Tuesday 11 November 2014

On Tom Sneddon

The death of former Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon sparked jubilation among the Michael Jackson fan community. The DA who twice failed to convict the star on child abuse charges died on Saturday, November 1, with his family at his side, from complications following a cancer diagnosis.

It was Tom Sneddon who pursued Jackson in 1993 over the Chandler family’s sexual abuse accusations – a case which fell apart when the accusers solicited a pay-out and stopped cooperating with the authorities. Then, it was Sneddon who charged and personally prosecuted Jackson a decade later when Gavin Arvizo, who famously appeared alongside the singer in a Martin Bashir documentary, made similar accusations.

For many Jackson fans, Sneddon was evil personified; a larger-than-life boogieman who masterminded a conspiracy to destroy their idol’s career. Undeniably, his professional conduct was extremely poor in the Jackson trial. But just as images of Jackson’s bereft children after his death reminded us that despite his superstardom, he was a man with a family like anybody else, so too the thought of Tom Sneddon surrounded by loved ones on his deathbed should remind us of the same. Fans' remarks about the prosecutor ‘rotting in hell’ will not affect Tom Sneddon. He’s not here to read them. It is his loved ones who are left behind to cope with them – and there is no reason why they should have to. Such comments are tasteless in the extreme and do not reflect well on Jackson’s followers.

Of course, those followers would likely argue that it was Sneddon who made things personal. They would have a point, too. Sneddon seemed to relish persecuting the musician. In a series of gleeful media appearances in November 2003, to reveal the Arvizo accusations, he cracked jokes, mocked Jackson’s art and referred to him as ‘Jacko Wacko’ – behaviour for which he was later forced to apologise.

But there was more to it than that. Sneddon didn’t just seem to enjoy prosecuting Jackson; he appeared obsessed by it – so much so that he repeatedly acted beyond his brief in his zeal to bring down the star. He removed clearly-labelled, privileged defence documents from the home of Jackson’s personal assistant. He made ‘factual’ assertions in front of grand jurors when he shouldn’t have done. He tampered with his case to circumvent exculpatory evidence. He even seemingly tried to plant fingerprint evidence. He over-stepped the mark, time and again.

Jackson’s fans largely believe Sneddon knew Jackson was innocent all along; that he had a personal grudge against Jackson and fabricated the cases against him. I’ve never been totally convinced of his supposed motives. The fans' theory tends to be that Sneddon was desperate for prestige; that the prospect of convicting the world’s most famous musician became an egomaniacal obsession.

Admittedly, there is some evidence which supports that theory. In November 2003, Sneddon raided Jackson’s Neverland Ranch with a reported 70 sheriffs and multiple helicopters. What use is a helicopter when searching for evidence of child molestation? It was an obvious stunt. Reporters were on the scene before police even arrived. The entire operation was designed to generate attention. Sneddon’s behaviour in front of TV cameras at the time suggested he enjoyed the press attention, too; he seemed intoxicated by it. But was he basking in the limelight, or just displaying very poor judgement, as he later claimed?

What's certain is that poor judgement became a feature of the prosecution. The decision to proceed to trial was in itself highly questionable. In one of many troubling incidents, Sneddon and his team learned after Jackson was arraigned in January 2004 that he had an alibi for all the dates on the charge sheet. Realising the family’s current story could not be true, Sneddon - rather than reconsidering the validity of the prosecution - simply changed the dates on all the charges, even though it threw out the whole timeline. His case no longer made any sense, but he bullishly pursued it anyway.

The holes were gaping and plentiful. The accuser initially claimed he’d been molested up to six times, but later said it was ‘one or two’. He originally said Jackson instigated the molestation by telling him boys had to masturbate, or else they’d become rapists. He later conceded it was actually his grandmother who told him that.

The boy’s brother, who claimed to have witnessed the molestation, gave contradictory accounts. Originally, he claimed Jackson and the boy had laid on their sides as Jackson rubbed his penis on the boy’s buttocks. Later, he said they’d been side-by-side as Jackson fondled the boy’s genitals. By the time their mother took the stand and made a number of increasingly wild assertions about hot air balloon kidnap plots, Sneddon was reportedly seen with his head in his hands.

As the trial progressed, it is therefore unsurprising that Sneddon appeared to become less enamoured with the spotlight. The obvious assumption was that this was connected to his crumbling case, but others felt accusations of glory-hunting were untrue from the off. Rather, they contended aggressive prosecutions were simply his modus operandi – hence his nickname: ‘Mad Dog’.

In a November 2003 profile by Associated Press, acquaintances said Sneddon was always relentless in his pursuit of justice. The piece said he was ‘tenacious and tough, particularly when he has made up his mind about a case – sometimes to a fault’. Superior Court Judge James Slater supported that allegation, commenting, “There were times, and there still are, where his tenaciousness gets in the way of his better judgement and he has to step back.”

Jerry Roberts, editor of the Santa Barbara News Press, told CBS: “He’s a law-and-order guy who sees the world in black and white. There’s bad guys and good guys, and he sees himself as the good guy.”

But Jackson was not a ‘bad guy’, according to the jurors who heard all Sneddon’s evidence and then acquitted him unanimously on all charges. And therein lies the problem with prosecutors like Tom Sneddon.

Cop shows are obsessed with authority figures who don’t play by the rules. Due process is routinely depicted as an irritant; a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise. As viewers, we are manipulated into rooting for cops who play dirty to nail people they ‘know’ are guilty. We come to despair of laws which prevent the Government locking people up on the ‘technicality’ there there’s no evidence against them.

To achieve this blind trust of authority figures, the shows tend to portray the ‘baddies’ as cartoonish master-villians, sneering at the prosecutors and mocking their professional impotence. The writers place us in the shoes of the victim or their relatives, making it all too easy to fall into the trap of sympathising with the corrupt officials. We are less often encouraged to sympathise with the accused – ‘How would I feel if it was me, or my brother, that they were planting evidence against, or entrapping?’

Due process exists to protect the innocent, not the guilty. If we allow investigators to break the rules for a supposedly ‘good cause’, we set a precedent which will inevitably make it easier to lock up the innocent. Actions like Sneddon's - like stealing defence information, and tailoring a prosecution to circumvent objective evidence undermining the charges - compromise the integrity of the entire system.

After his death, current Santa Barbara DA Joyce Dudley called Sneddon ‘a pioneer in many areas of prosecution, especially crimes against vulnerable victims’. She added that he founded Santa Barbara’s Sexual Assault Response Team.  

I don’t doubt that’s true. Unquestionably, in his more than 20 years as DA, Sneddon will have secured justice for many victims.  It is unfortunate, therefore, that he persisted in his quest to convict Jackson. A case of that magnitude was destined to define his career – and it will stand forevermore as a monument to the very worst aspects of his professional conduct.

Less than 10 years after the trial concluded, both men are dead. In the eyes of many Jackson fans, Sneddon contributed significantly to Jackson’s demise. So traumatised he could not rest without the assistance of hospital grade anaesthetic, the singer was accidentally killed by his doctor in 2009. Now Sneddon is gone too. May they both rest in peace – but may Sneddon’s catalogue of misconduct be a lesson to all, in how not to spend taxpayers’ money. 

Monday 27 October 2014

Life on the Road with Mr Dynamite

Tonight, HBO will premiere its new James Brown documentary 'Mr Dynamite', directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney. The movie charts the rise of the Godfather of Soul as he revolutionised the music industry and became a prominent philanthropist and civil rights campaigner.

James Brown at the Harlem Apollo.
Photo: Emilio Grossi. Permission: HBO.

About 10 days ago I was contacted by HBO and asked if I would like to interview Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks, the drummers who played on many of Mr Brown's most important songs. Of course, I leapt at the chance. The pair told me many hilarious stories about life on the road with the famously tempestuous star.

In a new Huffington Post article I have published, alongside extracts of my existing unpublished interviews with saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and trombonist Levi Rasbury, some of what they had to say.

London Film Festival: Fury Press Conference

I thought I'd round off my London Film Festival blogs with some exclusive pictures from the press conference for new Brad Pitt-starring WWII film Fury.

London Film Festival: Ed Snowden documentary is more gripping than any thriller.

The London Film Festival was book-ended by thrillers. It opened with The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing's race against time to crack the Enigma code. It closed with Fury, following a WWII tank crew through a series of bloody skirmishes in Germany. But more gripping than either was CITIZENFOUR, which told the story of US whistleblower Ed Snowden as he revealed the US Government's industrial scale spying on its own innocent citizens...

Monday 13 October 2014

London Film Festival - Bjork fails to impress... or even show up.

I attended the premiere of Bjork's new documentary a few days ago. Bjork didn't bother. She was supposed to, but she suddenly pulled out, citing a rather flimsy excuse about working on an album. She would have known she was doing that when she committed to the premiere. All a bit odd. All a bit Bjork.

Directors Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton, and producer Jacqui Edenbrow, apologised at the premiere for Bjork's absence. 

I'm not a particular Bjork fan, but was interested to give the film a go and see whether she could win me around. Sadly, she didn't.

London Film Festival 2014 - The Pamela Smart Trial

The London Film Festival typically includes at least one documentary shedding light on some sort of terrible injustice. Previous years' highlights have included The Central Park Five, West of Memphis and The Kill Team. One of my favourites was actually the much-maligned Conviction - not a documentary, but a real life story, which I reviewed here.

This year the trial of Pamela Smart is put under the microscope. In Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, director Jeremiah Zagar posits that the trial - the first in America to ever be fully televised - was corrupted by months of media speculation before it began. It is worth noting that in the UK, Contempt of Court laws would have rendered almost all of that coverage illegal for the precise reason that it could compromise the trial process.

London Film Festival 2014 - Part One - The Imitation Game

Another year, another London Film Festival. This year's 12-day event kicked off with opening gala The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as maths genius Alan Turing, who cracked the Enigma code and helped the allies win the Second World War.

Here are some of my pictures from the press conference, of stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and director Morten Tyldum.

Saturday 23 August 2014

The Big Lie in the James Brown Biopic

Watching the trailer for the new James Brown biopic Get On Up, I was surprised to notice it prominently featured a scene in which Mr Brown is depicted walking into a room full of civilians and discharging a shotgun. I was surprised because this incident never occurred. It is a fabrication - and a potentially very damaging one.

It is true Mr Brown walked into an office in the 1980s with a shotgun in his hand, but he never fired it and FBI files released after his death showed there was a lot more to the story than the public was told at the time; officers involved in the case fired more than 20 bullets at Brown while he was unarmed and had allegedly waged a campaign of racist abuse against he and his wife in the preceding months and years. 

I used this disparity between reality and the silver screen as the launch pad for a new Huffington Post article, questioning why filmmakers would arguably seek to justify cops' brutal behaviour by inventing an incident in which Mr Brown carelessly discharged a deadly weapon in a room full of innocent people. Is it really responsible to include fabricated incidents in films marketed as 'true life' stories?

I have since discovered an additional key fact, which I would have included had I known about it at the time of writing. A police officer involved in the incident detailed in my article has since given an interview to Mr Brown's son Daryl, who has included it in his new book. In the interview, the officer states on the record that he believes police officers acted with unnecessary violence towards James Brown.

James Brown live in London, 2005.
Copyright: Charles Thomson.

I've also since learned that there is a scene in the documentary James Brown: The Man, The Music and The Message in which Mr Brown sits in his truck, riddled with bulletholes made by police officers' weapons.

Two of Mr Brown's daughters, one of whom I previously interviewed for an in-depth exploration of their father's humanitarian work, were annoyed by my article, both posting negative messages on Facebook. I have to say, I can't really understand their annoyance. I know they were involved in the film but nonetheless, you'd think they'd thank someone for pointing out that while the movie as a whole is apparently very good, the scene where their father recklessly endangers the lives of innocent people by firing a shotgun was not actually true.

Oh well. C'est la vie.

It's probably worth pointing out, in the name of balance, that other family members including Daryl Brown are opposed to and offended by the film, saying they were not consulted and that it contains lots of omissions and inaccuracies. The same complaint has been voiced by others portrayed in the movie, such as Mr Brown's former manager and some of his ex-band members.

Xscape: What Would Michael Jackson Think?

Back in May, perhaps against my better judgement, I waded into the debate about posthumous Michael Jackson album Xscape. Sick and tired of watching opposing fans having endless arguments on Twitter, many of which I found myself tagged in, I decided to set out my stall at the Huffington Post.

But rather than posting my own opinion on the album, I opted to explore what Michael Jackson's opinion would likely have been. Drawing from Michael Jackson's own words - in interviews and in his written works - I explored his publicly-stated views on all of the key issues; the remixing of his music, the release of unfinished music and his feelings about Sony.

This was not my polemic, but Michael Jackson's; they're remixing Michael's music, but here's Michael stating on the record that he didn't like people doing that; they're releasing it on Sony, but here's Michael saying he hated Sony; they're releasing half-finished demos, but here's Michael saying he'd never release anything unless it was totally finished and 'perfect'. Every point is illustrated by a direct quote from the man himself.

As you might imagine, some fans still took great issue with the article, claiming - variously - that I had fabricated Michael Jackson's words, that I had twisted his words, that he wouldn't have cared as long as the album made money, that he was too stupid to state his actual opinions and must have got them wrong, and a number of other arguments.

I stand by the article.

If you want to read it, click here.

Belated Film Festival Snaps

Looking at my blog earlier today and cursing myself for neglecting it for so long, I realised one of my last entries was 'Part One' of what I had intended as a series of London Film Festival blogs. A festival devotee, I attend every year - sometimes with a press pass, but always with a stack of tickets I've bought for myself. Last year I was lucky enough to receive press credentials and provided a series of newspaper and internet articles for the Yellow Advertiser, Britain's largest regional newspaper series.

Part Two of my blog series, however, never materialised. Now, as the BFI begins announcing gala screenings for the 2014 festival, I am finally uploading a selection of my pictures from the 2013 galas. They include pictures from the premieres and press conferences for Gravity, Philomena and Saving Mr Banks - featuring stars including Tom Hanks, Dame Judi Dench, Steve Coogan and Emma Thompson.