Michael Jackson has long since joined the immortals, albeit some would spell that without the “t” following the revelations last month in the epic four-hour, two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The film revives claims that the superstar had sexual friendships with young boys, scandal that first burst into the public arena way back in 1993-4 and surfaced again in 2003-5, culminating in Jackson’s acquittal at the end of a four-month trial.

The film has interviews with two of those boys, now long into their adult lives. One of them, Wade Robson, testified in Jackson’s defence at his trial, but now tells a very different story. In the course of researching my book Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons (2010), I came to the view that Robson almost certainly had sexual contact with Jackson but decided to shield the star from a criminal conviction. I thought he had been willingly involved in the sexual contact at the time. What we are told we are going to see in this new film, though – when it goes to TV, which is scheduled for early March through Channel 4 and HBO – is harrowing testimony of manipulation and emotional exploitation that has left both men traumatised.

Jimmy Safechuck, with Michael

The parents of the other boy, James Safechuck, were said to have received “hush money” to keep the family sweet and head off their cooperation with any prosecution. James, known as Jimmy back in the day, was called to give evidence to a grand jury investigation into complaints against Jackson in 1994 but he gave nothing away at that time nor in 2005.

At the time of filming, Robson was 36 and Safechuck 40.  Robson is a dancer and choreographer, Safechuck a computer programmer. Both men are married with children.

These new stories of lasting hurt and trauma leave me deeply sceptical. The current climate all but guarantees that encounters which were welcome at the time, and even part of a loving relationship, are later re-imagined in memory to fit in with the prevailing abuse narrative of our times.

And what a narrative in this case! The horror hype was at work as soon as bums were on seats for the first showing. A Huffington Post report tells us the festival director gave a trigger warning, telling viewers that mental health counsellors were on hand to cope with all the anticipated fainting and freaking out, the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Nor did the audience fail to deliver. They were reportedly left “shellshocked” by the “harrowing” accounts of the two accusers, such that this “searing” documentary “cast a sombre shadow” at the festival.

This is the sort of coverage you will have seen all over the news. What you have probably missed, though, is “the small print” deliberately obscured or left out entirely by most the mainstream media, including important papers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian, as well as the big broadcasting networks. By far the most significant snippet of this down-page material that I have managed to uncover was to be found in a paper whose circulation area includes Hollywood: the Los Angeles Times. Understandably, they talked to Dan Reed, the British director of Leaving Neverland, who also made the Bafta-winning The Paedophile Hunter (2014), about vigilante Stinson Hunter. My guess is that interviewer Amy Kaufman got more than she bargained for when she asked a rather bland question: Why make this a four-hour docuseries?

Reed replied along the lines that it was an extremely complex story. It took time to unravel the psychology behind the kids saying they had not been abused and then changing their minds much later. Then he dropped a bombshell:

The central thing you have to understand is that these children fell in love with Michael Jackson. Jackson wasn’t a kind of grab-and-grope pedophile — he was a romance, relationship pedophile. Wade started telling me how he had fallen in love with Jackson and how that love lasted for years — decades — and how that love motivated his loyalty to Jackson. And how that loyalty ended up requiring him to lie about what happened.

[[[   ADDED FRIDAY 8 FEBRUARY: There is something else Dan Reed said that is arguably even more stunning, and which I meant to include but somehow omitted to do so. He made it plain he thought these very young boys had not just loved Jackson emotionally. They had been enthusiastic over every aspect of the relationship including the sexual side. Reed said:

“When Wade told me that he loved Michael, then everything suddenly crystallized and made sense. This is difficult to say, but he had a fulfilling sexual and emotional relationship at the age of 7 with a 30-year-old man who happened to be the King of Pop. And because he enjoyed it, he loved Michael, and the sex was pleasant. I’m sorry, that’s just the reality.”   ]]]

By Reed’s admission, it took a very long film to persuasively turn a love story into the standard abuse narrative. As a powerful antidote to this exercise in laboured revisionism, I recommend a 30-minute video, Michael Jackson And Wade Robson: The Real Story, which I understand is supported by the extended Jackson family. The family’s denial of Jackson’s emotional and sexual interest in young boys has never been credible to me, but many strong factual points are made against the accusers.

The information given about Wade Robson is particularly important because he had been a key defence witness at Jackson’s trial in 2005.

The picture that emerges very clearly in this YouTube video is that in 2011-12 Robson’s career in entertainment was not going as well as he had hoped. He was talented and successful, but also had extremely high and perhaps unrealistic expectations. He took on ambitious projects that were too much for him.

After failing in one such project in 2011 he went into therapy. Same thing in 2012: different project, different therapist. Significantly, neither this new therapist nor the first were consulted in relation to sexual abuse. His new therapist, a Dr Larry Shaw, is a specialist in dealing with high pressure jobs.

High-level success and perfectionism had been demanded of Robson ever since his early childhood by his mother. The pressure and expectations had become all too much for him after a couple of career stumbles.

It was in 2012, three weeks into therapy, that Robson first came up with his allegations of abuse. He was not claiming recovered memory. He said he knew all along known what had happened with Jackson but did not realise it was abusive.

I maintain, as does The Real Story, that this must be nonsense. As a sophisticated adult Robson cannot have failed to be aware that the conduct in question was illegal and would be widely regarded as abuse. The unavoidable conclusion, in my view, is that regardless of the law and public opinion, he did not feel Jackson had abused him. Yes, there was sexual activity; but, no, he was not abused.

However, now that Jackson was no longer alive, and Robson was struggling in his career, he decided he had been abused after all. Either the experience was genuinely re-imagined as abusive or it was a conscious ploy to re-invent and re-finance himself. The facts suggest the latter possibilities, as will be seen below.

Robson sued the Jackson Estate.

The Jackson estate managed to get hold of a note Robson had written to himself about a book proposal he was working on. The book was to be a memoir in which would talk about his “abuse”. This note was presented as part of the 2016 depositions for the civil case. He had written:

“My story of abuse and its effects will make me relatable/relevant” he wrote.

He would suddenly be transformed from a failure to a victim.

He began to claim he could not work because dancing and other entertainment were too strongly associated with sexual abuse. This was what he claimed in court documents. In fact, though, he continued dancing, etc.

But in Sept 2017, with his lawsuit heading for failure, he proclaimed himself “healed” from the bad association regarding entertainment activities and announced his return to show business.

So, he was traumatised when it looked as though there was money in it that would bail him out when his career nosedived. Then, straight after that prospect vanished with the failure of his lawsuit, hey presto, he was no longer traumatised.

Go figure!

We may suppose that as a relatively humble computer programmer, Safechuck, too, would not have been averse to the lure of potentially huge financial gain from a successful lawsuit. As noted above, the family had accepted what were apparently outright bribes in the past: a Rolls Royce was just one of the lavish presents Jackson gave them; and Jimmy’s father, a dustman, mysteriously became a millionaire following his association with Jackson.

So we need not be surprised that, like Robson, Safechuck also filed suit. Neither man’s case has been successful.

But sorting out the motives Michael’s old flames had for suing Jackson’s Estate, and companies, and making Leaving Neverland, does not explain the film’s emotional impact. A big part of it was what we might call the yuk factor. Plenty of gay guys experience revulsion to the point of nausea at the thought of having sex with a woman; and of course it is not so long ago that straight people’s utter disgust at the idea of men having sex with each other was used as an argument against normalising such behaviour.

That’s how it is now with child-adult sex. One reason for Leaving Neverland’s great length is that it dwells long and loathingly on the graphic intimate details of the love life disclosed by these two guys.

Robson met Jackson through a dance competition at age five, and said the sexual abuse began when he was seven. Safechuck was cast in a Pepsi commercial starring Jackson at age ten, and the alleged abuse began after months of close friendship.

Safechuck’s description of his experiences at Jackson’s fabled Neverland mansion is particularly atmospheric. Little Jimmy began to stay the night in Michael’s bed. The star told him he’d performed oral sex on him while he was asleep. Michael introduced him to masturbation. Things quickly escalated. They had sex all over the Neverland Ranch – including inside the castle, pool, attic and train station. “Neverland was a giant bed”, as one report put it. Virtually every structure on the grounds had hideaways with beds or privacy nooks for sex. Oral sex games were played in the pool and jacuzzi.

We learn from one report that as the photos of each location ticked by, “disgusted groans in the Sundance theatre grew louder”.

But what did little Jimmy, now big James, have to say about this? He said:

“It happened every day. It sounds sick, but when you’re first dating somebody, you do a lot of it,” he said.

Quite so. Lovers get carried away in a passionate relationship. There is no shying away here from Jimmy’s own active participation: there was mutual engagement. No amount of disgusted groaning in the cinema can negate that.

There is no evidence that Jackson ever coerced or forced boys into sex. He clearly wanted their willing participation. Does this mean he was entirely an ethical boy lover? No, it does not. As I was at pains to emphasise in Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons, he was never the saintly figure his adoring fans believe him to be. His carefully wrought image as a figure of child-like innocence was always a mask, a persona. There is no doubt in my mind that some of his behaviour was quite manipulative, especially as regards his Machiavellian manoeuvrings to keep parents onside or neutralise their suspicions and hostility.

Wade Robson, with Michael

Perhaps the strongest charge against him, though, is that of giving some kids the impression they alone were the special one. For any boy destined to grow up gay, especially, any bad-faith declaration of undying love would always run the risk of ending in heartbreak and lasting trauma. Not that he is necessarily guilty of this charge: Robson and Safechuck have both had heterosexual adult lives, after all.

But there is also the question of personal loyalty at the friendship level. In my book I said there was little evidence that any of Jackson’s boys were cynically dumped once they grew beyond Jackson’s age-of-attraction, as has been alleged. However, it now looks as though I may have been too keen to give him the benefit of the doubt. While we do not yet know what Robson and Safechuck say about this in the film, their stories have been in the public domain from documentation filed in their lawsuits, and a number of writers have pored over the entrails.

One of them is long-time Jackson watcher Desiree Hill. In 2010 she blogged with high praise of my book, saying “it’s fantastic…a tome of astute analysis”. I can now return the praise. Her detailed chronicle The Jimmy Safechuck Story is a must-read for anyone who wants a well documented “case for the prosecution” regarding the alleged “dumping” of the particular boy in question. I am not saying her view is necessarily correct but it needs to be taken into account.

A boy lover well versed in the classics wrote to me recently comparing Jackson with the Roman emperor Tiberius, and it is undeniable that Neverland’s numerous custom-designed love-making locations clearly echo the emperor’s arrangements for his retirement fastness on the isle of Capri. As the historian Suetonius wrote in The Twelve Caesars:

On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this “the old goat’s garden,” punning on the island’s name.

He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction.

It is already beginning to look not too good for Tiberius at this point, wouldn’t you say? But there is more. And it is much worse. Suetonius continues:

The story is also told that once at a sacrifice, attracted by the acolyte’s beauty, he lost control of himself and, hardly waiting for the ceremony to end, rushed him off and debauched him and his brother, the flute-player, too; and subsequently, when they complained of the assault, he had their legs broken.

Now that was an unethical boy-lover. But it was not Michael Jackson!