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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 02:20 GMT
Jackson's circus comes to town

By Peter Bowes
BBC News in Santa Maria, California

Satellite trucks
The satellite trucks line up to cover the case
As Michael Jackson prepares to appear in court on charges of child molestation, BBC News Online looks at the media circus surrounding the case.

Santa Maria is preparing for an earthquake. Not the kind that can measured on the Richter scale, but the arrival of the world's most famous pop star to face child molestation charges.

As well as Michael Jackson, who until recently lived nearby at his sprawling Neverland ranch, the world's media and many of the singer's fans are also descending on this sleepy California town.

Jackson faces multiple counts of sexually abusing a teenage boy and is due to appear in court for the first time on Friday at 0830 local time (1630 GMT).

"It's the biggest thing we'll ever see," said Dennis Szczepanski, a local resident.

"It'll be a madhouse, it's a frenzy over a trial."

Nick Ut
The photographer: AP's Nick Ut prepares for a tough day
"Just look at all the people who're coming out - it's like a circus. Our community of 85,000 is a very agricultural type - country type people and you're going to see a lot of unusual people for us.

"There's going to be a lot of styles of clothing and hair that we just don't see," he added.

Pushy producers

All week news organisations from around the world have been setting up camp outside the town's courthouse. It is a rapidly growing media village populated by pushy producers, anxious looking security staff and a few network stars.

The court building's car park has been transformed into a makeshift outside broadcast centre.

Each camera crew is assigned a few square feet of space, carefully marked off by tape stuck to the ground. To those in the news business it is a familiar scene, with some wondering what the encampment will end up being dubbed.

"They all get a nicknames, like 'camp OJ', but I don't know what this one will be yet," said Rob Murphy, news operations supervisor with Los Angeles TV station KTLA.

Just look at all the people who're coming out - there's going to be a lot of styles of clothing and hair that we just don't see
Dennis Szczepanski
Santa Maria resident
Mr Murphy had just handed over $2,500 (1,370) for the privilege of parking his station's media trucks in the car park.

Major news organisations are being charged a daily fee of $250 (137) per day to park at the courthouse.

"I have a problem with it," he said.

'Caravan of love'

Many news organisations consider the parking fee to be excessive and inappropriate. But local officials say it is necessary to help recoup some of the projected $75,000 (41,130) cost of handling the crowds during Jackson's appearance.

Hundreds of fans are expected to turn up at the court as part of their so-called "caravan of love". A convoy of coaches is due to leave Los Angeles in the early hours of Friday.

"I don't know whether they're going to sneak Michael Jackson in the back way or whether he's going to come in right in front of the fans and media," said Mr Murphy.

"I'm sure it'll be crazy with hundreds of international media," added veteran Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.

Media parking permits
The press can park up... at a price
Fred Cassidy, a reporter from French TV, was concerned that the actual court appearance, Jackson's arraignment, would produce little real news. The singer will be asked to confirm his name and enter a plea to the charges. No evidence will be offered at this stage.

"There's not that much to report other than him showing up so it's going to be a lot of piranhas eating at a little bone," said Mr Cassidy.

'Selling newspapers'

Comparisons with the OJ Simpson case are inevitable. But even the so called "trial of the century" seems to pale in comparison with the Jackson matter.

"The world knows Michael Jackson and most people outside the US didn't know OJ. I think this makes for better stories and sells newspapers," said Mr Cassidy.

Adding to the surreal nature of the event is the presence of Marcia Clarke, the former Los Angeles prosecutor who became a household name during the Simpson trial.

Ms Clarke now works as a reporter for a tabloid entertainment news show on US TV and has become a familiar face in the Jackson press corps.

Parking registration desk
Town authorities say they need to cover security costs
It causes unsuspecting onlookers to do a double take. Ms Clarke said her new role on the media side of the crash barrier was like an "out of body experience."

It is a sentiment that many people involved with the case understand.

"It's probably one of the biggest stories any of us and the station has ever covered," said Carlos Garanda, a reporter with another Los Angeles TV station, KABC.

"It could be crazy, it could be organised or it could be a mess," he said.




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