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Michael Jackson, David Miliband and me

27 June 2009


Most people who are into pop music have a Michael Jackson memory. Michael Jackson's "Bad" was one of the first tapes I had, and one of the albums I came back to when writing UoD. Back in 1987, I remember listening to the singles from it on the Radio 1 roadshow, while I was writing Amstrad games in the school holidays. I also remember myself and my brother being allowed to watch the then-new video for "Thriller" when a friend of my parents brought it around on a VHS.

I didn't expect Jackson to do his 50 gigs at the O2, but I didn't expect him to die either, so it's a bit of a shock to hear he's gone. In the same way that my parents' generation remember where they were when Kennedy and Lennon died, many in my generation will remember where they were when they heard that Jackson had died.

For the music industry, the passing of Michael Jackson must have been a day of mixed emotions. As a performer, he was electric. His dancing was so distinctive that many videos showed him in silhouette. Who else can get away with that? "Thriller" is the best selling album of all time (and probably always will be), and Jackson is one of a handful of performers who are cultural icons.

On the other hand, I'm willing to bet the Jackson records are on display prominently in every record shop this weekend. For a music business that's struggling to adapt to the new online economy, the sales boost that comes with a major star's death will be seen as welcome by some. Yesterday, Jackson had the top seven bestselling albums on iTunes, and held about 10-20% of the top 100 song downloads.

It's always struck me as odd the way record sales peak after a star's death. The fans already have the records, so these sales are driven by people who just never got around to buying the albums for the last twenty years or so, and then suddenly decide they quite liked some of them when the star dies.

Social networks played a big part in spreading the news of Jackson's death, and people's reactions to it. When Princess Diana died, online social networks weren't around as we know them today. Because most of my friends shared their views on Jackson's death, through status updates in Facebook and tweets on Twitter, it felt like a shared experience. As Jackson sang, "You are not alone".

Both The Times and The Telegraph leaped upon the Twitter feed of UK foreign secretary David Miliband, in which he said: "Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael." Only, it wasn't the real foreign secretary. It can be difficult to validate celebrity Twitter feeds (Valebrity attempts to fill that gap, and Twitter has started to validate some accounts itself). But a little common sense goes a long way. Some of the tweets from the fake Miliband include:
Another idea from Eyebrows, sack all the drivers and use McDonalds staff instead. He reckons Reagan would have done it. No Al!
Many of the other tweets are gently satirical, but there are enough clues there for a journalist to work out they're looking at a fake. Even with the complexity of identity today, and the way that many people will have a professional and informal persona in different places, journalists are supposed to be skilled at fact checking. It's one of the ways they can add value in a world where information is increasingly free. If they can't filter the fakers from our own government ministers, how can we trust anything else they write?

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My guess was that they both picked it up from a news wire - which explains why they both got it, and probably means you'll find it all over the place, and coming back again and again. I did a google search (miliband michael jackson pa) based on this hunch, and reckon that it was most likely to be the Press Association. The search result seems to indicate this, but the linked article has no mention of it (and no editing history). Searching the PA news website for Miliband and Jackson comes up blank.

That book I recommended to you a while ago, Flat Earth News, is full of the kind of stuff that you've written about - he calls it 'Churnalism' and explains why, even though so much of the press takes so many wire stories, those writing the wire stories fall into the same non-fact-checking practices, which is how this kind of nonsense is perpetuated.
 
Thanks for your comment.

That's interesting. I should have wondered why they both got it - I had assumed they had checked the tweets about MJ on Twitter for anybody famous and both come across him there, but it is more likely it came from one source. Part of me still thinks they should be checking this kind of thing, but I guess the reason they buy it in is so that they don't have to spend time doing so (theoretically, at least).

The PA page has Miliband in the cached version, but has removed it in the latest edit, without any disclaimer or apology. Yahoo News still has it as an uncorrected live story.

Flat Earth News is on my bookshelf awaiting its turn to be read - it's been recommended to me by several people.
 
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