…about Michael Jackson, Roger Federer, the nature of genius, the paparazzi, and the BBC. It features an ill-considered scientific analogy. You have been warned…
Michael Jackson, as we all know, is dead. This is a terrible thing for his family and friends, as it is for any who are bereaved, especially at an early age. It’s also sad for his fans. Personally, I was never a fan of his music, and it would be hypocritical of me to start claiming now that I was. I do recognise his importance in the world of music. It is very strange to think but, until Michael Jackson came along, it really was believed that ‘black music’ would never be anything more than a niche interest, and now we live in a world where black artists routinely dominate the charts around the world. It is strange to talk of someone who so radically altered his personal appearance as a hero of anti-racism, but he was – he opened doors that had hitherto been closed. Even setting aside his musical legacy, that is a major achievement.
I am, though, troubled by the widespread use of the word genius to describe him, although it may be being used in its emerging sense of ‘very good’ (as in the phrase ‘that’s genius’). If it is being used in its traditional sense then Michael Jackson would not seem, to me, to qualify. He was a very talented songwriter, and an equally talented performer, and he worked with teams of people who were able to project and maximise those talents in such a way that he achieved phenomenal success. But I don’t feel, listening to his records, the same sense that I am listening to the invention of something new that I feel when listening to songs by, say, Chuck Berry or Little Richard, and that is why, personally, I would not include Michael Jackson in their company.
Genius is a seriously over-used word, and not just in the sphere of music. Earlier today I saw Sue Barker present a little film at the start of BBC1’s Wimbledon coverage speculating that Roger Federer is a genius. He isn’t. A brilliantly gifted tennis player, of that there can be no doubt, but not a genius. Geniuses are so far beyond their contemporaries that they create or produce, by means of exceptional insight and inspiration coupled to formidable talent, something new. Formidable talent doesn’t, on its own, make a genius. Roger Federer is acclaimed as a great player, and wins so many tournaments, because there is no real weakness in his game – he can do everything well. This means he is formidably talented. To be classed as a genius he would need to have invented some new way of playing, not just be capable of using the existing methods of play better than anyone else.
There are ordinary people, and there are those who are so far beyond ordinary that they become extraordinary. Genius is another leap on, and it’s a quantum leap, too. You can push on in the ordinary way improving all the time, getting better and better at what you do, but that can only leave you in the realm of the extraordinary. Genius involves a leap to a whole new realm, one that you can never reach through simple linear progress. Personally I don’t feel that Michael Jackson ever made that leap, but others, of course, will disagree.
Even if I am uncomfortable at the word ‘genius’ being used to describe Michael Jackson, that is as nothing to how I feel about the way his life and now his death have been reported by the media. Several years ago, during an episode of Have I Got News For You, Paul Merton said that he couldn’t join in with a round of jokes about Michael Jackson because he felt that Jackson was so obviously a damaged person that no joke, no matter how well constructed, could ever be funny. In that, as in so much else, Paul Merton was bang on the money – I, too, think that Michael Jackson was an exceptionally damaged person.
I think he was damaged by his parents, especially his father. I think he was damaged by his life as a child star – at the age of 5 he already knew that the livelihood of his entire family depended on him. I think he was damaged by hangers-on and ‘friends’ who were only with him for money and vicarious fame. I think he was damaged by his own actions – grown men shouldn’t make friends with little boys, no matter how innocent their intentions. (For the record, I don’t believe there was any truth in any of the unproven allegations of child sexual abuse against him, but it does seem likely that he had emotional relationships with children that bordered on the inappropriate.) More than anything else, though, I think he was damaged by the media.
He was isolated from the world, partly because, wherever he went, the media were always there. Whatever he did, he was never going to get a moment to himself. Michael Jackson was a big enough star that, even if he’d gone to live at the end of a 30 mile dirt trail in south America, there would have been a paparazzo assigned to monitor his movements. Most people – even very famous ones like Madonna and Paul McCartney – can avoid the paparazzi by avoiding the places the paparazzi hang out. For Michael Jackson, as for princess Diana, that simply wasn’t an option. A single photograph, or footage, of them was so valuable that they were, genuinely, followed wherever they went. He had no privacy, and that is part of what damaged him.
The extent of his lack of privacy is proved by the fact that, when the ambulance carrying him reversed out of his drive, there was a camera there to film it. Not a professional camera – it looked like mobile phone footage, but reasonably professionally shot. At one point the camera was pressed up against the rear window of the ambulance, impeding its progress, and it was obvious that there were other stills cameramen trying to do the same thing.
And how do I know all this? Do I know it because I looked at dodgy celebrity websites? No, I know it because the BBC included the footage in their report on the 1 o’ clock news. They also included a photograph of Michael Jackson’s sister arriving at the hospital in tears. They also included – twice – footage of his corpse being transferred from the hospital to the coroner’s office, making use of a helicopter hovering above the helicopter the coroner was using in order to get the shot.
This is sick. How ever you cut it, this is seriously sick behaviour. I know that this is, simply, the way the media operate, and that the BBC are a long way from being the worst offenders. The ambulance footage certainly had been broadcast elsewhere first – it carried a TV station logo on it. It also seems unlikely – although, who knows – that the BBC chartered their own helicopter to get the coroner footage, they probably bought that in as well. But the fact is that sick, distasteful, disturbing footage and photographs like these only exist because there is a market for them, and by re-broadcasting the footage and photographs the BBC were adding to that market.
Would it have made any practical difference if the BBC, alone of all news networks in the world, hadn’t carried this material? No, of course not. But it would have given them the ethical and journalistic high ground. It would have given them a distinctively different way of covering the story, one that was more subtle and sensitive, more in tune with the way most people instinctively want death to be covered – with respect and dignity, not as the centre of a media frenzy.
The ‘we all pay for the BBC’ argument has been overused, I think, and mainly by people who hate the BBC. My contribution – any one person’s contribution – to the cost of acquiring the dodgy footage and photos was infinitesimal, a tiny, tiny fraction of a penny. But, the fact remains I hate this kind of media coverage, and because the BBC have rebroadcast it, it leaves me feeling like some kind of accessory. I feel I want to stand up and insist, to anyone who will listen, that this may have been done in my name, and with my money, but it was not done with my consent. I would never consent to anything like this.