Michael Jackson documentary

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The documentary Michael Jackson – What Really Happened

I am writing in regard to your complaint and request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning the broadcast of a documentary on CBC's The Passionate Eye, Michael Jackson — What Really Happened.

Your complaint involved the information presented in the documentary, in particular the more graphic and aggressive material concerning long-running allegations about the performer's sexual proclivities. Your complaint asserted that the documentary's perspective was imbalanced, that its reporting relied on questionable sources, and that its effect was misleading and incongruent with CBC's stated ambition of high-quality programming.

The CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook intersects with your concerns in a few general and some specific ways, and it is the Office's role to assess if CBC met these standards and practices in carrying the documentary.

The handbook says information programs must reflect the established journalistic principles of accuracy, integrity and fairness. Research must be “careful and thorough,” information must be “truthful,” and they must report or reflect “the relevant facts and significant points of view.” People and institutions must be dealt with “fairly and ethically.”

It is not always possible to achieve the ideal within an individual program, and the handbook makes allowances for that. Program balance “should be achieved, where appropriate, within a single program or otherwise within an identifiable series of programs.” Balance does not confer a right of reply to offset assertions, and CBC alone is responsible for determining when a significant imbalance has occurred and what ought to be the remedial action.

Documentary programs have specific qualities that gain unique treatment in the Journalistic Standards and Practices. There is recognition that documentaries often have particular points of view. There is some latitude: the programs need to remain factual but it is acceptable that “the work does not fairly portray the range of opinions involved in the issue or story.” Such work “goes beyond the natural author's perspective inherent in any work, and becomes an argument for an opinion, a position in a controversy.” There is no distinction made for standards of a CBC-created and independently-procured documentary.

But be reminded: in considering such work for broadcast, CBC is compelled to ensure fairness and balance by other means. One such measure is to aim for fairness and balance within a program series.

Your complaint raises several important issues that reflect many of the tensions in documentaries generally and the public broadcaster specifically.

CBC strives for the best reputation in broadcasting and aspires to earn and retain the public trust with each program it delivers. In recent decades, the world's best media have found it necessary as part of their missions to explore issues and events once considered the domain of less responsible organizations. In general the more responsible organizations have sought to explore morality tales and ethical dimensions inside these matters. If there has been a benefit to this work, it has been in assessing rumour and innuendo with a greater discipline of verification, with the effect of providing the most truthful accounts in a sea of suggestive ones.

When its audience feels CBC has not met the highest standards, or that it has broadcast substandard material to garner viewers incongruently, it has a responsibility to listen to concerns and act upon what those concerns teach. The subject matter can be controversial, but the handling must be responsible.

The focus of your complaint is a documentary produced for Britain's Channel 4 by journalist Jacques Peretti, procured for Canadian broadcast by The Passionate Eye. Produced in 2007 at a low point in Michael Jackson's career, its purpose was to chronicle a decline from enormous height. What was clear from the outset of the documentary, and what was reinforced with Peretti's choice of facts, was the narrative of the fallen idol. This narrative, as you know, would follow Jackson beyond the documentary to the grave in a swirl of controversies as one of the world's most revered performers.

As part of his thesis, Peretti explored the repeated but unsubstantiated allegations that Jackson had improper relationships with young boys. Those allegations were central to his thesis of Jackson's downfall.

He interviewed two journalists who had published and broadcast critical information (often obtained through anonymous sources, but never successfully challenged legally). He interviewed two former associates, one a longtime friend and one a longtime employee, both eventual biographers. And he interviewed Jackson's former defence lawyer, notable for helping secure Jackson's 2005 acquittal.

Peretti visited a scantily-attended auction of Jackson memorabilia, interviewed a would- be impresario who had been assembling a Jackson brothers concert reunion, speculated on Jackson's comeback in Las Vegas, and looked for the rumoured suburban Las Vegas home of Michael Jackson after his financial and legal debacle.

Much of the material in his documentary had been chronicled elsewhere in a variety of media. In the most notable other such documentary, Jackson himself discussed his love for boys and acknowledged sharing his bed non-sexually with children in Living With Michael Jackson, produced in 2003 for Granada Television with journalist Martin Bashir. The documentary was seen on network television in several countries, including Canada, and established a new context for subsequent treatment on the subject.

Many of the interviews Peretti conducted and the approach he took involved well-worn ground. I acknowledge your concern that he found some of the harshest critics to make his most pointed arguments, but I also note that he was often unflattering to them as forces aiming to bring Jackson down. In some cases, he asserted, these forces were intent on doing so for financial reasons to gain the same settlements another person had. It explored the notion that some of these forces were unreasonably obsessed with their purpose.

The documentary had available to it information that would have raised questions about assertions. Investigators in the 1993 case noted, for instance, that the potential witness did not have an accurate description of Jackson's physical characteristics. And Jackson's sister, LaToya, later recanted unconditionally her assertion that he had been inappropriate with boys. CBC could have known this before broadcasting the documentary and ought to have edited the material accordingly.

The most significant concern in your complaint involved the impression the documentary might have left about Jackson in the absence of legal proof. Such an impression would violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices to deal ethically with persons.

I note that the documentary was clear in its assertions that Jackson was legally cleared twice — the first time because a potential witness would not testify and the investigation was dropped before a crime was charged, and the second time because the testimony against him was discredited. On the latter case, it used three different perspectives to make the point: a journalist, his ex-friend, and Jackson's lawyer. I think this left a satisfactory impression of the legal outcome.

But it also left ground unresolved and open to speculation, in particular Jackson's activities with Jordan Chandler (the potential witness in the first investigation) at the World Music Awards. I believe this could have left an impression of impropriety in the viewer's mind. In the closing scene of the documentary, his ex-friend, Randy Taraborrelli, laments on the impact of the adverse publicity of Jackson and how he might one day be remembered in death. He says: “I would like historically for him to be remembered for more than just child molestation. I'm not sure that's going to be the case.” In the same scene, Taraborrelli goes on to assert Jackson will be remembered for being “targeted” on child molestation accusations, but the sloppiness of the first statement was quite problematic in leaving an impression. The statement ought to have been edited.

I note the recent undertaking by the Passionate Eye's executive producer, Catherine Olsen, to procure other documentaries on Michael Jackson's life.

Thank you for writing.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman