Can we, should we separate the art from the artist?

Comment from Peter Saxon

Throughout his career Michael Jackson had been dogged by rumours and 
allegations of child abuse. 
From a number of allegations that were made public when he was alive some were settled out of court (one for, reportedly as much as $US22 million) while on at least two occasions he beat criminal charges at trial. 
While much of the media questioned the not-guilty verdict of those trials ending in 2005 and was scathing in their criticism of Jackson for sleeping in the same bed with unrelated children, by and large, his fans stuck with him and radio kept playing his songs – albeit prone to back-announcing the artist as Wacko Jacko rather than the King of Pop.
Nonetheless, deep in debt and after laying low for a few years, Jackson retained enough popular support in 2009 to announce a world tour destined to outstrip all previous concert records but died, aged 50, of a heart attack brought on by an overdose of prescription medicines, just three weeks before the first sell-out performance in London was scheduled.
The world grieved over his untimely death as it realised the enormous talent it had lost. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest entertainers of the 20thcentury.
But where was the outrage for his alleged crimes?
If he’d lived, would Michael Jackson still be able sell out concerts today in the #metoo era – assuming he could still sing and dance at 60?
Legally, not much has changed over the past decade. Paedophilia remains a sexual crime of the worst order. There are none of the nuances that between “consenting adults” can be open to interpretation. The age of consent means that under whatever age it is set, usually 16, the person is incapable of providing consent no matter how willing they may seem to be to participate and no matter how well developed they may be. And there is absolutely no wriggle room for adults who engage in any activity with pre-pubescent children that involves even a hint of sexuality. 
In this, the science is totally settled. Whether Liberal or Labor, Greens or One Nation, male or female, straight or LGBTQI, we agree that paedophiles are the most loathsome of criminals deserving of nothing but our contempt and a long jail term.
As most of us have come to learn, the legal system bears little correlation to the court of public opinion. Unlike a court of law which accepts change at glacial pace, public perception can change in a flash as it has done following the #metoo movement.
Now, after the airing of a new and sensational documentary, Leaving Neverland, many radio stations the world over have deleted Michael Jackson from their playlists. Australia and New Zealand networks were among the first to pull the pin on Wacko Jacko with smoothfm leading the charge locally. A spokesperson for Nova Entertainment told radioinfo,“The decisions we make about the music we play on any of our stations are dependent on the relevance to the audience and the current context. In light of what is happening at the moment, smoothfm is not currently playing any Michael Jackson songs.”
The Nova stations didn’t have Michael Jackson on the playlist due to the station’s music format.
The Guardian reported Two major Australian broadcasters – Australian Radio Network (KIIS FM, WSFM and Gold FM) and Southern Cross Austereo (Hit and Triple M) – said they had not altered their playlists.

“We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” a Southern Cross Austereo spokeswoman said. “However, these remain allegations and therefore we currently intend to continue to play his music on occasion.”

In Perth, a Christian radio station also confirmed it had stopped playing Jackson’s music.
The 98five SunshineFM chief executive, Bevan Jones, said they “don’t play much Michael Jackson” but had cut the singer from its playlist in response to feedback from listeners.
“Generally our policy is to judge the song not the artist, but we do react to listener complaints,” Jones told the West Australian.
As confronting as Leaving Neverland was, there was not much new that hadn’t been covered when Jackson was alive except that one of the main complainants, Australian choreographer, Wade Robson, who had 24 years ago denied to investigators that Jackson had molested him, now, as an adult, has accused the dead singer of indecent acts.


Now, I’m not here to try or re-try the case or to make an assumption about Jackson’s guilt or innocence but simply to attempt to guage the progress (or regress) we’ve made in the quality of public discourse regarding the sexual misconduct of celebrities.
I find it curious that while he was alive, Jackson was not only able to stay out of jail but avoid the public flogging and fall from grace that, say, Rolf Harris was subjected to in 2014 when at 84 years of age he was stripped of every honour he had ever received from both Australia and England and was sentenced to five years, nine months in prison on twelve counts of indecent assault on four teenage girls during the 1970s and 1980s– when Michael Jackson himself was a child..
Obviously much has changed in the court of public opinion in recent times fuelled by social media and the advent of the #metoo movement. But judging by the various responses of the radio stations whose stock in trade is music and celebrities, we as a society, are having trouble separating the art from the artist and deciding precisely what level of outrage to unleash on each errant star that is unmasked.
Boycotting an artist’s work is nothing new. One of the world’s greatest orchestras is the Israel Philharmonic (IPO) which, has for the past 50 years, been led by the highly accomplished conductor Zubin Mehta, of the Three Tenors fame. For decades the IPO had banned the Music of Richard Wagner (Ride of the Valkyries) from its repertoire because he as a notorious anti-Semite was also Hitler’s favourite composer whose music, apart from being brilliant, invoked much of the Nazi ideology.

Mehta born in India, is neither Israeli nor Jewish but convinced the orchestra that if they aspired to greatness, they couldn’t be taken seriously unless they included Wagner in their repertoire. They did and they are.

Which brings into question what banning an artist’s work, trying to expunge it from history might achieve. In the case of Jackson and Wagner, they’re dead. Who are we punishing? Or are we so fragile in the 21st century that we need a ‘safe place’ to protect us from the dead?

To illustrate how righteous rage can be badly misplaced comes a story last week from America where some students are up in arms about their Harvard law professor who has agreed to defend Harvey Weinstein in upcoming court proceedings. Dean Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who also happens to be the first black person ever to become Dean of a faculty at Harvard, has had to remind the students that according to the U.S. constitution (and our laws too) everyone, no matter how onerous they are in person or their alleged crimes may be, is entitled to a competent legal defence. It is an abrogation of duty for a lawyer to cherry-pick the “nice ones.”
Prof Sullivan also justified his involvement saying that the Weinstein case, whichever way it goes, will be a landmark finding and as a Harvard law professor he should be part of proceedings as a representative of one of the world’s foremost law schools.
I don’t have any answers to increasingly complex ethical questions about society and the role of media, of which we radioinfo readers are all part. In any case, it would be unethical of me to pretend I do.

What I do have are questions and concerns. My immediate concern, as it relates to Michael Jackson, is that the more we delve into the secrets of the stars, the more we will find. As Stalin said, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.” Or as Donald Trump says, “Its a witch hunt!”

We can’t change history. And by all means, Jackson, Cosby, Weinstein, Harris, Burke all deserve our condemnation but our culture would be poorer if the works of every imperfect artist or performer were to simply disappear. Even Paul McCartney alludes to less than gentlemanly exploits performed by a band of young testosterone fuelled men on tour. Hands up those who’d agree to expunge the Beatles from playlists if past indiscretions were exposed?  

If all their names and deeds were to fade from the earth what lessons could future generations learn from history?

Peter Saxon