Wednesday 19 October 2011
The story wrongly claimed that had Michael Jackson been convicted of child molestation in 2005, his family had an escape plan in place to whisk him to Bahrain, where he couldn't be extradited. The story was controversial and nonsensical. It was also untrue.
Wherever the story originated, the journalist responsible was apparently too lazy even to read Jermaine's eight-and-a-half page prologue in full before they wrote it up. Then, several hundred more journalists replicated that story without making any attempt to fact-check it. The furore was such that Michael Jackson's 2005 lawyer Thomas Mesereau publicly spoke out against the claims.
For Jermaine Jackson, watching his book misquoted on a global scale and seeing himself criticised over a story he never wrote was a disaster. He was marketing his book as an honest firsthand account of his brother's life, but it had scarcely hit shelves before it was made to look like a work of fiction.
It was amidst this controversy that Jermaine Jackson flew to London to promote the book - a trip I didn't find out about until he was already on his way here.
Arranging an interview slot involved three days of negotiation between Jermaine, his publicist and representatives of his publishing house on both sides of the Atlantic. In the meantime, though, I got a brief private introduction 'backstage' at his London book signing on Tuesday 13th September.
During our meeting, Jermaine thanked me for my work on his brother's trial and we spoke about his trip to the UK so far. He also reminisced about the Victory album when my friend Angela (above, left) handed him a copy to sign.
On the Wednesday evening, waiting to hear confirmation of my interview slot, I tripped over in my local park and landed with my hand in a patch of broken glass. On route to A&E, I learned that I would interview Jermaine Jackson the following day at the BBC studios.
On the afternoon of Thursday 15th, Jermaine's car picked me up in Wood Lane and delivered us all to the BBC studios. Now on his fourth consecutive day of back-to-back interviews in London, he'd just finished recording Loose Women and was at the BBC studios to be interviewed by Richard Bacon.
We were taken to an empty radio studio where Jermaine and I spoke for over half an hour about the backlash against his book, his family's struggle against biased reporting, how they coped with his brother's child molestation trial, and how racism affected the family both during the Jackson 5 days and in later life.
We discussed how he felt about the decision to put his brother's children onstage at the upcoming tribute concert in Cardiff (which happened on Oct 8th), his annoyance at the Los Angeles justice system's obsession with holidays, and the shocking content in chapter 22 of his book, which recounts his sources' recollections of the 'This Is It' rehearsals.
And we discussed a whole lot more, too.
Before I left, we snapped a picture - me sporting a hospital dressing on my right hand. Here we are in the empty radio studio:
Shortly after our BBC studios interview, Jermaine was generous enough to answer several more questions via email correspondence. I have woven those quotes into my article alongside the quotes from our in-person encounter, because it is too jarring and wastes too many words to keep differentiating between the two. My interview with Jermaine will be serialised on the Huffington Post. Part one is now online (link below). Keep checking the blog and my twitter page for updates on future installations.
Monday 17 October 2011
I've been covering the Michael Jackson story for four years now. My first published article on the subject of Michael Jackson's trial was in 2008, when I interviewed Aphrodite Jones about her book 'Michael Jackson Conspiracy'.
Aphrodite was one of the handful of journalists allowed inside the courtroom for every day of Michael Jackson's 2005 trial. After his acquittal, she decided to write a book about how she'd witnessed firsthand the media's intentional misrepresentation of the evidence and testimony in the case. But despite having seven previous New York Times bestselling books under her belt, no publisher would touch the manuscript. They weren't interested in any pro-Jackson material.
When Aphrodite self-published the book, I decided to interview her. Our interview was published in a small, short-lived magazine called 'Deadline' and Aphrodite described it as the best article she'd ever seen written about her work.
In May of the following year, the media's misrepresentation of the Michael Jackson trial formed a key part of the introduction to my self-published music magazine 'JIVE' and since Michael Jackson's death, my work on his trial has been published by Sawf News and the Huffington Post. So when I was presented with the opportunity to interview Thomas Mesereau on-air, however briefly, I couldn't say no.
During our conversation, Mr Mesereau spoke about the media's skewed coverage of the trial, why particular pundits are still bitter about the verdict, the peculiar closeness between the prosecutors and their witnesses, and why he felt Michael Jackson would be abused by prison guards and die in jail if he was convicted.
Here is the audio of our ten-minute exchange:
Click here to download the entire podcast, free of charge, from iTunes.
Monday 10 October 2011
Back in October 2006 I had just begun my journalism degree. I had been a James Brown fan throughout my teens and had seen him live three times. When I found out he was coming to the UK for a BBC concert, I decided to use my new 'student journalist' credentials to apply for an interview.
Most press officers would have simply ignored my email but Adam Dewhurst, who was looking after James Brown during his London trip, was kind enough to reply. He told me that Mr Brown wasn't doing any interviews while he was in the capital but that he was giving a press conference at Camden's Roundhouse a few hours before his concert there. If I wanted to go, he said, he'd put me on the list.
And so it came to be that on October 27th 2006 I found myself sitting in a small room upstairs at the Roundhouse - one of only two non-BBC journalists to be invited - waiting for an audience with my hero: the Godfather of Soul.
Mr Brown was late. I didn't much care. It gave my nerves time to settle. I was green; I'd never been to a press conference before; talk about a baptism of fire.
The other journalists seemed unphased - some actually seemed to view the press conference as an unwanted distraction from their other work. I couldn't understand it. How many people can say they've had the opportunity to pick the brain of the most influential musician of the last century? But their nonchalance subsided as soon as somebody whispered, "He's coming! He's coming!" There was a stunned silence.
Author Jonathan Lethem once wrote of James Brown:
"I'm also struck by the almost extraterrestrial quality of otherness incarnated in this human being... He's in his midseventies, yet, encountering him now in person, it occurs to me that James Brown is kept under wraps for so long at the outset of his own show, and is viewed primarily at a distance, or mediated through recordings or films, in order to buffer the unprepared spectator from the awesome strangeness and intensity of his person. He simply has more energy, is vibrating at a different rate, than anyone I've ever met, young or old. With every preparation I've made, he's still terrifying."
The description is an accurate one. A room full of cynical journalists, bemoaning James Brown's lateness and its impact on their deadlines, fell into a deferential hush as soon as he came into view down the corridor.
Mr Brown was in pain throughout his trip to the UK. In an article titled 'Jawedfather of Soul; James Brown ignores dental op agony at Scots gig', Glasgow's Daily Record reported that Brown had undergone dental implant surgery just days before flying to the UK and was "in so much pain he had to avoid talking and rinse his mouth with salt water just hours before going on stage."
Brown's cheeks looked sunken - the teeth he had in didn't fit properly. They were holding the fort until his final set were finished and inserted. It was when Brown attended a dental appointment two months later to have the final set put in that he was told he was too ill for surgery and sent to hospital with pneumonia, where he died shortly afterwards.
His voice was hushed, his speech difficult to decipher. It's not obvious in the below clip how quiet his voice was because he was speaking directly into a BBC microphone, but at 1m18s you'll notice a significant change in audio quality. This was because reporters were complaining that they couldn't hear Mr Brown's answers to their questions, so a door was closed.
The press conference was roughly fifteen minutes long, in which time Mr Brown discussed what to expect from his concert that night, the need to get children interested in playing instruments again and the negative impact that violent hip-hop imagery has on young people and on society in general.
Being as green as I was, I was too timid to shout my way through the other reporters and ask a question, so Mr Dewhurst kindly offered me the floor. I took the opportunity to ask Mr Brown about the album I knew he'd been working on, then known to fans as 'World Against The Grain' (it later turned out to be 'World Funk Against The Grain'). I got an answer I didn't expect.
During his lengthy response, Mr Brown spoke about the new track 'Gutbucket', in which he blasted hip-hop artists for their violent and misogynistic lyrics. This led to a discussion about the degradation of the music industry. Finally, though, he made some troubling comments. "Somebody's gonna have to die before we get that out," he muttered about the album. "I won't say much more than that."
He concluded, "We would love to get that out, but we need help." As he said the word 'help', his voice cracked - perhaps through emotion, perhaps because he was battling intense oral pain. Either way, to hear the notoriously proud James Brown publicly stating that he needed help was bizarre; as somewhat of a James Brown archivist, it is the only occasion I'm aware of on which Brown has ever publicly exhibited anything approaching weakness.
The comments prompted an uncomfortable silence and Mr Brown's personal manager, Charles Bobbit, leaned apologetically into the assorted microphones and said, "You should get that some time next year."
"I remember that press conference," Mr Bobbit would later tell me. "It was as if he had a premonition. I guess it came true, huh?"
Mr Brown's comments that night divide those who surrounded him. Some believe that those in charge of Brown's estate never intended the album to be released while he was alive and that his death was suspicious.
According to family sources, when Mr Brown's son-in-law told the National Enquirer he believed Brown had been murdered, he was shot dead days later and $500 was found in his pockets, ruling out robbery as a motive. Another family member told me last year that when they started asking questions, they were told, "that I could go missing and that there are a lot of swamps in Georgia."
Others, though, say the album simply wasn't finished and that Brown had a tendency to exaggerate, perhaps amplified on this occasion by pain medication he may have been taking to counter the agony caused by his dental surgery.
This month, former trustee of Brown's estate, David Cannon, is due to stand trial on numerous counts of mismanaging the James Brown estate both before and after Brown's death. Perhaps some answers will be provided by those proceedings.
The press conference was shot in full but never aired. The only footage broadcast on TV was the two-minute skit I have included below. My question was included but Mr Brown's answer, unsurprisingly, was not.
I didn't take many notes - I wasn't sure about the etiquette of breaking eye contact with James Brown as he spoke to me, so I maintained eye contact for the duration of his answer and scribbled down what I could when he finished. Those notes have long since been lost.
A few years ago I tried to obtain the unedited footage of the press conference but was told by the BBC that this skit was all they could find.
Although Mr Brown seemed troubled, I remain grateful to Mr Dewhurst for inviting me to that press conference. As it turned out, I would never have had another chance to speak to Mr Brown. He died less than two months later, on Christmas Day 2006.
My encounter with James Brown prompted my research into his final album, which produced my Guardian Award-winning article, 'James Brown: The Lost Album'. James Brown book-ended my career as a student journalist. In my first month of studies, I attended that press conference. Just over three years later, shortly after I graduated, I was handed my Guardian Award.
Though this footage is brief, and my own on-screen appearance amounts to about two seconds, this is a video I will treasure forever - and I'm glad to finally be able to share it with you all.
Since then I hadn't heard much from any of them - perhaps because in the weeks after Jackson's death I declined a few appearances - but this Friday I received a surprise phone call from Sky News, looking for somebody to appear on-air the following morning and chat about Saturday's 'Forever Michael' tribute concert in Cardiff.
It was a brief appearance but fairly successful for a first ever live TV studio interview, by which I mean it was uneventful; I didn't faint, freeze up or barf into the host's lap. Although I did get home later one and notice this:
Did you spot that?
I'll zoom in.
Yes, Sky News became the latest in a long line of media organisations to misspell my name. But never mind. As live TV goes, it's a minor complaint.
I was blindsided by a few questions on Paul McCartney's wedding, about which I knew nothing except what I'd briefly read on the front page of the Mirror in the Sky News green room ten minutes previously. Fortunately, the McCartney questions weren't too probing. I think I got away with it.
I will post video of my appearance shortly.
Wednesday 28 September 2011
I spent much of Wednesday 21st September deliberating over whether or not to write something about the Troy Davis case. I, like many thousands of people around the world, was horrified by the prospect of his execution in the face of such overwhelming doubt over his guilt - but I was also aware that the case was already being covered all over the world.
For those who don't know, Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 of the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail. Jurors sentenced Davis to death based solely on eyewitness testimony, of which much has since been recanted with nine people signing affidavits stating that another man committed the murder. Despite this, Davis was executed in the state of Georgia on the evening of Wednesday 21st September 2011.
As Wednesday progressed, two main factors convinced me to write about the injustice which ultimately befell Troy Davis at just past 11PM (ET) last Wednesday.
First, I observed the right-wing media's biased reporting on the case. Some news stations completely ignored the wealth of evidence which undermined Troy Davis's conviction, instead echoing the MacPhail family's misguided cries for Davis's blood. Others told blatant lies, such as claiming that the recanted witness testimony was largely mythical (in fact all of the recantations are accounted for in this PDF on Amnesty's website).
Unsurprisingly, it was Anne Coulter who offered the most shocking commentary, relishing Troy's imminent death on her twitter feed ('One Troy Davis flame broiled please') and wrongly claiming on her website that there is no evidence to suggest an innocent person has been executed in the US for 60 years.
Then, shortly after Coulter published her disturbing diatribe, I received a four-word tweet from my friend Deborah Ffrench. It read, 'Strange Fruit Still Growing'. The tweet referenced one of the greatest and most haunting poems ever written; Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol. Later turned into a song by Billie Holliday, the song recounts the lynching of black citizens in America in the 1930s.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root.
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...
The title for my Troy Davis article came to me in a flash and I got to work. Over the next two days I set about creating what I hoped would come as close as possible to being the 'definitive' Troy Davis article. Tracking down the signed recantation affidavits which several journalists and media outlets had dismissed as fictitious, I included extensive quotes from witnesses who claimed they'd been bullied and threatened by police officers who forced them to falsely identify Davis as the shooter of Mark MacPhail in Davis's 1991 trial.
I had to shorten my article for the Huffington Post which, in recent months, is asking contributors to cap their contributions at roughly 1000 words, but I have uploaded the unedited version of my article on my personal website. So perhaps read the article on my website but leave your comment at the Huffington Post.
I am unashamedly opposed to capital punishment. The notion that it works as a deterrent is swiftly debunked by America's crime statistics and the idea that we can teach our children that murder is wrong by murdering murderers is clearly deranged. Moreover, the justice system gets it wrong far too often. If you put someone in a cell, you can take them back out again; the same can't be said after you've put them in the ground.
The Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of prisoners in America are innocent, meaning that, potentially, upwards of 150 American prisoners are currently awaiting execution for crimes that they didn't commit. How many more Troy Davis's must there be before America sees the light?
Saturday 17 September 2011
(NB. All pictures in this blog can be enlarged by clicking on them)
...and more. But there will be updates to this blog very shortly, so keep your eyes peeled.
Sunday 3 July 2011
Sunday 29 May 2011
News of George Clinton's hospitalisation shocked music lovers around the world this week but perhaps none more so than me, for the hospitalisation came just days after I enjoyed a 75-minute interview with George, during which he seemed to be perfectly fine.
Alarm bells sounded among funk fans after Bootsy Collins reported the news on his facebook page and asked his followers to pray for George Clinton's recovery. Fortunately the hospitalisation wasn't too serious - a staph infection was discovered in George's leg as he underwent a routine check-up. He's already checked out and is now busy preparing to embark on yet another international concert tour.
The level of media interest was surprising given that George Clinton is one of the most unsung music pioneers still walking among us. Fusing the hard funk of James Brown with the psychedelic edge of Sly and the Family Stone and the blistering rock of Jimi Hendrix, George and his group Parliament-Funkadelic cultivated a groundbreaking sound.
According to Rolling Stone their output, which "[mixed] funk polyrhythms, psychedelic guitar, jazzy horns [and] vocal-group harmonies" was "some of pop's most adventurous music of the Seventies." Their unique sound ultimately laid the foundations for much of the hip-hop that now dominates the musical landscape.
Despite achieving three platinum albums, Parliament-Funkadelic never quite reached chart blockbuster status. Nonetheless, their danceable beats and affirmative lyrics resonated with a huge audience and today they're considered one of the most influential groups of the last century.
Flourishing in the early 1970s, P-Funk's music was often laced with political commentary but delivered it in a far less divisive way than 1960s protest songs like James Brown's 'Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud'. Instead the tunes often focused on music as a uniting factor. P-Funk sang of 'One Nation Under A Groove'. Music could make barriers melt away into insignificance; 'Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow' read their 1970 album cover.
Even the compositions were about unity. When Bootsy Collins migrated to P-Funk from James Brown's revue he brought with him the concept of 'the one': the one-and-three beat Brown popularised during the 1960s and early 1970s. "When everybody's playing it in unison instead of harmony, it's as one," George said in 2010. "That's strong... It's in unison so it's like it'll be around forever. It's in your genes... Then we're all together as one... The entity of one as a life form - as life. One DNA. I'm for you, you for me. We for trees and we for the planet."
In a stroke of genius, Clinton devised a distinct, space-age image with which the band's music became synonymous. Dressed in otherworldly costumes and starring in comic strips on their album artwork, the group presented themselves as a band of black superheroes - an empowering and cutting edge move so far ahead of its time, in fact, that we're now halfway into 2011 and there's still never been a major movie about a black superhero (bar Hancock, in which the black superhero was an inept drunkard).
By fusing searing social commentary with radio-friendly grooves and comic book imagery, Clinton and his band were able to rail against social ills in a non-threatening way. Clinton's ideology crept past the same DJs who dropped James Brown from their playlists when he released 'Say It Loud'. 'Cosmic Slop' became a club smash, filling dancefloors all over America, despite telling the story of a woman who becomes a prostitute to feed her children.
Combining their pioneering funk-rock fusion and their distinctive visual presentation, P-Funk enjoyed enormous success as a touring act, selling out stadiums throughout the 1970s with an elaborate concert experience in which Clinton would descend in a million-dollar spaceship to bestow the gift of funk upon his audience. That spaceship - the mothership - has now been acquired by the Smithsonian.
Often dismissed as clownish figures at the height of their fame, in more recent years George Clinton and P-Funk have been acknowledged as some of the most respected and influential musicians of all time. From Prince to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who recruited George in 1985 to produce and write for their album 'Freaky Styley') a lot of the biggest acts to have emerged since the early 1980s have cited P-Funk as one of their greatest influences. In 1997 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2009 George was handed the BMI Icon Award.
P-Funk's influence on several generations of hip-hop musicians is self-evident in the number of times their music has been sampled, which runs into the thousands. In fact, P-Funk are thought to be the second most sampled act of all time, beaten only by James Brown. Academic Vladimir Gutkovich has described them as "the key predecessor of hip-hop music."
Indeed, there is a very strong argument to be made that George and P-Funk have had more impact on the contemporary musical landscape than even the Beatles. Wax Poetics editor André Torres wrote in 2006:
Presently, though, George is troubled. While his pioneering music continues to form the basis for so much contemporary output, he's getting the props but he's not getting the cash. Like many black musicians of his era, he was hoodwinked by the very music industry figures who were supposed to be looking out for his best interests.
George's financial problems began in the 1980s and have continued on-and-off ever since. In 2005 a court ruled that a man called Armen Boladian had forged George's signature on numerous documents in order to falsely assert ownership of some of George's masters. The masters in question were returned to George but Boladian still controls much of the P-Funk catalogue and George contests his ownership of those masters too.
George's investigations into the corporate skullduggery around him and his music have turned up what could be one of the biggest known conspiracies in the history of the music business. His losses over the last 25 years or so could total as much as $100million. Just one sample can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and George is one of the most sampled artists in music history. For more than two decades artists have been paying for the rights to sample his work and that money has been landing straight into other people's bank accounts. But the injustice doesn't even end there.
His albums hop labels when he's not looking. At an album signing a few years ago a fan handed him a CD he'd released on Sony and he noticed that instead of saying 'Sony' on the artwork, it said 'Westbound'. He'd never sanctioned nor profited from this apparent re-release. Somebody else was getting paid for it. There's more, too.
Type George's name into iTunes and you'll notice that a lot of his tracks show up as having been written by 'George S. Clinton'. That's not George Clinton. Every time you buy one of those tracks, somebody else gets paid for it.
During a recent trip to the US Copyright Office, arranged by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, George discovered documents showing that his songs had been repeatedly re-registered without his knowledge or permission, with original songwriters missing and new songwriters added.
Deceased P-Funk members' catalogues had been re-registered as though they were still alive, years after they passed away. At one point somebody went to NYC to re-register George's entire catalogue in one hit. George has even obtained a signed declaration from a man who says he was paid thousands of dollars to pretend he'd written some of George's material.
George's legal disputes are ongoing with no resolution in sight. The scale of the battle facing George is almost beyond comprehension. It could take years to unpick - meanwhile, other people continue to profit from his record sales and samples.
Outside of this troubling issue, though, George remains upbeat. At 69-years-old, he is appalled by the mere mention of retirement. He plays roughly 200 gigs every year and is horrified by the idea of stopping. He loves gigging and the proceeds allow him to pursue his often overlooked humanitarian efforts. Just last year he was involved in fundraising efforts for Haiti and donated 25% of all future P-Funk royalties to the Barrack Obama Green Charter High School in his home town of Plainfield, New Jersey.
During our interview we also covered more emotional topics. In the last year and a half he has lost his son and his mother, as well as P-Funk bandmates Garry Shider and Phelps 'Catfish' Collins. He told me how getting onstage 200 nights a year and spreading his positive message helps him to cope with the loss. He also spoke candidly about the aging process, his periods of drug abuse and checking into rehab with Sly Stone, with whom he's recently been in the studio working on new music.
There was more positive chat, too, including discussion of a planned Motown album and a flash drive in the shape of George's hand, the finger of which will plug into your home computer giving access to almost every track the group has ever recorded, including demos and live recordings.
Despite this week's health scare, George is still very much alive and kicking. He works constantly in the studio down the street from his home and is about to embark on a grueling concert tour around America and Europe. These aren't rigid, untaxing oldies gigs either. P-Funk gigs are perhaps the best value for money around. George and the band routinely play for three hours or more and the shows often consist of long improvisations. No two gigs are the same.
In the background George is relentlessly pursuing years of unpaid royalties for himself and his P-Funk collaborators as well as restored ownership of his masters. He also intends to start a legal fund for artists facing similar copyright problems and has agreed to give lessons at the Barrack Obama Green Charter High School, teaching music students how to avoid getting ripped off in the same way. So fear not, funkateers - it's going to take a lot more than a staph infection to slow him down.
For news on the publication of my interview with George Clinton, keep an eye on my blog. For details of George's upcoming gigs, click here.
My interview with Pee Wee was carried out at a time when I was contributing regularly to a publication with whom I had an ongoing relationship. In the current financial climate that publication was unable to retain my services after March, nor pay me for any work which they'd already given the go ahead. As such, this interview is currently in limbo.
More news as and when I have it. I look forward to sharing this interview with you as soon as I possibly can.
Thursday 26 May 2011
For the last five months I've been spending, on average, between three and five days per week at my local courthouse. During this time I've witnessed pretty much every stage of the legal process - arraignments, trials, sentences, appeals and more. The trials I've sat through have encompassed everything from rape to child molestation, domestic violence to perverting the course of justice, indecent exposure to actual bodily harm.
The idea came to me during dinner with a friend who is ensconced in his exams to become a barrister. As part of his course he'd spent a period of time shadowing a judge at the local courthouse and was telling me about the interesting cases he'd witnessed.
It occurred to me that the courthouse was potentially an untapped source of local and national news stories; who knew what was going on inside that building? I certainly wasn't reading anything about any of the cases my friend had observed in either the local or the national press. I decided that if nobody else was going to write about them, I'd give it a shot.
Often fascinating and occasionally disturbing, the past five months have been revelatory, to say the least. I've embarked on an exploration not only of the court system and its workings but also the courts' relationship with the media and, sadly, the media's failings which it comes to reporting on our justice system.
I've seen prosecutors force defendants to stand trial on the flimsiest of evidence and not be held to account for their arrogance. I've seen judges let off paedophiles with minor sentences when their offences could easily have merited several years behind bars.
I've seen one person convicted of a crime which I saw no evidence that they'd committed. I also witnessed 'churnalism' in action when a news agency journalist showed up for twenty minutes of a three week trial and then had their story circulated internationally.
The first trial I sat through was a fascinating introduction. A local man stood accused of domestic violence resulting in actual bodily harm to his then pregnant girlfriend. Giving evidence for the prosecution, the claimant sobbed repeatedly as she claimed that the defendant had attacked her and attempted to kill her unborn baby. But as she underwent cross-examination it became clear that her claims just didn't stack up.
Photographs of her injuries didn't tally with her description of the alleged assault. She claimed to have had her head smashed repeatedly against a wall and a door, as well as receiving numerous blows to the head and face from the defendant's fists. She even said that the defendant had bitten her hard on the cheek - but police photographs showed only two or three small marks on her face; no large bruises, no cuts and no bite marks.
Her version of events changed repeatedly between her police interview, a deposition she gave in order to prevent the defendant from visiting his child and then her courtroom testimony during his trial. On the stand she seemed to strategically omit certain claims she'd earlier made to police, which she knew were unsupported by any evidence.
These included a claim that the defendant had torn her nipple during the alleged assault and her shirt had been 'covered in blood'. The nipple injury was neither noted nor photographed by police and the bloodied shirt was nowhere to be found, even though she'd gone to the police within hours of the attack having supposedly taken place.
Her allegations were further undermined when a police officer took the stand and testified that the defendant had been helpful in his police interview and his story, unlike the claimant's, had remained consistent. He had not only waved his right to remain silent but also his right to a lawyer, telling police he'd done nothing wrong so he didn't need one. He even volunteered his mobile phone to officers for analysis and police found that the confused text messages he'd sent the claimant tallied with his claim that he didn't know why she'd disappeared with all her stuff that morning.
Significantly, the police officer noted upon the defendant's arrest, less than 24 hours after the alleged incident, that he had no cuts, bruises or markings to his fists or any other part of his body.
Two defence witnesses testified that the claimant had a history of self-harming and could have self-inflicted the handful of injuries she actually exhibited when she contacted police. Both testified that the claimant had told them she'd previously spent time in the Priory Clinic receiving treatment for drugs, alcohol and self-harm issues.
Attempts to obtain the claimant's Priory records were derailed when the clinic informed police that they'd recently switched to a new computer filing system and couldn't look far back enough to check whether she'd been a patient before the alleged attack. It emerged, though, that she had been treated for self-harm issues at the Priory after the alleged incident.
Further doubt was shed on the claimant's version of events when a defence witness testified that she'd seen the claimant on the morning after the alleged attack but before she went to police. The witness testified that the claimant's hair had been tied back that morning and she hadn't displayed any visible injuries.
The defendant's belief, he said on the stand, was that his girlfriend had decided that she didn't want to be in a relationship with him anymore but knew that the child would ensure his continued presence in her life. Her solution, he posited, was to fabricate the assault because it allowed her to obtain a court order preventing him from seeing his child and therefore from seeing her. In the months since she'd left, his child had been born and he had no idea what it was called or even what sex it was or whether it was healthy.
A jury of six men and six women took roughly one hour to acquit the defendant on the third day of his trial - but he was less concerned with the verdict than he was with the health of his 80-year-old grandmother, who was in hospital after crashing her car that morning on her way to court to support him; a journey she'd never have embarked on if the borderline deranged prosecution hadn't gone forward in the first place.
I was relieved to see the defendant acquitted because the doubt in that case was beyond reasonable. At the very least, the claimant appeared to have fabricated aspects of the alleged assault but some evidence, such as the defendant's lack of injuries, strongly suggested that the incident was simply the product of her imagination.
It could easily have gone the other way, though. Some crimes - particularly crimes against women and children - are emotive. You have only to mention them and the jury is already horrified. All it takes is a good prosecutor (or a bad defender) or even for the jury to simply look the defendant up and down and decide that he looks like the type - and things can go awry.
During my first few weeks at the courthouse I realised that I was, generally, the only journalist in the building. If I hadn't been sitting in that courtroom and the verdict had gone the other way, nobody would have known that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Moreover, there are five courtrooms at my local courthouse so for every trial I watched, up to four more were potentially going ahead with nobody present to keep an eye on proceedings.
My next trial showed me that even when journalists do show up to watch a trial, they're not necessarily fulfilling their role properly. The defendant was Emma Smiter, a former Police Community Support Officer who stood accused of leaking sensitive information, including the name of a sex assault victim, to a journalist and then perverting the course of justice.
Smiter's first trial for misconduct in a public office had begun in 2010 but was disbanded after documents she produced as part of her defence - namely two blogs which she claimed were the source of her information, as opposed to police computers - were found to have been faked.
A subsequent investigation found that the blogs had been created just days before her trial began but were backdated to the time of the leaks, and that they'd been created on a computer in Smiter's home under a user profile called 'Emma'. She was charged with perverting the course of justice and her trial was rescheduled for late February 2011. She was convicted on March 16th and sentenced in April to twelve months in jail, of which she will serve six.
I sat in the courtroom for almost the entirety of that trial, missing only the first day or two because I was watching another case down the corridor. For the overwhelming majority of the trial, I was the only journalist in the courtroom.
I was the only journalist to sit through Smiter's testimony from beginning to end. I was the only journalist to witness the key testimony of her father, a senior police officer. I was the only journalist to sit through the closing speeches and the judge's summing up. But despite having sat through more of the trial than any other journalist and despite the national interest in the trial, I couldn't sell a story on it. Why? Because I was scooped by a news agency who scarcely attended any of the proceedings.
The news agency was present for perhaps three days out of the three week trial, covering the opening of the prosecution case and the opening of the defence case but none of the evidence. By the time the verdict was handed down on March 16th the news agency hadn't been on the scene for roughly a week. However, when the case was called for verdict, a journalist from the organisation - who hadn't attended a single other day of the trial - appeared in the courtroom just for the twenty-minute verdict reading. On the way out of the courtroom, she stopped me and asked, "Sorry - do you know what the charges are in this case?"
Despite the fact that this journalist had witnessed a grand total of twenty minutes of Emma Smiter's three week trial and didn't even know what charges Smiter had been convicted on, her copy was syndicated internationally. Meanwhile I, having witnessed the trial almost from beginning to end, couldn't sell a story. Here's why.
Newspapers pay subscription to news agencies or 'wires', whose copy arrives in the newsroom electronically and is technically already bought and paid for, whether they choose to use it or not. In an era of falling circulations, downsizing and dwindling freelance budgets some newspapers, when confronted with a choice between detailed freelance copy or superficial wire copy, will choose the wire copy for budgetary reasons. Why buy a freelancer's version of the story when you've already paid for the wire copy?
The wire copy didn't do the trial justice. The case was fascinating and the news agency didn't have even 10% of the information I had. I even had an exclusive post-trial briefing with the head of Hertfordshire Constabulary's Anti-Corruption Department. None of it got published.
In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies discusses in detail how freelance reporters have suffered as a direct consequence of the increasing corporate ownership of newspapers. The knock-on effect has been that the quality of journalism has suffered, particularly the coverage of Britain's court network.
Just twenty years ago, most courthouses in the country would have had a reporter in them most days filing copy with news agencies and newspapers. Now entire regions are covered by just one or two freelancers dividing their time between dozens of courthouses.
This is alarming. It is absolutely vital that our courts operate openly and transparently. That's why members of the public can walk in off of the street and sit in on almost any trial in any courthouse in the country. Scrutiny is supposed to keep prosecutors and judges in check but with nobody documenting what's going on inside our courthouses, innocent people could be convicted on a daily basis and we'd never know anything about it.
In the past few months I've seen prosecutors pursue cases which were flimsy to the point of being farcical. Prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to just pursue anybody they like by virtue of their status. Every person is innocent until proven guilty but I've seen prosecutors put people on trial with literally no compelling evidence of their guilt - and in one of those trials, they won (more on that shortly).
I've seen judges get away with some pretty bizarre behavior too. On two occasions I've had stories published in national newspapers about judges letting off child sex offenders with ridiculously light sentences.
A teacher who downloaded child porn onto a school laptop and then ferried it between school and home got off without even an hour's community service, despite a previous judge recommending custody. Another man with almost 5million child porn images, who described collecting the pictures as his 'hobby', was eligible for more than five years in prison but was sentenced to just thirty months, of which he will serve only fifteen. That story made front page of the local paper.
By far the most disturbing experience thus far, though, has been the case of Terence Ruddigan. Mr Ruddigan was 21 years old when a jury at my local courthouse convicted him of seriously assaulting a doorman at a local bar. I believe Mr Ruddigan's conviction was a miscarriage of justice. I sat through his trial from beginning to end and didn't see the prosecutor offer up one piece of evidence or one reliable witness proving Mr Ruddigan's guilt.
Police failed to conduct vital forensic analysis which could have cleared Ruddigan, but the necessary tests were never carried out and no explanation was offered as to why. On grounds of 'hearsay', prosecutors were allowed to cover up evidence in a police officer's statement that a witness had told police Ruddigan wasn't responsible for the altercation, but police failed to take the witness's details or follow up that lead. The jurors never got to hear about that.
The only witnesses who fingered Ruddigan as the attacker all gave completely contradictory versions of events. The only 'eyewitness' whose testimony stood up to scrutiny was the victim, who never saw his attacker.
One witness claimed to have had a conversation with Mr Ruddigan while he was locked in the back of a police car with the window rolled up - a nonsensical claim which Ruddigan legitimately blasted as untrue. Another witness said he had absolutely no recollection of ever attending the identity parade and picking out Ruddigan as the culprit - a bizarre claim that nobody in the court had ever heard from any witness in any previous trial.
The identification evidence itself was tainted. The ID parade was held a full three months after the attack happened and events in the interim seriously called into question its validity. Just days after the assault - before Ruddigan had even been charged with a crime - police attached his mugshot to a 'Behave Or Be Banned' poster and circulated it to all local bars - including the scene of the crime. At that bar, staff were required to observe the poster before work every day and memorise the faces so they knew who to pay attention to during opening hours.
In other words, before attending the ID parade the eyewitnesses spent several minutes every day for three months staring at Mr Ruddigan's face and memorising it as that of a troublemaker. When they eventually attended the ID parade - which was based on pictures rather than a line-up - the mugshot they saw was the same mugshot that appeared on the poster.
Ruddigan took a further blow when it turned out that his previous solicitors had omitted vital information from his defence case statement, which made it appear that he was making up his defence on the spot. It was later shown via legal documents that Ruddigan's testimony had indeed been consistent and the fault was that of his solicitors, but by that time he'd already taken a beating from the prosecutor during cross-examination.
Outside court Ruddigan also told me that his previous solicitor had obtained and showed him CCTV of another person fleeing the bar after the attack, but he had no idea where it was now that he'd hired new counsel.
A predominantly middle-aged/elderly jury took several hours to convict 21-year-old Ruddigan of smashing a glass into the head of the doorman. The conviction was, in my opinion, unjust. Ruddigan was convicted in the absence of any CCTV or physical evidence connecting him to the crime and therefore solely on the highly questionable testimony of several bar staff members whose evidence was at best contradictory and at worst outlandish.
Miss Recorder Hudson, who presided over Ruddigan's trial, seemed aware that the prosecution was a flimsy one. The usual sentence for similar assaults tends to be around eighteen months in prison but when it came to sentencing Terence Ruddigan on April 5th 2011, Hudson commended his 'dignified' manner and gave him a suspended sentence and a community service order.
Nonetheless, this conviction will remain on Mr Ruddigan's police record for life. Moreover, for the next eight years he will be forced to disclose this conviction to prospective employers, which could severely impede his job prospects. But at least Terence Ruddigan was lucky enough to be sentenced by his trial judge. Another judge, not knowing the details of the case, might easily have sent him to jail.
How many Terence Ruddigans passed through my local courthouse before I started attending? How many pass through right under my nose every week while I'm sitting down the corridor in another courtroom? How many pass through our unwatched court system every week because corporate ownership and shrinking circulations are chaining newspaper reporters to their desks and forcing hardworking freelancers out of the industry? How many every year?
It's a genuinely troubling question and one which will hang in the air until corporate newspaper owners see fit to begin reinvesting in good journalism and unshackling reporters from their desks so they can venture out into the world and start fulfilling their most vital function - scrutiny. In a world where prosecutors are publicly embarrassed for pursuing pathetic prosecutions, we'll see a lot less of them.
Saturday 2 April 2011
Former Marvelettes Georgia Dobbins, Juanita Cowart Motley and Katherine Anderson Schaffner pose with a picture of Gladys Horton, who passed away on January 26th 2011. (Photographer: Larry Buford)
Monday 14 February 2011
For my blog readers, here are a few extra shots:
Saturday 5 February 2011
Saturday 22 January 2011
Pee Wee Ellis performing with James Brown. (Source Unknown)
On the tour bus the next day, Ellis built a song around Brown's bass lick, the horn section inspired by Miles Davis's So What but stripped of melodic flourishes in accordance with Brown's directive that his band should 'play every instrument like it's a drum'. Ellis took the band to the studio, taught them their parts and awaited Brown's arrival.
After leaving Brown in 1969 Ellis joined Kudu, a CTI Records imprint, where he worked as an arranger for artists including George Benson and Esther Phillips. In 1972 he and his band recorded an album - Pass The Butter - on Motown's Natural Resources label, under the name Gotham. His first solo album, Home In The Country, was released in the mid-1970s and his solo career, which has spanned jazz, funk and gospel, continues to this day with a new album due in March 2011.
I met up with Pee Wee ahead of a gig at Ronnie Scott's, the legendary Soho jazz club. Sipping tall orange juices and surrounded by the swirling jazz soundtrack in the bar, we spoke for an hour and a half about his lengthy career. Although reticent at first, Pee Wee was soon laughing and joking about the glory days in Brown's band as we recalled excerpts from Fred Wesley's hilarious memoir, Hit Me Fred: Confessions of a Sideman.
During our interview we also spoke about Pee Wee's life and career both before and after his stint in the James Brown band; how he wound up studying under Sonny Rollins, the culture shock of being given so much creative freedom at Kudu, why he decided to flee New York when the city went up in smoke during riots over racism and police brutality, and how he fell in love with a fan at London's Jazz Café and left America to live in the British countryside.
Pee Wee was both a witness to and an important part of arguably the most important musical shift of the 20th century, rivalled only by the invention of rock & roll. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend an evening chatting and laughing with Pee Wee after enjoying his music for so many years and a unique experience to have him transport me back to the era, sharing his first hand recollections of life on the road and in the studio with James Brown. A book from Pee Wee is long overdue but he tells me he's quietly writing his life story with a view to publishing it at some point. In the meantime, I look forward to sharing with you the recollections that Pee Wee shared with me.
My exclusive interview with Pee Wee Ellis will be published in the coming months.
Friday 21 January 2011
In October 2010, while researching for an in-depth article about the making of Jackson's little-known final music video, I managed to track down and interview Ken Yesh as well as several other extras who took part in the production. During my interview with Ken we discussed the aftermath of the Neverland Raid, which ultimately didn't fit into my final article. However, Ken told me one piece of information which I thought was so important that I needed to put it into the public domain somehow.
Ken told me that in the weeks after the videoshoot he picked up a newspaper and was 'disturbed' to find a completely inaccurate report about the video shoot, quoting 'sources' claiming that Jackson had been swarmed by young boys on the set when in fact Yesh had been present all day and had not seen anybody under the age of 18.
In this exclusive excerpt from my interview with Ken Yesh, he talks about his shock at reading the false report.
Readers can subscribe to my YouTube channel in order to receive updates when I upload new clips.
Thursday 20 January 2011
Earlier this week I began uploading edited highlights of my appearance on the show to my YouTube channel. Today I have added four clips from the segment during which listeners were invited to call in and ask me questions.
One of those listeners was Deborah Ffrench, a writer well known in the Michael Jackson community for her magnificant article 'Michael Jackson: The Making of a Myth', which explored the 1993 allegations against Jackson in great detail and highlighted the bias and sensationalism which dominated the media's coverage of the scandal.
Deborah is also well known in the fan community because for some time, Jackson's detractors have insisted that she and I are in fact the same person - even conducting syntax comparisons on our writing styles in order to 'prove' that we are one and the same.
So it is with great pleasure that I present the following four clips of Deborah and I in conversation, on live radio, on Friday 3rd December 2010. I keenly await the conspiracy theorists' explanations, which I'm sure will be every inch as humorous and imaginative as their previous efforts.
Tuesday 18 January 2011
During my interview with Dieter he discussed topics that I'd never heard him discuss before, such as the moving story of how he had to break the news of Sneddon's raid to Jackson in his Las Vegas hotel room. But the most shocking claim was one about British TV journalist Martin Bashir, whose famous show 'Living With Michael Jackson' is considered by many to have renewed Tom Sneddon's interest in the popstar and instigated the allegations which would result in the 2005 trial that almost killed Jackson.
While discussing Martin Bashir, Dieter Wiesner claimed that during a 2002 visit to Berlin he observed Martin Bashir sneaking into Jackson's hotel suite and rummaging through his luggage. He also claimed that Bashir was running around, chasing Jackson's children with a camera while the popstar was elsewhere, despite agreeing not to film the children for the documentary.
Here is an audio excerpt from my interview with Dieter Wiesner in which he makes the shocking allegations:
I first revealed Dieter's claims in a live three-hour interview on Blog Talk Radio. I am now in the process of uploading edited highlights of that interview to my YouTube channel, to which fans can subscribe if they want to receive updates when further clips go online.
The first three segments of this interview are now online. In these clips I discuss little known information about Martin Bashir's documentary which came to light during Jackson's 2005 trial.
Fans suggested that this was some sort of petty retaliation on TMZ's part after I wrote a lengthy rebuttal last week to one of their articles. On Thursday 13th January, TMZ ran a story titled 'MJ Pushed Dr. To Improperly Give Son Anesthesia', accusing Michael Jackson of subjecting his youngest son to 'risky' medical treatment. I was contacted by Sawf News, with whom I have a rolling contract, who asked me to write some sort of commentary on the story.
After obtaining legal documents relating to the case, consulting official medical guidelines and putting TMZ's coverage under the microscope, I found that it was riddled with half-truths, misleading language and pure sensationalism. My resulting article, 'Making a Mountain out of a Molar: How TMZ turned a dental appointment into a global news story', generated huge traffic for Sawf News and became the website's most commented article.
My rebuttal was published on Friday 14th January and the TMZ article with my by-line attached appeared on Google News just two days later, causing fans to speculate that this was somebody at TMZ's idea of a joke, or an attempt to turn my supporters against me by giving the appearance that I had joined TMZ's ranks less than 48 hours after scrutinizing their reporting.
As it turns out, this phantom by-line is linked to my Sawf News article, but not in the way that the fans thought. I consulted an internet expert this evening who told me that my being listed as the author of TMZ's article is a result of a weakness in Google's news aggregation system.
After I wrote my rebuttal, lots of fans took to posting it in its entirity in the comments section underneath all of TMZ's latest entries on Michael Jackson. When TMZ's article about Jason Malachi went online, they did the same thing.
According to the internet bod I consulted, when the Google news aggregation system hosts an article, it scans for a by-line. In the case of this article, there was no official by-line. However, further down the page somebody had posted my Sawf News article in the comments section, including the words 'by Charles Thomson'. The news aggregator will have scanned for a by-line, picked up mine from the comments section and consequently listed me on Google as the author of TMZ's article.
To my knowledge, there is nothing I can do about this. In my previous dealings with Google I have found them to have what I consider to be the worst user support system I have ever encountered.
I have attempted to contact Google on various occasions throughout the last year to deal with people using their email service to impersonate me and their blog service to publish damaging lies about me. Upon telephoning Google I was consistently met with an audio recording telling me that 'Google does not authorize customer services at this time', whatever that means.
Their online assistance service was no more helpful, consisting of a text-based Q&A system which sends users around in circles and an advice forum full of knowledgeable but unpaid users who, however technically able, are not capable of dealing with slander and/or impersonation. I suspect they'll be equally incapable of removing inaccurate by-lines from Google News.
So this is just a quick blog to let you know that I am not the author of TMZ's article and explain why Google seems to think that I am.
Friday 7 January 2011
In light of its owner's illegal behaviour, Yola has suspended the offending website.
However, the owner's phoney gmail address, designed to look very similar to my own email address, will continue to exist because it is nothing to do with Yola. So if you try to contact me, please make sure you use the right address. Similarly, if you receive any correspondence claiming to be from me, please double check the email address.
Not for the first time, I have become the victim of impersonation.
Regular blog readers will remember that back in July I used my blog to explain that an imbecile was writing libelous comments in my name underneath Michael Jackson related articles on TMZ.
This time around the impersonation is slightly more serious. The owner of a vile and inaccurate anti-Michael Jackson website is posing as me when fans email to complain about the website's content.
The owner of the website replies to emails using my name and sends the messages from an email address closely modeled on my own.
In the above screengrab, a reader is seen asking the website owner whether he is Charles Thomson from the Huffington Post. The owner refused to answer this question which, combined with the confusing email address, could easily lead people to believe that the owner is in fact me - quite clearly the owner's intention all along.
So let me state loud and clear for the record - I do not have anything to do with this website. The only website or domain name I have ever owned is my current website.
The above email address does not belong to me. I do not use, and have never used, a gmail account.
The fraudster behind this website is impersonating me and has been reported to Yola, the webhosting company responsible for this domain name.
Sunday 2 January 2011
She also discusses her husband's relationship with Michael Jackson and the disturbing similarities between the circumstances of their deaths.
To read my interview with Tomi Rae Brown, click here.
To receive updates when I upload new clips, subscribe to my YouTube channel.