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Jackson Estate boss indicates further legal action might follow over Leaving Neverland, though libel isn’t an option

By | Published on Wednesday 17 April 2019

Michael Jackson

One of the executors of the Michael Jackson estate has indicated that further litigation may be forthcoming in relation to the ‘Leaving Neverland’ documentary that was aired by HBO earlier this year. However, John Branca acknowledged that a libel action is not likely, because you can’t defame the dead. Something he reckons should possibly be changed.

Branca spoke publicly for the first time yesterday about the fall out that has followed the screening of the documentary. He was taking part in a panel called ‘Trial By Media: Guilty Until Proven Innocent’ for Harvard’s Institute Of Politics, and also chatted to Billboard.

The documentary, of course, puts the spotlight on allegations made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both claim that Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. Both the Jackson estate and family have been scathing about the documentary and its director Dan Reed, arguing that the programme made no efforts to include any contributors who would speak out in defence of the late musician.

During the panel event, Branca confirmed that the estate had taken a commercial hit since the airing of the programme and conceded that – because he earns a commission for his work with the estate – he has a vested interest in trying to protect Jackson’s reputation. However, he insisted that his desire to do just that was more about of fairness than any financial considerations.

Speaking of Jackson’s accusers, Branca told Billboard: “Those people made up a goddamn story because they wanted money and we will not allow that to go unchecked – it’s that simple”. And as for Reed, his “documentary is replete with inaccuracies, lies and stuff they knew not to be true. They should be ashamed of themselves”.

Although no specifics were provided, it was implied that any future litigation relating to the documentary might be targeted at Reed personally. The estate has already taken legal action against HBO having found a contract between Jackson and the broadcaster from the early 1990s that included a non-disparagement clause. Because back then HBO committed to not disparage Jackson in its future output, the estate argues it is now in breach of contract.

As for what other legal action could be taken – beyond relying on a contractual technicality – well, that’s an interesting question. In the US, like the UK, you can’t defame the dead, so estates or families of the deceased cannot sue for libel, even if they believe someone has published damaging untruths about a dead person.

Billboard quotes Branca as saying: “Because the laws of defamation are what they are, there is nothing we can do or say. The man can be damaged, his kids can be hurt and theoretically nothing can be done”. With that in mind, he went on: “I’m going to suggest the law should be changed to protect the deceased at least for a period of time. Because it’s about the truth, it’s about fairness, and it’s about balance”.

HBO continues to stand by both the documentary and its director, while Reed has previously defended his approach in making the film and spoken out in support of the programme’s subjects. It remains to be seen if any further legal action does indeed come in.