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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April 2005, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
How nice is too nice?
Michael Jackson's rebuttal to Martin Bashir's interview is the focus in court this week, but is it ethical for a reporter to buddy up to an interviewee, as Bashir was accused of?

Michael Jackson
Jackson felt "utterly betrayed"
It was 1979, and Joe McGinniss was on to a good story. Dr Jeffery MacDonald, who was on trial for the murders of his wife and two children, offered Mr McGinniss unfettered access to the defence case in order to tell his story in a book.

In return, Mr McGinniss would share profits with Dr MacDonald, and the accused - now convicted - murderer agreed not to sue him for libel, as long as the author ensured "the essential integrity of my life is maintained".

But when the book, called Fatal Vision, was first published in 1983, Dr MacDonald felt he'd been fooled by the reporter who had lived with him during the trial.

He claimed the journalist repeatedly told him he believed in his innocence. After the conviction, for example, Mr McGinniss wrote to Dr MacDonald a letter saying "total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial".

Journalists often take on a persona that isn't quite what they believe to get a story
Professor Jenny Kitzinger
School of Journalism
Cardiff University
But the book said the opposite. Dr MacDonald's initial reaction, quoted by New York's Newsday, was "I hope it doesn't sell a single copy."

Later he launched a lawsuit for fraud and breach of contract against Mr McGinniss, which was eventually settled for $325,000. The case was examined by Janet Malcolm in her book, "The Journalist and the Murderer", which castigates McGinniss' behaviour.

This is an extreme example but more recently, after the broadcast of Martin Bashir's documentary Living with Michael Jackson, the pop singer said he had been "utterly betrayed" by the British journalist's work. In the documentary, Jackson - now on trial in California on charges of child molestation - admitted to sharing a bed with a child.

Jackson case

After Bashir's film aired, Jackson put together a documentary of his own, showing footage where the British journalist appeared very friendly with Jackson.

That two-hour film, The Michael Jackson Interview: Footage You Were Never Meant to See, included a clip of Bashir telling Jackson his interaction with his children is "so natural, so loving, so caring" as well as statements of support from his ex-wife and family.

Martin Bashir
Mr Bashir defended his work

Bashir has since defended his work, refuting allegations of distortion and misrepresentation. He says: "The film was fair to his musical achievement and gave him every opportunity to explain himself."

Political interviewers in the UK could also be accused of duplicity, by being combative when the cameras are on and friendly when they're off, although most interviewees would probably accept that as the reality of political broadcasting.

But is a journalist pretending to be sympathetic to someone they're interviewing - and then turning around and shredding them in print or during a broadcast - an understandable technique, or is it morally indefensible?

Moral query

Whether it's ethical depends on the purpose, says Professor Justin Lewis, deputy head of Cardiff University's school of journalism, communication, and media studies.

"There are cases when it is in the public interest," he says, "and if that's the only way you can do it, then that's the way it has to be done." Otherwise it erodes public trust in journalists, he adds.

His colleague, Professor Jenny Kitzinger, who is beginning an in-depth study of the Jackson case, says the issue with Bashir's documentary isn't so much how the journalist conducted the interviews and research, but how it was put together afterwards.

"Journalists often take on a persona that isn't quite what they believe to get a story," Prof Kitzinger says. "It's an interesting ethical question about where one should draw the line.

"The issue is he edited out where he was sympathetic," she adds. "The issue is the way the audience was treated."


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