Reputations are fragile things – they take many years to forge and can be destroyed in a heartbeat. In public life there has been a massive recent shift in the way that certain reputations are perceived and while some villains prosper, others are wiped from history.

Over the past decade, quickly changing social mores and attitudes have put the microscope on historical offenders – mainly sexual ones and mainly in the entertainment industries. Nobody in their right minds would ever consider defending the actions of those convicted of the worst crimes against women, children, and men. It goes without saying. But what about those who have been accused? And what about those who have been accused of offenses that are decades old? What about those who have been accused, but are dead and defended accusations while they were alive?

“The principle that one is innocent until proven guilty is the cornerstone of every healthy system of law.”

Most legal systems hold to basic principles focusing on the right to defend a charge or an accusation. The principle that one is innocent until proven guilty is the cornerstone of every healthy system of law. Without it we are open to the worst sorts of abuses and it has taken hundreds of years to establish those rights – going back to Magna Carta in 1215.

Without going into all of the accusations against the many singers, comedians, actors, filmmakers, screenwriters, directors and producers, I think one person raises some very interesting points about the way we deal with accusations of serious offenses and notions of natural justice.

“Jackson was subjected to what is now coined as ‘cancelling’ – the cultural and social invisibility of a person, or persons, on the basis of accusations and allegations.”

In the latter years of his life Michael Jackson was the focus of substantial allegations of child abuse. While never found guilty, he did settle cases before trial and died in 2009, with his reputation tarnished.

At the beginning of this year a documentary was released, focused on historical abuse inflicted on two young men – the case was then ‘decided’ in the court of global public opinion. While no legal findings were established – Jackson was subjected to what is now coined as ‘cancelling’ – the cultural and social invisibility of a person, or persons, on the basis of accusations and allegations.

Even here in New Zealand, Michael Jackson’s music was removed from playlists of a number of radio stations and the attempt to wipe him, and his music began. But how does that work? How can we, on the basis of unproven facts, imagine that we can ‘disappear’ someone from history?

Michael Jackson is one of the most acclaimed, awarded, and revered musical artists ever. His sales have set records and challenged other artists. He created a phenomenal body of work and was a much loved performer and dancer. He died, at what is now considered rather young (50) and seemed to have earned his place in the halls of musical superstardom. But no, his reputation has been compromised and his name and his music are reviled, in many quarters.

If the allegations against him were proven in the way we decide such things in functional democracies, then I would have no problem with him being reevaluated and reconsidered. I’m not sure I would get the same joy from listening to his songs. I very well may not. But I can’t condemn him as it is and I know others fully disagree with that. It’s a very contentious and very emotional discussion. It’s going to be considering the gravity of the allegations. But there is something inherently wrong with destroying someone’s reputation without them having recourse to a defence.