Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson fans brace for battle

This week’s TV series accuses the singer of abusing Wade Robson and James Safechuck

The first trailer for "Leaving Neverland", a two-part film featuring the testimonies of two men who allege that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children, has been released. Video: HBO

 

Beyoncé has the BeyHive and Nicki Minaj the Barbz, fan groups who swarm online against anyone who disparages their idols. But perhaps no group is more emphatic, organised and passionate than the devotees of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, whose legacy includes decades of innuendo and court cases about what he did or did not do with young boys.

Across blogs, message boards, podcasts, YouTube videos and, especially, social-media feeds, where a Jackson avatar broadcasts one’s allegiance, they circulate exhaustive evidence that they view as exonerating for the late singer while shouting down news outlets they consider inaccurate and biased.

Brewing for weeks, their fight kicked into a new gear at the weekend with the airing of Leaving Neverland, a two-part HBO documentary, also due to be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow and on Thursday, about two men who say Jackson repeatedly sexually abused them as children.

Dozens of Michael Jackson fan accounts have encouraged counterprogramming to Leaving Neverland, instructing followers to stream the singer’s music instead of watching

Ads for MJInnocent.com on buses in London and digital billboards in the United States are proclaiming: “Facts Don’t Lie. People Do.” Under the Twitter hashtag #MJFam, dozens of fan accounts have encouraged counterprogramming to the film, instructing followers to stream Jackson’s music instead of watching. And on Sunday night fans deluged the #LeavingNeverland hashtag with thousands of tweets, dominating discussion of what they called a “mockumentary” and attacking the two men at its centre.

Dan Reed, director of Leaving Neverland, says his company has received “dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens” of emails from Jackson fans – “a deluge of hatred” beginning within 20 minutes of the film’s announcement, in January. He and the two men in the film, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, say that some fans have taken it even further, with threats of violence.

“One can only compare them to religious fanatics, really,” Reed says. “They’re the Islamic State of fandom.”

Jackson’s supporters don’t see it that way. Since accusations in 1993 by a boy and his family ended with a €20 million settlement, their line has been that any allegations amounted to extortion plots by hangers-on hell-bent on tarnishing Jackson and exploiting his naivety.

Michael Jackson: the late singer in his Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office mugshot, after he was accused of child molestation, in 2003. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty
Michael Jackson: the late singer in his Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office mugshot, after he was accused of child molestation, in 2003. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty
Michael Jackson: fans talk to the media during the late singer’s child-molestation trial in 2005. Jackson was acquitted of all charges. Photograph: Monica Almeida/New York Times
Michael Jackson: fans talk to the media during the late singer’s child-molestation trial in 2005. Jackson was acquitted of all charges. Photograph: Monica Almeida/New York Times

A specific strain of the Jackson faithful has pored over the granular details of his life and cases, including the 2005 trial in which he was acquitted of charges he molested another boy, in the hope of proving his innocence. Those fans – including the young and old, from Australia to Russia to the United States – view Leaving Neverland as a manipulative, one-sided hit piece that rehashes old allegations from inconsistent sources.

The film has also turned what was for years a niche obsession for many Jackson fans into a mainstream battle.

“If you’ve been a fan for a long time you’ve seen this over and over again,” says Casey Rain, a 30-year-old musician and YouTuber who lives in Birmingham in England. He calls Leaving Neverland a “sick attempt at hijacking the MeToo moment.”

Many Jackson fans resort to indiscriminate, anonymous hate mail targeting journalists and Jackson’s accusers. Others, like Rain, show their devotion in deeper ways, painstakingly constructing videos and epic polemics that weave together court papers and obscure interviews, then sharing and resharing their work across multiple platforms.

“There’s nothing about Michael that the fan community doesn’t know,” says Rain, whose blog post about Leaving Neverland became a go-to text even before the documentary aired. “I really don’t think that we lack objectivity on him.” (Rain and others who had not yet seen the film say their information came from a few Jackson fans who attended the Sundance premiere and took “very, very detailed notes”.)

Leaving Neverland: James Safechuck, who says Michael Jackson molested him
Leaving Neverland: James Safechuck, who says Michael Jackson molested him
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson with James Safechuck as a child
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson with James Safechuck as a child

Susanne Baur and Elena Ovchinnikova, who write the blog Vindicating Michael, say they prefer not to be called Jackson fans at all, because fan “has a too-negative connotation of adoration and worship”, Baur, who is 60, writes in an email from southern Germany.

Instead they identify as researchers and activists who view Jackson as a civil-rights case. In a post about Leaving Neverland that totalled more than 10,000 words, Ovchinnikova, who is 65 and based in Moscow, parses the changing stories of the two men in the film and concludes that they are liars.

“The reaction of the MJ community is absolutely adequate,” Ovchinnikova says via email. “It is the reaction of knowledgeable people who have to talk to ignoramuses.”

In the cases of Robson and Safechuck, fans note that both have previously testified that Jackson never abused them and that they later unsuccessfully sued the singer’s estate. (Their claims are now under appeal.)

Both men say that it took them years to accept they were abused and that they had felt pressured to testify on Jackson’s behalf. Reed, the director, says the film is, by design, “about how Wade changed his mind and confronted the truth about what happened to him” – a “radical reassessment of what it all meant”.

Leaving Neverland: Wade Robson, who says Michael Jackson molested him
Leaving Neverland: Wade Robson, who says Michael Jackson molested him
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson with Wade Robson as a child
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson with Wade Robson as a child

Robson says he understands the way many still cling to Jackson’s “very particular angelic persona”. He adds, “That was so palatable for so many people, including myself.”

Robson and Safechuck say they, too, have faced an onslaught since coming forward, with Robson describing “thousands of extremely volatile and nasty emails or social-media comments”. They cite the intensity of Jackson’s defenders as a possible reason more people do not come forward. “It’s an extremely terrifying thing to do,” Robson says.

Damien Shields, the author of a book on Jackson’s music and a fan for more than two decades, says he cannot help but feel a sense of dread about the coming months. “This literally could be the end of Michael Jackson if – big if – someone in a position of repute doesn’t decide to tell the other side of the story.”

In the meantime it is “almost like therapy” for fans to do their part to push back against Leaving Neverland’s claims. “Even if their part doesn’t actually make any impact,” he says, “at least they tried their best.” – New York Times

Leaving Neverland is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow and on Thursday

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