested young boys.

The article is factually inaccurate on every level. It claims that Jackson was found in possession of child porn - he was not. Had he been, he would have been charged with possession of child porn. Bit of a no-brainer.

It also claims that Gavin Arvizzo accused Jackson of having sex with him. A blatant fabrication.

Author of the piece David Jones pours scorn on what he portrays as conspiracy theories that the 1993 allegations were concocted by Evan Chandler for financial gain. He conveniently neglects to mention numerous pieces of factual information which prove this to be the case. He neglects to mention, for instance, that it was Evan who accused Jackson of molestation while his son maintained that he'd never been touched. He neglects to mention also that journalist Mary Fischer proved in a 1994 article how Jordan had only corroborated the story after Evan plied him with a mind-altering drug, sodium amytal, which is known to induce false memory syndrome.

But Mary Fischer is a real journalist, while David Jones simply writes obscene and factually inaccurate hit-pieces for Britain's most racist newspaper.

Like so many others, Jones points to the 1994 settlement as proof of Jackson's guilt, neglecting to mention that Jackson didn't pay the settlement - his insurance carrier did - and court documents show that Jackson didn't even agree to the settlement, which was "negotiated and paid... over the protests of Mr Jackson and his personal legal counsel."

To point out each individual inaccuracy contained within the article would probably take the best part of 5000 words. Composed largely of pure fantasy and hinging much of its information on the word of Evan Chandler's brother, the clearly biased Ray Chandler (who himself profited hugely from the fabricated claims of abuse by publishing an inadvertantly hilarious book about the 1993 scandal), the article trumps even Tanya Gold's recent Guardian editorial on the nonsense scale.

A blatant hit-piece, the article is almost certainly racially motivated and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the newspaper finds itself on the receiving end of a major lawsuit within a week. David Jones is relentlessly bilious throughout the article, which contains no hint of objectivity or journalistic integrity.

Jones repeatedly quotes US reporter Diane Dimond as some manner of expert on the case, despite the fact that she is clearly unhinged. Having repeatedly stated throughout the ninties and the early noughties that her sole ambition in life was to destroy the career of Michael Jackson, she has been described by writer Ishmael Reed as a 'Jackson stalker'. Her reporting on Jackson's trial was so biased that she was fired from CourtTV almost immediately after the verdict was announced. She has made her living slandering Jackson ever since.

Dimond subsequently penned a book about Jackson titled 'Be Careful Who You Love', which Jones inexplicably describes as 'acclaimed'. Acclaimed by who? It bombed spectacularly upon its release.

Jones has employed much the same technique as Jacques Peretti did for his 2007 documentary 'Michael Jackson: What Really Happened'. He has intentionally tracked down only interviewees who he knows have financial motives for portraying Jackson as a paedophile. He has then quoted them as objective experts.

He omits vital information which exonerates Jackson of the 1993 allegations, all the while including mountains of pure speculation, which he represents as fact. He attributes quotes to Jordan Chandler which he cannot possibly verify and even goes so far as to describe the boy's thoughts.

What he neglects to mention is that rather than being 'traumatised', as Jones claims without source in his article, Jordan Chandler reverted in later life to his original stance, which was that Jackson had never touched him. When asked to take the stand in Jackson's 2005 trial - during which Jones seems to forget that Jackson was unanimously aquitted and vindicated - Jordan refused to testify against his former friend. Meanwhile, Jackson's defence had numerous witnesses lined up who were prepared to testify that in recent years Jordan had repeatedly insisted that Jackson never touched him and his father had concocted the entire story.

A vindictive character assassination, David Jones's article is the single most irresponsible piece of journalism I have ever had the misfortune to read. He should be ashamed of himself. But somehow, I suspect that he isn't.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Chandler Suicide Highlights Media Bias Against Jackson

When it emerged yesterday that two weeks ago Evan Chandler, father of Jordan Chandler, shot himself in the head, few tears were shed despite the media's best efforts to eulogise him.

Most media outlets are touting Chandler as 'the father of the boy who accused Jackson of child molestation'. Wrong. Chandler was the father who accused Jackson of molesting his son after the star refused to negotiate script-writing deals for him.

The initial allegations against Jackson were made not by Jordie Chandler but by his father Evan, in spite of Jordie's insistence that Jackson never touched him inappropriately, a stance that the boy maintained for several months.

Relations between the boy's father and Jackson had been strained from the outset as Evan Chandler felt that Jackson was replacing him as a father. The following passage is taken from Jackson biography 'The Magic and the Madness'. Chandler spoke to the author, Randy Taraborrelli, several times:

"June and Evan had been arguing about Evan's involvement in Jordie's life; June didn't feel that Evan was spending enough time with his son. Evan disagreed. However, he couldn't help but feel that he might be losing his place in Jordie's life to Michael. He didn't believe that Michael was doing anything wrong with Jordie. Rather, he simply felt the presence of another man, an influential male figure, in his son's life - and he didn't like it. It didn't help matters that June would often make reference to the fact that Jordie saw Michael more than he did his own father. 'Michael is completely influential on your son,' she told Evan during one conversation, 'and he's taking over where you have left off.'"

The book goes on to describe Evan's chagrin as Jackson performed fatherly tasks, such as buying Jordan a computer: 'Evan was not happy about it. He had planned to buy his son the exact same computer and Michael had beaten him to it.'

Chandler noticed his son becoming distant and began to believe that Jackson was involved with his ex-wife, June: 'I felt then that maybe June should just divorce Dave, since they were having problems, and maybe hook up with Michael.' On a trip to Monaco Taraborrelli describes Jackson as looking close to June: 'In Monaco Michael was often photographed with June, Jordie and Lily. In several pictures, he is seen holding Lily in his arms while walking next to June. Jordie [...] walked ahead of them.'

When Evan first met Jackson he felt 'exhilaration' and 'awe'. However, when Jackson stopped returning his calls he became bitter. On July 8th 1993 Evan was tape recorded during a telephone conversation, complaining that Jackson had stopped telephoning him: 'There was no reason why he had to stop calling me'.

He added that he'd had a conversation with Jackson and told him 'exactly what I want out of the relationship with him'.

'I picked the nastiest son of a bitch I could find,' he said of his new attorney. 'All he wants to do is get this out in the public as fast as he can, as big as he can, and humiliate as many people as he can. He's nasty, he's mean, he's smart and he's hungry for publicity. Everything's going according to a certain plan that isn't just mine. Once I make that phonecall, this guy is going to destroy everybody in sight in any devious, nasty, cruel way that he can do it. I've given him full authority to do that.'

'If I go through with this, I win big time,' he continued. 'There is no way I lose. I will get everything I want and they will be destroyed forever. June will lose [custody] and Michael's career will be over.'

Asked whether that was good for Jordie, he replied: 'That's irrelevant to me.'

Behind the scenes an increasingly embittered Chandler had contacted Jackson and demanded that he negotiate three scriptwriting deals on his behalf. If Jackson did not comply, Chandler threatened, he would accuse him of molesting his son. Jackson didn't comply - and the rest is history.

Jordie maintained for some time that Jackson had never touched him inappropriately. Investigative journalist Mary Fischer uncovered compelling evidence - which she published in her 1994 GQ article 'Was Michael Jackson Framed?' - that Jordan Chandler only subscribed to his father's version of events after Evan - a dentist by trade - plied him with a mind-bending drug called sodium amytal, which is known to induce false memory syndrome.

Even once Jordan Chandler began to toe his father's line, his testimony was so unconvincing that DA Tom Sneddon took his case to two separate grand juries and neither allowed him to bring charges against Michael Jackson. Contrary to widely reported myth, Jordan Chandler did not accurately describe Jackson's genitals. Among other inaccuracies, he claimed that Jackson was circumcised while police photographs proved that he was not.

Unsurprisingly, none of this information has made its way into the mainstream media's reportage of Evan Chandler's death. Instead, Chandler's suicide is seen as another opportunity to sling mud at Michael Jackson and perpetuate the same, tired old myths about the 1993 allegations - particularly with regard to the settlement.

News outlets the world over are once more reporting that in 1994 Jackson paid the Chandlers a settlement. Court documents which came to light in 2005 state clearly that Jackson's insurance carrier "negotiated and paid the settlement over the protests of Mr Jackson and his personal legal counsel."

Amongst the publications that rehashed this age old nonsense was The Sun, to which I often contribute as a Michael Jackson expert. I was contacted yesterday and asked to provide information about Evan Chandler and the 1993 allegations, which I did. However, none of my information was used - most likely because it reflected too well on Jackson. Myths that imply Jackson's guilt are evidently more important than truths which exonerate him.

Noticing that The Sun's article on Chandler's suicide contained several inaccuracies (most prominently that Jordie initiated the claims of molestation and that Jackson paid the settlement) I contacted two members of staff at the newspaper - my usual contact and the journalist who wrote the article. Neither email was replied and the article was not changed.

Elsewhere, The Mirror ranked several places higher on the absurdity scale as it attempted to portray Chandler as a martyr of some kind. 'Michael Jackson sex case dad Evan Chandler wanted justice but ended up destroyed', read the headline.


If Evan Chandler had wanted justice, why did he contact Jackson and ask for a three-movie script deal before he went to the police? If he wanted justice, why did he accept a settlement from Jackson's insurance carrier? The settlement specifically did not affect the family's ability to testify in a criminal case. So if Evan Chandler wanted justice, why didn't he allow the police to press ahead with their investigation after he got his money?

The headline, along with much of the article, is nonsense.

Having taken Jackson's insurance carrier for just under $15million (not the $20million usually alluded to by the press), in 1996 Evan Chandler tried to sue Jackson for a further $60million after claiming that the star's album HIStory was a breach of the settlement's confidentiality clause. In addition to trying to sue Jackson, Chandler requested that the court allow him to produce a rebuttal album called EVANstory.

Yes, really.

So the man who The Mirror claims only 'wanted justice' thought that the best course of action after the initial media storm died down would be to release an album of music about the supposed abuse of his pre-pubescent son.

The Mirror alluded to the fact that relations between Jordan and his parents were strained after 1993, but laid the blame at Jackson's door, claiming that the trauma of the case had driven them apart.

In actuality, Jordan Chandler went to court when he was 16 and gained legal emancipation from both of his parents. When called to appear at Jackson's 2005 trial, he refused to testify against his former friend. Had he taken the stand, Jackson's legal team had a number of witnesses who were prepared to testify that Jordan - who now reportedly lives in Long Island under an assumed name - had told them in recent years that he hated his parents for what they made him say in 1993, and that Michael Jackson had never touched him.

The evidence surrounding the 1993 allegations overwhelmingly supports Michael Jackson's innocence. It is for this reason that during the lengthy investigation, which continued for many months, Michael Jackson was never arrested and was never charged with any crime.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Evan Chandler masterminded the allegations as a money making scheme, believing it would help him to achieve his dream of working in Hollywood. The aforementioned tape recorded telephone conversation heard him dismiss the boy's wellbeing as 'irrelevant' and admit that he was out to take Jackson for all he was worth.

Mary Fischer's evidence shows that as well as falsifying the sexual abuse of his own son in an elaborate extortion plot, when Jordan refused to play along Evan plied him with mind-altering drugs in a bid to trick him into believing that he was molested.

But even drugging a child as part of an extortion plot wasn't Evan Chandler's lowest point. That came when he petitioned the court to allow him to release an album of music about the supposed sexual abuse of his own son.

As for the media, this latest incident cements once more the industry's almost total unwillingness to report fairly or accurately on Michael Jackson, particularly on the bogus allegations of sexual abuse that were levelled against him. None of the aforementioned information and evidence was included in any article about Chandler's suicide that I have read so far, despite the fact that I personally delivered it to at least one newspaper which specifically asked me to supply it.

Exculpatory facts are overlooked in favour of salacious myths. A black humanitarian is tarred as a paedophile and his white extortionist is painted as a martyr.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Review: Starsuckers

Debuting at the London Film Festival last week, 'Starsuckers' is the much hyped new documentary from the team behind 'Taking Liberties', the 2007 BAFTA-nominated film which claimed that British citizens are being robbed of their freedom.

The documentary premiered last Wednesday and I had tickets to the second LFF screening on Thursday, attended by director Chris Atkins.

'Starsuckers' purports to journey through the 'dark underbelly of the modern media' and 'blow the lid on the corporations and individuals' who profit from our obsession with fame. 'Warning', reads the film's website, 'even watching this film might get you sued'.

However, 'Starsuckers' is far less revelatory than one might expect, given the hype that has surrounded its release. In fact, it is actually quite confusing. The opening scenes show Chris Atkins and a female accomplice being chased through the streets of LA by a mob of paparazzi as onlookers intermittently ask the 'Starsuckers' film crew who they are.

It transpires that Atkins has paid for a 'celebrity experience', whereby ordinary people can fork out hundreds of dollars per hour to be hounded by press so that bystanders are duped into believing they're celebrities. But the segment ends almost as soon as it begins, and does so without any explanation as to why Atkins has embarked on this experience or any exploration of its workings.

Suddenly we find ourselves watching the exploits of two parents convinced of their own son's star quality, shopping him around various Los Angeles agents in the hope that he can strike it big and help them escape their working class lifestyle. Soon, though, we have abandoned that storyline as well and are instead taken on a journey through the history of celebrity by a pair of floating magicians' gloves, which Atkins later refers to as the 'God of Starsuckers'.

In short, 'Starsuckers' suffers from an almost complete lack of direction. One could easily be left thoroughly perplexed as to what the film is trying to say. Is it about adults so obsessed by celebrity that they are willing to pay paparazzi to chase them down the street? Is it about fame's corruptive influence on our children? Is it about the public's relationship with celebrity itself? Each subject could warrant a documentary of its own. 'Starsuckers' seems like a hodgepodge of several incomplete films that have all been mashed together because they fall under the same vague umbrella subject.

The 'God of Starsuckers' - a pair of floating magicians' gloves with a booming American accent - claims that he will explain to us how media outlets conspire to manufacture celebrity addiction amongst the general public, but the whole thing plays out more like a bizarre conspiracy theory movie (see: Loose Change) than a serious documentary.

'Starsuckers' contradicts itself at every turn. The overriding message of the film is that the media is sinister and conspires to indoctrinate us all with celebrity obsession for its own financial gain, despite the fact that Atkins and his team seem to be forever turning up evidence to the contrary.

In one moment biologists tell us that man's obsession with celebrity is an evolutionary trait, but in the next moment the God of Starsuckers is telling us again that it's actually a global media conspiracy. No sooner has Nick Davies told us that it's not laziness or unprofessionalism that's killing the media but budget cuts and understaffing, than the God of Starsuckers is lecturing us on how all media outlets are nasty and manipulative.

Perhaps the most baffling portion of the film - and also the primary focus of its marketing campaign - is a segment in which Atkins and his team conspire to plant bogus celebrity stories in Britain's newspapers. The team meticulously research their subjects, making sure that they know exactly where their unwitting celebrities were the previous night and what they were wearing. They then telephone the newspapers and attempt to dupe them into printing harmless but false stories (Avril Lavigne fell asleep in a nightclub, Guy Ritchie poked himself in the eye with a spoon).

There is a slight air of menace about the whole segment - the notion of concocting an elaborate hoax with the specific intention of duping somebody and then blaming the victim when it works is a bit like a school bully pushing a little girl head first into a puddle and then laughing at her because she's wet.

Even more bafflingly, Atkins has claimed in a recent Guardian interview that the stories could have been 'easily disproved within minutes' by checking with reps for the stars. The notion that a PR worker is more likely to tell the truth than an eyewitness is one that is sure to prompt outbursts of hysterics up and down Fleet Street.

If you telephone Guy Ritchie's public relations contact and ask them whether he has ever poked himself in the eye with a spoon, it doesn't matter if he's rolling around on the floor with a spoon sticking out of his eye socket at that very moment - they're still going to say no.

The film uses as as some of it's primary interviewees two authors; Jake Halpern, who wrote 'Fame Junkies' and Nick Davies, who wrote 'Flat Earth News'. Halpern's book analyzes America's obsession with fame and posits that in some cases it has become a literal addiction. Davies' book meanwhile alleges that distortion and inaccuracy are widespread in Britain's media because cost-cutting has robbed journalists of their time and resources. Atkins is clearly inspired by both authors and this seems to be the primary motivation behind the documentary.

However, Atkins has handled both subjects clumsily and made some extremely tenuous connections between the two. Those interested in the issues raised by the film may be better off simply buying the two books.

The primary problem with 'Starsuckers' is its clumsiness. It jumps from topic to topic with little in the way of narrative. It leaves key ideas unexplored and often ignores expert opinion, instead jumping to its own conclusions. There is also an air of hypocrisy to the film, which in one breath lambasts the media for its supposedly duplicitous nature and in the next sees fit to hoodwink Max Clifford, a 66 year old man, and surreptitiously film him in the privacy of his own living room.

Overwhelmingly, though, the film seems like a wild goose chase. The website claims to 'pull the rug underneath a string of untouchables' but never quite lives up to its own boasting. At its climax, the film descends into madness as it tries to prove that Bob Geldof, alongside the world's media, conspired in the production of 'Live 8' to systematically undermine the efforts of legitimate charities.

'Starsuckers' spends almost two hours trying to convince us that the media is evil - that it cynically manipulates all of us into a frenzied celebrity addiction... That newspapers lie on purpose to make us consume celebrity TV shows, and celebrity TV shows manipulate us into buying Heat magazine. But ultimately, it fails to do so. At its worst it's actually condescending, giving the public no credit whatsoever and instead working on the assumption that we are all brainless nincompoops who will immediately consume whatever our television tells us to - that we will automatically like whatever Ant and Dec tell us to like, or buy whatever Kerry Katona tells us to buy.

But not Chris Atkins. He's too clever for that. It's just the rest of us who are stupid.

The overall viewing experience is an empty one. I left the cinema feeling like I'd been nagged for 115 minutes by a paranoid hippie. 'Starsuckers' gathers together every paranoid cliché you've ever heard about the media and combines them all to form an ultimately flat and unrevelatory film that comes nowhere close to achieving what it sets out to.