Louis Theroux interview: ‘Michael Jackson had unhealthy interests in children, but I didn’t have enough victim testimony to put forward a forensic case’
Once the UK’s go-to investigative journalist for matters of the strange, Theroux’s latest film centres on men accused of rape on US university campuses. Jack Shepherd speaks to the interviewer-turned-interviewee about ‘The Night in Question’
It’s not easy interviewing an interviewer. They know all the tricks. They can deflect your question, or turn the tables on you, or faux-innocently ignore what you’re asking. Louis Theroux is a master at this. Speaking over the phone, the 48-year-old is charming and thoughtful, yet he also gives answers that, by and large, only scratch the surface.
Take our conversation about Jimmy Savile. Although we’re supposed to be discussing his new documentary The Night in Question, Theroux brings Savile up within five minutes. How does it feel, I respond, to miss out on the biggest story of his career – that Savile was a child molester? It’s something Theroux, who spent a week with Saville filming his When Louis Met… special in 2000, has thought about many times.
“You have to take that film with the context of the time,” Theroux begins before taking me on a whistle-stop verbal tour of scenes from the film. One of the most revealing moments, he says, is when Savile speaks about how he used to tie up miscreants in the basement in his days as a bouncer. Another is when Theroux asks Savile about rumoured paedophilia allegations. “We went deeper than many other interviews went,” he adds. “I watch it back now and I don’t cringe.”
It’s a typically pragmatic response from a man who has a reputation for staying stoic and unfazed while heartwrenching events unfold before him. He expands a little more.
“I always thought his sexuality was strange; how he never had long-term girlfriends, and his close relationship with his mother,” he says, again taking me on a detour, before eventually addressing the question head-on. “Do I regret missing the story?” he asks rhetorically. “I’m still proud of that documentary. Retrospectively, you can say we missed out on that story, but we did what we could at the time.”
Our conversation on Savile was almost inevitable considering the topic of The Night in Question. While the Oxford-educated Theroux was once the UK’s go-to investigative journalist for matters of the strange thanks to his Weird Weekends series, his later films have seen him take on more serious subjects. There have been pieces on the Middle East, dementia and alcoholism – some even bordering on polemic.
His latest documentary puts the spotlight on men who have been accused of sexual assault on US college campuses. Theroux offers a case study: Saifullah Khan, a former Yale University student who allegedly raped a woman while she was intoxicated. Khan was found innocent by a court but was still expelled by Yale. It later agreed to allow him back (not for long – but more on that later).
Running a piece on an alleged abuser, especially one where the victim does not want to appear on camera, seems against the ethos of #MeToo and Time’s Up. And although Theroux does speak to other alleged victims, surely, by focusing on Khan, the documentary gives a platform to someone who should not have one?
“When you make documentaries, sometimes you’re giving voices to the voiceless and other times you’re giving voices to those with voices,” he responds. “It’s incumbent on you as a journalist to decide how to handle that. I’ve done programmes on neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the Westboro Baptist Church. I like to think I’ve acquired a maturity to handle those people, to challenge them and question them with enough focus and sensitivity that it isn’t a simple case of giving them a platform.
“It can be very powerful when you hear people almost testifying against themselves,” he continues. “There are really powerful films that can be supportive of victims that use the testimony of those people who have done things that are wrong or dodgy. That can speak just as elegantly to the bigger issue and the victim approach.”
Midway through The Night in Question, the person who put the BBC’s research team in contact with Khan, Jonathon Andrews, comes to Theroux with a story: he claims to have also been sexually assaulted by Khan. Andrews also alleges that Khan is using Theroux. “This documentary was meant to be his vindication,” he tells Theroux, who remains characteristically unperturbed by the revelation. A few weeks later, the Yale student newspaper publishes a report detailing Andrews’ claims and Khan is expelled permanently. (Andrews, it should be noted, was previously accused of sexual assault himself.)
“It was a moment of validation,” Theroux says. “I instinctively knew there was something wrong with Saif. Hopefully, you can see my suspicions when he makes those admissions.”
Had Andrews not have come forward, though, would Theroux have been playing into Khan’s hands? “Jonathon’s revelations were the kind of thing we were banking on,” Theroux says. He explains how they went through hundreds of pages of court documents looking for something to question Khan about. “We weren’t blindly saying ‘let’s follow this guy and see what happens’. There was a little bit of a plan.”
The conversation turns once more to Savile. Perhaps he took Theroux for a ride. “I couldn’t have known about Savile,” he says. “He was capable of fooling the world. How were we to know when others – the police, Scotland Yard – did not? We were, I believe, able to put more of him into the public eye than anyone had before.”
Between the first Savile documentary and the follow-up 16 years later, in which he spoke to the victims, Theroux wanted to make a film on Michael Jackson. He was never granted access to the King of Pop and instead – in 2003 – spoke to Jackson’s father Joe and Terry George, who accused the singer of attempting to have phone sex with him when he was just 13 years old.
Would he have questioned Jackson about the sex abuse allegations? Again, Theroux begins by explaining the situation and detailing what happens in his documentary before addressing the question. “I had been investigating the case for quite a while and knew enough on the subject to view it at that time – as I do now – that he had unhealthy interests in children. But I didn’t have enough victim testimony to put forward a forensic case to him.”
Jackson has recently been the subject of a new Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland in which two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, accuse Jackson of having sexual relations with them while they were underage.
“I haven’t seen the film but I will say that two or three years ago, when Wade Robson first came out to say that he’d been abused by Michael Jackson, I did approach him,” Theroux continues. “I made another approach to Jordy Chandler, who was the victim in the case in the early Nineties. They weren’t receptive at the time. I can’t remember why.”
Theroux adds that Leaving Neverland is long overdue. “For many people, Michael Jackson was more a religious figure than a celebrity one,” he says. Theroux points to a disconnect between the way people look at Jackson’s music and the way he is depicted in the media. “You would see Michael Jackson-themed nights on reality TV shows, and then, if you cared to look, it was evident he had unhealthy interests in children. Even last year, the National Portrait Gallery had an exhibition on Michael Jackson in which they didn’t address anything to do with the victims, which was such a dereliction. I’m not one of those people who thinks he should be muted, but you should call it what it is.”
Leaving Neverland has come at a time when public figures are finally being held to account for their alleged actions. One of those was Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford while they attended high school together. The case was ongoing while Theroux filmed The Night in Question, something that was relatively coincidental, as the film stemmed from the growing open conversation about consent.
“It’s happening later in the US,” Theroux says, pointing to how revelations regarding Kavanaugh and Harvey Weinstein happened years after Savile and Operation Yewtree in Britain. “People in the public eye or a position of power are being held to account and they’re squealing about it,” he adds.
We return to the documentary in question. There’s a nagging sense that perhaps a male interviewer was not the right person to be holding Khan to account. Theroux may be sensitive to his position, but a woman’s voice could have arguably added something more to the conversation. He responds with a surprisingly straight answer.
“Am I the right person to be doing it?” he reflects. “If I was the only person doing it I would worry about that. It would feel weird and inappropriate. There used to be a term in rap, ‘It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at’, and it’s partly about where your head is at. I would like to think I’m able to do a good job, but in the end, viewers will have to judge me and let me know that I’m not the right person. But I think I enjoy it too much to want to stop doing it. Don’t think I’m being greedy, but that’s where I’m at right now.”
The Night in Question is on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday 4 March