Rolf Harris you are 84 years old. You have no previous criminal convictions or cautions recorded against you. You are no longer in the best of health. For well over 50 years you have been a popular entertainer and television personality of international standing – with a speciality in children’s entertainment. You are also an artist of renown. You have been the recipient of a number of honours and awards over the years. You have done many good and charitable works and numerous people have attested to your positive good character.
So began the sentencing remarks by Mr Justice Sweeney at Southwark Crown Court, London, before handing down a prison term of five years and nine months on Harris last week. Unfortunately for the star, who was massive in Britain and his native Australia, the rest of the judge’s 3,000-word speech was to be no encomium. Instead, he rebuked the man in the dock as a serial sex attacker of girls and young women who had abused the trust placed in him as a famous children’s entertainer.
Those who remember the TV shows of his heyday, as I do, will recall a man who was brilliant at his job. A speciality was rapid painting, so his young viewers could see a picture emerging before their very eyes in a matter of moments. “Can you tell what it is yet?” he would ask. It became a catchphrase. In his later years he was taken seriously as an artist, with an exhibition of his work at the National Gallery. In 2006 he was even commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen on her 80th birthday.
The question for us now is somewhat different. Unlike Jimmy Savile, who was never put on trial, Harris has been found guilty by a jury. But is he really the monster painted by the media in their own post-verdict instant artistry? Can we see who he is yet? There are plenty of reasons to suppose the genre of painting going on here is one of optical illusion, like the famously impossible Escher staircase.
We can look at the Rolph Harris case, just like the staircase, and be struck immediately by an impossible disparity: the offences, even if the jury made correct decisions on the facts, bear no relation to the spin being put upon them.
The main facts are that Harris was convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault committed decades ago, between 1969 and 1986, against four females. These ranged from one-off incidents of groping in public to a long involvement in the life of his daughter Bindi’s best friend (Victim C). The youngest was an eight-year-old girl (Victim A) who asked for his autograph at a public event. He twice put his hand up her skirt and felt her vagina over her underwear.
In a Victim Impact Statement, Victim A said this incident had caused her “physical and mental pain” and that “in the space of a few minutes my childhood innocence was gone”. She said, “I became an angry child unable to express myself and unable to trust men. I took this with me into my teens and did not like to be touched. It made having normal relationships difficult….I have carried what Rolf Harris did to me for most of my life. It took away most of my childhood.”
Victim C and her family were friends with Harris and his family in the mid 1960s. In 1978 when C was aged 13 and Harris was 48 he was allowed by C’s parents to take her on holiday abroad with his wife and Bindi. That is when he started touching her sexually. After the holiday, and while she was still under the age of consent (not that she ever did consent, by her own account) there were further incidents at C’s own home. While his wife and C’s parents were downstairs he went to C’s bedroom upstairs, where he inserted his finger into her vagina, in the words of the judge, “for about a minute until she managed to get away”. Several further such incidents, the last when she was 19, were specified in the indictment, including ones in which he licked her vagina. The judge said to Harris “Whilst I do not sentence you in relation to what you did to C in the decade that followed that offence, I am sure that offences against her continued until 1994.”
Harris also faced four charges of possessing indecent images of children on his computer following a police raid on his home in 2012. This case was dropped following his conviction on the other charges.
So, in summary, we have groping incidents including one against an eight-year-old over her clothing which robbed her of her childhood and has been a cross she has had to bear for the rest of her life. And we have a series of assaults over a period of 16 years against one victim, several of them while her parents were in another room of the same house at the time, until she was 29 years old. And a porn case that was dropped.
Does anything begin to seem a bit unlikely, or even impossible about this, like the Escher staircase? Can you tell what it is yet? I’m guessing you can. But let’s go on. Let’s paint the final brush strokes of the picture.
In her Victim Impact Statement, Bindi’s friend Victim C said, “The attacks…made me feel dirty, grubby and disgusting. The whole sordid saga has traumatised me. I have panic attacks and suffer from anxiety. The effects of the abuse have been with me for many years. I started drinking at the age of 14 to 15 years old. This was to block out the effects of what he was doing to me. This had an effect on my relationship with my parents and people close to me. The slightest thing would upset me, I would get so angry, my reaction would be so disproportionate and over the top. As a young girl I had aspirations to have a career, settle down and have a family. However, as a direct result of his actions, this has never materialised. I have never had a meaningful relationship whilst sober. I have also never been able to hold down a job. This was down to the need to block out what he had done to me through drink. Rolf Harris had a hold over me that made me a quivering wreck….He made me feel like a sexual object. He used and abused me to such an extent that it made me feel worthless…”
So there we have it. Can you see the full pattern and paradox now? The pattern is one of relatively mild sexual impropriety, or even consensual sex with a mature adult: what else can we seriously suppose it to have been when the “assaults” on C continued until she was 29? The paradox is the huge, life-wrecking consequences that are said to have resulted from these acts.
Don’t get me wrong. Sexual harassment should not be tolerated. Heretic TOC is not calling for a groper’s charter. As we have discussed extensively here recently, mutual consent is a basic requirement of legitimate sex at any age. Where the courts and the abuse lobbyists, the politicians and the media are going wrong, however, is in giving too much credence to those who seek to put everything that has gone wrong in their lives down to child sexual abuse (CSA). It is an easy cop out from personal responsibility. One thing often overlooked by those who assume a direct CSA = Lifelong Trauma equation is that lurking in the background of these damaged people’s lives there is often a history of significant trauma and mental instability arising even before the CSA took place. Rind et al., in their famous 1998 meta-analysis showed that chaotic and dysfunctional family background was nine times more predictive of psychological damage in later life than CSA, to which such damage is usually attributed.
The public are also deceived by the utterly false dogma that victims always “courageously” come forward to tell the unvarnished truth, without exaggeration. It is hard to be sure from a short public description, but Victim A in this case said she suffered physical as well as mental pain. Really? From being touched over her underwear in a crowded public place where any cry of pain would surely have attracted attention? One has to wonder. Those who think victims are always honest should catch up on the Somaly Mam scandal, as reported last month in “Victims Can Lie as Much as Other People”.
Back to Rolph. Like Jimmy Savile, he was clearly no saint. A particular grouse of mine would be his hypocrisy. Whereas Savile was astonishingly open about his attraction to young girls, Harris shored up his respectability by presenting a 1985 anti-CSA video for the NSPCC, called Kids Can Say No!
Nor was he great at loyalty: apparently unbeknown to his wife, for several years in the 1990s he kept a mistress at the bottom of his garden!
That wasn’t as uncomfortable for her as it might sound: the lady was installed in a converted boathouse in the grounds of his mansion by the River Thames, and was supposed to be his housekeeper and chauffeur.
So, can we tell who he was yet? Was he the monster the media have painted?
What he was not is a paedophile if we use that term to mean someone preferentially attracted to prepubescent children. His offences point to a degree of hebephilic interest in teenage girls; but with a wife and a long-term adult mistress, his sexuality appears actually to have been rather normal in its direction. It’s just that its expression was a little over-exuberant. Not that this is any excuse: arguably his lapses were worse than those of someone, attracted exclusively to kids, who has no viable alternative outlet for his feelings.
What concerns us more urgently, though, is not whether one particular man meets with our moral approval here at Heretic TOC. It’s the societal response to these big, high-profile cases that counts. For the most part, that response has been really bad news, and we must brace ourselves for much more of the same in the coming weeks and months as the post-Savile cultural revolution cranks itself up to some sort of crescendo.
So much for the big picture. I’ll conclude with a few brief sketches:
‘LOVELY TOUCHY-FEELY ROLF’
Amanda Platell, a high-profile journalist, who used to be press secretary to William Hague when he was leader of the Conservative Party, said she had been among Harris’s fans and had invited him to her fortieth birthday party many years ago. Cheekily, she said she was so thrilled to see her childhood hero in the flesh that “I took him upstairs away from my other guests to keep him to myself for a while.” We are left to guess was happened, but she wasn’t complaining! On the other hand, that’s before she knew what a bad boy he could be. But now, she says, “I can deny it no longer: the man I adored betrayed me. More than that, I’ve had to accept that Rolf Harris groomed me, just as meticulously as he did his victims.” How did he do it? By being nice. “Lovely touchy-feely Rolf had this ability to make you feel as though you were the most important person in the world.” The swine!
A GRIM LONDON PRISON
Eric Allison, the excellent prisons correspondent of the Guardian and an ex-convict himself, reported that in the big van that would take Harris and other prisoners from the court to prison (HMP Wandsworth), Harris would be “insulted mercilessly by the other occupants of the sweatbox. At the grim south London jail, he will be segregated during the reception process although he will still hear torrents of abuse for his indecent assault of young girls.” As an old man, he would be put in the hospital wing, where patients “tend to be medicated during the day when they can present control problems, but left drug-free to scream and shout throughout the long nights.” This sounds bleak, and the scenario may have unfolded just as Allison says. But Harris should be OK if he can get out of healthcare and into the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit (VPU) which is the usual destination for anyone in need of protection from the hostility of other inmates – which these days means mainly sex offenders, quite a lot of them almost as old as Harris. I know, because I was there myself. In fact I was tried at Southwark Crown Court like Harris too. Ah, happy memories – not!
NEXT SCANDAL: THE PAEDO POLITICIANS
News of fresh craziness in the cultural revolution keeps coming in so thick and fast that my last item here would be my lead story if this were a daily newspaper: a big scandal broke in the Sunday papers yesterday, when they reported that the British Home Office has confessed to losing or destroying 114 “potentially relevant” files relating to “the paedophile scandal engulfing Westminster” i.e. allegations that “paedophilia on an industrial scale” was rife among top politicians in the 1970s and 80s. This story is certain to get even bigger in the coming week and beyond. I got wind of it last week when the main broadcasting outfits (BBC’s Today programme and ITN) plus the Daily Mail contacted me to ask if I could tell them anything about naughty deeds in high places back in the day. Sadly, being more familiar with low places I had to disappoint them!
The very latest, Daily Telegraph this morning:
Heretic TOC is quoted. Looks like I’m adding to the problem, rather than solving it. Should I stop writing this blog?