Don't stop 'til you get enough

THREE MONTHS living in the shadow of Neverland is enough to make anyone Wacko.

I know, I was there, and survived the celebrity trial of the century.

During
the case Jacko lost two stone in weight through stress. I think I
gained a stone out of boredom from being stranded in the rural
California town where a good night out comprises eating a super-sized
steak then straddling a mechanical bull and holding on for dear life.

While
Jackson retired to Neverland at the close of business each night, I
went back to a rented two-bedroomed bungalow a stone’s throw from the
court house in Santa Maria, the farming town where the action took
place each day.

But I wasn’t grumbling.

I joined Splash
News last October from Solent News. From Southampton to Los Angeles and
then to the Jacko trial. It was a hop, skip, jump and a hell of a leap.

It
was shortly after I arrived that company founder Kevin Smith and news
editor Paul Tetley took me out for a quiet lunch and explained the
importance of Jackson. Worldwide, he was still the biggest star in the
world. It was Splash which had broken the allegations against the star
back in 1993 and had led the way on the story ever since. It was
important, for the agency’s reputation, to continue that solid
coverage. And to cover the trial properly the agency needed a
single-point man. Reporter Martin Fricker used to be that expert, until
he transferred to the NCovering the celebrity trial of the century
wasn’t always a thriller, says Graeme Massie of Splash News, but it was
an intriguing challenge for journalists – and a nice little earner for
residentsew York office.

Now, eight months on, I feel like a
walking Jackson encyclopedia. I can tell you what juror number three
does for a living and, thanks to the Jacko fans who blared his music
relentlessly on boom boxes outside the court house, I am also word
perfect on all of his hits from Ben to Beat It.

The opening and
closing of the trial were the highlights, when the world’s press
descended on the town with their satellite trucks and makeshift TV
studios. The logistics were incredible. And it seemed like everyone was
cashing in.

Rent on apartments near the court house tripled
overnight. The sleepy local coffee shop, Café Diem, moved into bigger
premises and geared up to cope with the 600 cups of coffee a day being
demanded by hacks crowded around the court house.

Photographers who wanted to access the press pen were forced to contribute $75 a day towards the cost of policing.

Chopped down

An attorney with offices immediately opposite the court house
boasted he made $300,000 by renting out space to TV crews. A spot on
his roof, where crews stood shoulder to shoulder, was going for $3,000
a day. When one camera man complained that his shot was being ruined by
a row of trees, miraculously, someone chopped them down by the next
morning. The enterprising lawyer even installed vending machines
selling Diet Coke and Mountain Dew on his front lawn.

It was like a scene from the classic Kirk Douglas film Ace in the Hole.

The
ever-frugal Splash, however, declined the offer of a $3,000-a-day spot,
and instead rented a cherry picker with a 40-foot manoeuvre boom, which
allowed a photographer to bob and weave over the entire mêlée. It cost
$300 a week.

Splash’s tech team went to work to rig a wireless
network which enabled the photographer in the cherry picker to send his
pictures instantly. There was one wireless hub in the Splash rented
house, dubbed Chateau Jacko, and another relaying the signal in a car
parked midway to the court house.

Splash was able to beat AP and
Reuters to get the first pictures of Jacko arriving at court on day one
to the picture desk in London. It resulted in four front pages.

Secret weapon

The operation was half old-school, half new-school.

While one snapper sent using an elaborate relay of wireless
networks, another relied on a runner to sprint to the nearby café,
where picture desk operator Chris Pittam was waiting. The time
difference between the two was negligible.

But the real secret weapon in beating the competition turned out to be shorthand. The Brits have it – the Americans don’t.

Splash
news editor Paul Tetley was ordered to stop scribbling notes by a
sheriff’s deputy guarding the court overflow room. Tetley, trying to
get down the quotes from British documentary maker Martin Bashir giving
evidence at the trial, was completely bemused. “The sheriff said I was
not allowed to take down verbatim notes. He was serious. It was only
when the court press coordinator stepped in that I was able to get on
with my job.”

Splash was on commission for pretty much all of the
British daily newspapers to provide minute-byminute copy, and was
expected to deliver pictures quickly to meet London deadlines. With an
eighthour time difference, by the time Jackson arrived in his convoy of
black SUVs and flashed his trademark v-sign to photographers, it was
already 4.30pm in London.

A handful of reporters were allowed into the court room itself, but if you left the room to file you weren’t allowed back in.

A
more relaxed regime ruled in the overflow room, set up in a portable
cabin some 50 yards away, where about 30 journalists listened to a live
audio feed and squinted at a poor television image where you could see
little of Jackson apart from a white, ghostly image peering through the
curtains of black hair. Facial expressions were impossible to make out.

Here
you could come and go as you pleased, and Splash operated a tag-team
system. While I was taking shorthand another reporter was outside
filing.

But after the initial buzz, interest from London waned as
the court case got bogged down with forensic detail. Splash turned its
attention to backgrounders.

Jordie Chandler, Jackson’s first
accuser, had vanished. For 10 years he had not been seen, despite the
dogged pursuit of many of Fleet Street’s finest.

He was an obvious target for us.

Using
private eyes, new technology and oldfashioned reporting, we got close.
But it wasn’t until news editor Tetley got talking to a stranger in our
local drinking hole that the final piece of the jigsaw fitted into
place. In December a four-strong team from Splash went skiing with
multi-millionaire Chandler and bagged the first pictures of him as a
man. The last time the world had seen him was as a boy, wearing a
fedora hat and standing next to Jackson in Monte Carlo.

After
that success, we went after Gavin Arvizo, his latest accuser. Tracking
him down was not easy. He was in the protective care of Santa Barbara
Sheriff’s Department, anxious to protect him from interference which
might taint his testimony. But just in time for the trial, we found him.

On
the day the result came in, photographer Westley Hargrave captured
exclusive pictures of Arvizo racing home from school on his bicycle to
watch the verdict with his mother.

After
135 witnesses and seven days of jury deliberation, that day almost
seemed like an anticlimax. Not guilty on all 10 counts.

Splash
hosted a garden party in which Jesus Juice (white wine) was served,
Jackson music blared, and some wag brought a pinata of Jackson, a bust
of the star made from papier mâché. For those unfamiliar with the
Mexican tradition, the pinata, which usually features at childrens’
parties, is slung from a rope and kids line up to whack it with a bat
until the sweets contained inside spill out.

Bad taste? I don’t know. But a few people looked all too keen to give it a good whack.

On
the Splash reporting team: Graeme Massie; Martin Fricker; Lee Brown;
Gavin Wilson; Paul Tetley; Hannah Lorch; Jenny Watson; Nicola Pittam;
Eric Munn; Kevin Smith. Photographers: Toby Canham; Chris Whittle;
Chris Pittam; Tom Vickers; Westley Hargrave; Andrew Griffiths

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