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Bashir's documentary: From TV to evidence

Documentarian Martin Bashir will be the first witness for the prosecution in the Michael Jackson case.  How did the documentary that was supposed to re-energize the popstar’s career become the linchpin for the prosecution's case?

It was early January 2003, shortly after Michael Jackson had dangled his youngest child out of a hotel window in Berlin, when I first learned that the superstar had given Martin Bashir unprecedented access to his world.

I accompanied his brother Jermaine to one of many damage control interviews the elder Jackson was conducting on behalf of his superstar little brother. Following the interview, Jermaine Jackson’s cell phone rang.

“That was Michael, he said not to do any more interviews, because he has something really big coming out next month that will shut everybody up,” Jermaine told me. “He did something with a guy named Martin, who interviewed Princess Diana,” Jermaine said. “(Michael) said just watch.”

Today, Bashir is the first witness in the child molestation case against Michael Jackson.

Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon described yesterday how Michael Jackson’s world was “rocked” by the broadcast in the UK in 2003 of Martin Bashir’s documentary “Living with Michael Jackson.”

“And, I don’t mean in a musical sense,” Sneddon said.

Sneddon pointed out how one advisor to Jackson had described the documentary as a “train wreck.” The singer is seen holding hands with his eventual accuser and acknowledging that he lets children sleep in his bed.

“What is there about Neverland that creates a no rules, a no manners environment?” Sneddon asked. “What is there about Neverland that can do that to somebody?”

The climate at Neverland, Sneddon suggested, was conducive to the eventual sexual molestation that allegedly occurred.

And it all began with the Bashir documentary. Jermaine and I, along with the rest of Jackson’s family, waited with great anticipation for the February 2003 airing of the documentary that Michael Jackson seemed so excited about.

After all, it was going to be the documentary that re-energized the King of Pop’s career. No need for Jermaine or anyone else to defend Jackson on national television. This documentary, according to Michael, was going to set the record straight.

But the frantic behavior described by the prosecution after the documentary aired in the UK, revealed itself when I began relaying news stories from abroad to the Jackson family. The stories were less than flattering. Some called it career suicide.

Michael was already in full damage control mode. “We have them on tape, don’t worry,” Jackson told his family. “The boy says I’m like a father to him.”

Then words began to be used to describe the boy’s mother. Words that MSNBC’s Dan Abrams refused to repeat on air because of their nature, but that have been repeated elsewhere.

After its debut in the UK, the documentary aired in the United States on February 6.  The reviews were instant. Attorney Gloria Allred called for Jackson’s own children to be taken away from him.

In a letter calling upon Santa Barbara D.A. Thomas Sneddon to investigate the pop star’s more recent contact with minors, A. Sidney Johnson III, president of Prevent Child Abuse America— the nation’s largest such organization—wrote, “Michael Jackson has enough red flags for us to be concerned about protecting the welfare of children he comes in contact with, including his own.”

According to prosecutors, Jackson panicked.

Nine months later, Jackson was arrested and charged with molesting the boy seen holding hands with him in the documentary.

Inside the courtroom yesterday, Judge Rodney Melville read the entire multiple count indictment to the jury. Although the details had been widely leaked, this was the first time the document had been officially presented.

As Melville read the indictment, Jackson looked straight ahead, occasionally talking with his lawyers.

In the prosecution’s opening statements, the case consistently came back to the Bashir documentary. Sneddon quoted Jackson’s words from the documentary and suggested the alleged abuse occurred when Michael Jackson and his advisors decided to use the testimony of a 13-year-old cancer survivor to rebut the claims made in the program.

“[The Bashir documentary] was a landslide that threatened to destroy everything in its path,” Sneddon quoted one of Jackson’s advisors as saying.

“This wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Jermaine Jackson later said. “He trusted Martin Bashir.”