Focus: The ultimate celebrity show trial

He has a doll room! (Whaddya expect?) He reads girlie magazines! (Yeah, right.) Hear the testimony. Watch the video evidence. You decide: is he the Peter Pan of Pop or the Artful Dodger of Santa Barbara? Enjoy the show, says Ellis Cashmore. What you are watching may indeed turn out to be the trial of the century
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At least he was spared the indignity of wearing an electronic belt designed to stun wearers if they try to flee. OJ was forced to wear one when he accompanied jurors on a field trip to the scene of his former wife's murder. Michael Jackson did not need one: he never left the courtroom. His jurors' tour of the Neverland ranch was conducted via video.

At least he was spared the indignity of wearing an electronic belt designed to stun wearers if they try to flee. OJ was forced to wear one when he accompanied jurors on a field trip to the scene of his former wife's murder. Michael Jackson did not need one: he never left the courtroom. His jurors' tour of the Neverland ranch was conducted via video.

The video was provided by the Santa Barbara county sheriff's department, which shot it on 18 November 2003, a crucial day in the life of Jackson. That was when police raided his home in search of evidence to substantiate the claims of Gavin Arvizo, then a 13-year-old lymphoma patient whom Jackson had befriended.

The headlines started to get lurid. "The boy yelled 'Get the f*** away, Michael," claimed the News of the World on 23 November 2003. The People's "exclusive" on the same day revealed "My Jacko sex hell by boy, 13".

The screaming headlines were only the start, of course. Over the past 15 months, the media has not so much reported on the Jackson case as dug us in the ribs and warned: "You'd better enjoy this while it lasts. There aren't going to be too many more cases with these ingredients - über-celebrity, reckless extravagance, prodigious idiosyncrasies and deviant sexual activity involving children."

How can we categorise the Jackson case? Like a cross between the OJ and Dreyfus cases? Or the product of a union between Fatty Arbuckle and Winona Ryder? There are no genuine precedents. A week into the trial and we're still reminding ourselves that the accused is one of the most redoubtable musical talents of the past 40 years, and that he is accused of molesting a boy, as well as plying him with alcohol and conspiring to kidnap him and his family.

Jackson himself has been in show business virtually since he was old enough to walk, enough time to endear himself to us, earn our respect, suspicion, and then disdain. Where we used to stand back in awe at his talent, we now tut-tut at his alleged deception. We suspect he deceived us all: his fans, the 150 million or so of us who bought his albums, the 50 million who watched his Thriller video premiere, and the countless others who helped to establish Jackson as the leading musical artist of the late 20th century. But was it a deception? Or the opposite: chronic ingenuousness?

Even before 2003, his oddities had been known, though the combination of gossip, hearsay, tittle-tattle and half-truth, if anything, bolstered his reputation at a time when his record sales were in decline and his days as a singer numbered. The bizarre facial transfiguration alerted us to his idiosyncrasies, which allegedly included trying to buy the skeleton of John Merrick (the Elephant Man) and, reportedly, sleeping in an oxygen tent. "Weird" didn't quite capture it.

Rumours of his unusual sexual predilections had been circulating since the late 1980s. But the kind of stories that have ruined the show-business careers of some artists seemed almost perversely to complement Jackson's. In 1993, he was accused of child molestation and paid out an undisclosed sum - thought to be over $25m - to stop the lawsuit reaching court.

Ten years later and Jackson was still fascinating enough to command nearly 40 million television viewers when his interview with Martin Bashir was screened in the UK and United States. The interview, of course, was catalytic: Jackson spoke openly and apparently innocently about his liking for children and, in the process, disclosed a side of himself that was simultaneously corrupt and gullible. Why would he reveal his tastes if he did not think they were in some way tolerable or at least comprehensible?

If there has been a star turn in the first week of the trial it is that of Bashir himself. His 110-minute documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, was played in full to the trial jury, though it is unlikely any of them missed it when it was screened in early 2003. Bashir, who counts Diana, Princess of Wales, Louise Woodward and Michael Barrymore among his interview subjects and now works for ABC, was on the receiving end of awkward questions, as Jackson's defence probed the context and manner of his interview.

In this role reversal, Bashir's professional conduct and motives were questioned. Ironically, it was the prosecution, which subpoenaed Bashir - against his will - principally to validate the authenticity of the documentary. Jackson blotted tears from his eyes as Bashir took the stand, though Bashir gave neither defence nor prosecution any useful material and talked mainly about himself.

He was not the only witness whose credibility was questioned. The prosecution alleged that Jackson molested Arvizo after a month-long connivance to hold his family captive and force them to help rehabilitate Jackson's image. Arvizo's mother, Janet, became the target of attack from Jackson's defence attorney, Thomas Mesereau. He depicted her as a malevolent, scheming gold-digger intending to use criminal charges as a precursor to a civil case in order to secure a profitable outcome.

In the process, Mesereau was made to disclose a hitherto unsuspected aspect of Jackson. "Mr Jackson will freely admit that he does read girlie magazines," announced the attorney as a way of introducing his client's protective, paternalistic inclinations. "He absolutely does not show them to children."

The idea of Jackson poring secretly over publications like Maxim or FHM (not actually mentioned) is difficult to countenance, even for an audience habituated to his seemingly endless eccentricities. Yet maybe there was logic in the apparent lunacy: the vision of a crypto-macho Jackson taking the same kind of pleasure from pictures of skimpily dressed women as many other men is a potent, if barely credible, one.

"The private world of Michael Jackson reveals that instead of him being the Peter Pan as he describes himself, this 44-year-old man was sharing a bed with a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, showing them sexually explicit magazines," argued the prosecution's Tom Sneddon, a district attorney, whose mission seems to be to demolish the image of Jackson as the embodiment of J M Barrie's paean to child-like incorruptibility.

Sneddon may be working with a dodgy premise. No one seriously thinks of Jackson as an eternal innocent, surrounded by sprites in his own magical kingdom. Clearly he has his admirers, many of them staunch enough to sing his praises outside the courtroom. But, even they will realise that since 1993, Peter Pan has been replaced by the Artful Dodger, a likeable figure with a good soul yet cunning enough to evade retribution for his transgressions.

If Sneddon, whom Jackson regards as his nemesis, is to be believed, Jackson cannot buy himself a "get out of jail" card this time. In spelling out the details of the 28-count indictment, Sneddon, who failed to convict Jackson in the previous case 10 years before, has depicted Jackson as a seriously troubled man, desperate to salvage his career after the damaging documentary. "Jackson's world was rocked," said Sneddon, later likening it to a "train wreck". He also reckoned that Jackson was "heavily in debt", a claim to which the defence successfully objected.

For all this, perhaps the biggest surprise of the first week is that Jackson has been spared evidence of actual sexual abuse. A web of allegations has been spun around him. And the video tour of his home - which included a "doll room" and a "toy room" filled with models of Batman and cherubs - has added to his image as a 22-carat oddball with an undeniable fixation with children. But where are the connecting links with actual physical abuse?

The trial is emblematic of a meretricious culture that has feasted on either the misfortunes or the misdeeds of a copiously talented artist. Jackson's fall from grace is also an ascent, whether to notoriety or martyrdom.

With 95 years to go, this is already being hyped as the "trial of the century". There will be other, maybe more scandalous causes célèbres. Few will reflect our values with such piercing accuracy. Our concern with the wellbeing of children, our irrational obsession with celebrity, our passion for justice in a world teeming with its opposite are some of them. But, above all, the case confronts us with paradoxes we are reluctant to accept: that compassion and cruelty, gentleness and heartlessness, kindness and malice can co-exist in a single being.

Ellis Cashmore is professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University. His book 'Tyson: Nurture of the Beast' is published by Polity

Day by day, shock by shock... the bizarre story unfolds

Week one of Michael Jackson's trial on child molestation was every bit as surreal as advertised.

Monday: Prosecutor Tom Sneddon suggested that Martin Bashir's documentary Living with Michael Jackson in 2003 was like "a train wreck" on the singer's career, triggering a chain of events involving Gavin Arvizo, the cancer patient he had been filmed holding hands with, and culminating in multiple sexual encounters between the two of them.

But Tom Mesereau, the defence lawyer, countered that Jackson was surrounded by opportunists. Bashir, who has cited a handwritten letter from Princess Diana to gain Jackson's trust, wanted to get rich by producing a scandalous document, he argued, and the family of the cancer victim was even worse, setting out from the beginning to ensnare a gullible celebrity with tales of woe and family dysfunction.

We also learned that the actor playing Jackson in the nightly TV re-enactment of the court proceedings, a white performer called Ed Moss, was spending several hours each day whitening his skin to resemble the surgically altered performer more closely. The only problem was he was two or three rounds of plastic surgery behind his subject, so he looked more like the Jackson of the previous paedophilia scandal a dozen years ago.

Tuesday: Martin Bashir's big day in court. The prosecution put on show his infamous documentary. Bashir appeared as the first prosecution witness but refused to answer a number of questions - citing California's "shield" law, designed to allow journalists to protect their sources. There was talk of holding Bashir in contempt or bringing him back later as a defence witness. Judge Rodney Melville said he would think about it but that "it's a real ticklish area".

Wednesday: Witness number two was self-styled public relations executive to the stars, Ann Kite, who turned out never to have had a celebrity client in her life, had worked for the Jackson entourage for only six days and had never met the man supposedly employing her. She said she'd been hired by the Jackson camp to manage the PR fallout following the airing of Bashir's documentary but felt that her colleagues were trying to smear the Arvizo family. She also managed to make some damaging allegations about sex abuse, intimidation and attempted abduction, none of which she had witnessed herself.

Thursday: With the prosecution now floundering badly, it decided to press ahead with the Arvizo family to keep the jury interested. First up was sister Davellin, 18, who talked about seeing Jackson hugging and kissing her younger brother all the time and feeding him wine despite his medical condition.

She also said a video showing the family giving support to Jackson was shot under coercion, but she was too hesitant a witness to be truly convincing.

Friday: In Davellin's second day of testimony, the jury is shown the "under coercion" video, recorded two weeks after the airing of the Bashir documentary. In it the family of Jackson's chief accuser praised him to the skies as a father figure to them all, and a person of exceptional kindness, honesty and compassion - and this in the phase of the trial being led by the prosecution.

She described how Jackson would hug and kiss her younger brother but that after coming back from the ranch Gavin would refuse to be hugged or kissed by her.