Personally, I always found Rolf Harris faintly ridiculous. In my childhood, I think life was leavened slightly by his songs about additional limbs, unruly marsupials, predictable solar phenomena and late sibling reconciliation, and I liked his TV series about swimming and the Saturday show where he painted a Dulux picture where all the white bits turned out to be highlights and the dark bits shadows. Chiarascurotastic. I was less bothered about the music he made with the bit of hardboard and the piece of piping.
But in general, he suffered from that queasy quality that so many ‘entertainers’ from the seventies had – quite good at a few things, not fantastic at anything, and you were left thinking, yes, but what actually is the point?
However, I am out of kilter with public opinion on that one. The nation loved him. Loved him. Rather as they loved Jimmy Savile. But Mr Savile betrayed their trust. There they were thinking that he was a wonderful philanthropist, a hilarious and eccentric TV and radio DJ, a brilliant fundraiser for hospitals for the most unfortunately sick and vulnerable, and all the time, he was a paedophile, gerontophile and generally abominable sex pervert of the most despicable kind, and who (if all the claims are to be believed, of which more later) was to sexual abuse what Harold Shipman was to murder. All those people, so many of them children, who were so dying to meet him – some literally so – soon found that he was only after one thing. And all the time he gloated to his victims that he could never be exposed by them, because no one would believe them. And he was right.
So when the suggestion was made that Rolf Harris too, was a bit of a groper, it was as if two, slightly conflicting, emotions kicked in with the public. First, a fresh sense of betrayal. How dare such a lovely, cuddly bear-like personality also turn out to have a disconcerting sexual side? Second, a determination not to get fooled again. Jimmy got away. This one sure as hell won’t.
And he didn’t. Whether the jury at his trial was deliberately drawn purely from the ranks of the unthinking vengeful is not recorded, but on the reported evidence, there are guilty verdicts which simply couldn’t have been reached by a rational jury.
Four alleged victims gave evidence against him at his (what I suppose I’m going to have to call first) trial in 2014. I’m going to call them ‘Waitress’, ‘Hairy hands’, Tonya Lee, and ‘Bindi’s friend’ (Bindi is Harris’s daughter). The first three alleged single gropings, of a varying degree of unwelcome intimacy, while the last alleged a lengthy sexual relationship that began when she was 13.
Waitress claimed that he put his arm around her shoulder and stroked it down towards her bottom (over her clothes) while she was working as a waitress for ‘It’s a Celebrity Knockout’ in Cambridge in 1975, when she was 13. Harris denied he was ever there – unfortunately as it turned out, because this made him look a liar when it was proved that he had in fact been there: in a programme called ‘Star Games’ in 1978. She must have been mistaken then, she said. It must have been in 1978, when she had been 16 or 17, instead of in 1975, as she had mistakenly thought, when she had been 13. The ghastly experience of being mildly sexually abused by a global celebrity was seared onto her mind to the extent that she couldn’t be expected to remember whether she had been not much more than a child or not much less than a woman when it happened.
Hairy hands claimed that she was only seven when she was at the front of a queue of people getting a book signed and Harris put his ‘huge hairy hands’ up her skirt and over her underpants, twice. The fact that he demonstrated in court that his hands are neither hairy nor huge, and the question of whether he was really likely to do this when there were clearly people behind her in the queue, both pale next to the absence of any evidence presented that he had ever even visited the place concerned. This was not for want of trying. The Police had searched all local papers across the entire period, and none record that Harris, at the height of his fame, was ever there. The jury was ‘certain so that it was sure’, that the 45 year old testimony of a seven year old was enough to outweigh the complete absence of any newspaper report or corroborating evidence that Harris was even present.
Tonya Lee gets her own name, because she had effectively already waived her anonymity by selling her story to an Australian TV channel for $66,000. She claimed she had been on a theatre tour in the UK when she was 14, and that he groped her under the tablecloth of a pub they visited in Woolwich (a pub which some claim has clearly never had tablecloths). She fled to the toilets, but when she came out, he groped her again. This experience so traumatised her that she lost six kilos in weight before the end of the tour, she said. Unfortunately it was shown that the incident could only have happened in the last week of the tour. Ah, she admitted, she must have been mistaken about that, then. The weight loss must have been because of homesickness. What an embarrassing mistake though, to misremember that when she lost six kilos as a child, it wasn’t because she had been fondled against her will, but because she had been homesick.
One wonders – or at least I do, though the jury don’t seem to have done – whether Ms Lee might not be mistaken about some of the other colossal stress she ascribes to the alleged one-off groping. ‘To this day, I can’t go to sleep without lying in a lounge and having the TV on. I cannot lie in a room and try and sit with my thoughts and go to sleep.’ I wouldn’t want to be dismissive about the amount of trauma that can be suffered by an apparently trivial sexual attack – I haven’t done the reading or the research – but I would be interested to learn whether it is very common for many girls who have been touched in this (comparatively) mild way to suffer quite so much as Tonya claims, and for so long. It’s hard to shake the notion that some of the other symptoms she ascribes to having been touched outside her clothes by a TV entertainer might in fact have other causes, might in fact be other mistakes. She suffered bouts of depression, became alcoholic, anorexic, bulimic and suicidal. She had difficulty bonding with her baby daughter because of ‘very, very bad flashbacks’. To what, one wonders. The remembered experience of the genial wobble-board inventor and exponent touching her knickers? Which possibly, in fact, only happened in her head? ‘He took away from me that feeling that you can be normal again and that feeling that you’re worthwhile and that you deserve to be happy.’ Are you sure, Tonya? Are you sure it was taken away? Some people never even have that, some lose it without noticing. Some people don’t want to be normal, lots of very balanced people don’t feel that they deserve to be happy. If you are sure it was taken away, can you be sure he did it?
It seems to me that it might be a lot more about her, and the surprising amount of misfortune that seems to have befallen her in recent years – being persuaded by her then-boyfriend to sell her story, and then his keeping a large portion of the money for himself, for example. Maybe, in fact, Tonya makes bad choices, and maybe hardly any of them are because a famous didgeridoo player touched her inappropriately. And maybe, just maybe, but certainly within a reasonable doubt, he didn’t.
All the same, she convinced the jury. Despite no corroborating witnesses, photographs, CCTV footage and despite Harris’s denials, they convicted him, just as they did for Hairy Hands and Waitress.
Now let’s be clear, it is very common for sex cases to have no witnesses but the people concerned. But not usually when they are alleged to have occurred in public, with people watching. And there isn’t usually much doubt that the perpetrators were present. The witnesses can usually narrow the experience down to a period of less than three years, especially when the three years concerned would have represented considerable development in their bodies and personalities.
With Bindi’s friend, it is a different matter. There’s no doubt that Harris had a sexual relationship with her, and he admitted as much. The critical difference concerns when the relationship began. He claims it was when she was 18, she that it was when she was 13. Clearly the legality of what happened hangs on this issue. Harris was married at the time, and starting to have sex with an 18 year old would have been morally contemptible, out of kilter with his show business personality, and potentially damaging to both of them. If exposed, it would have horrified his public, I suggest, very nearly as much as the alleged crime. It would however, have been perfectly, perfectly legal.
Are we convinced that the jury – far less public opinion – was clear on this matter? Couldn’t there possibly have been a bit of slippage between the two possibilities? What, Rolf had sex with an 18 year old? What, he admits it? That’s disgusting! I thought he was lovely, and in fact he’s a pervert who likes young girls. What, she says she was 13? The plot thickens, and God knows what else.
There’s a fly in the ointment, however. When, did this relationship end? It isn’t disputed that it lasted until she was in her late twenties, when it was ended by Harris. So we are confronted with two possibilities on her account of events. In the first version, Harris exerts a sinister and terrifying hold over the girl which makes her keep coming back to him against her will until well into her adult life, and when he finally releases her, he does it by writing a letter of apology (scarcely the act of a Svengali). In the second, having been sexually abused from the age of 13, she nonetheless has enough warm and sexual feeling for Harris to continue the relationship for more than a decade after she was well able to steer clear of him if she had wished.
There’s a third possibility of course, but as I said above, it doesn’t make him a criminal, it just reveals him as a different person to his TV personality. The third possibility is that he indeed began the relationship when she was legal, that she was therefore consenting, and that their clandestine affair managed to last for 10 years like that.
I don’t know which of these is true. I know none of them shows Harris to be a pillar of sexual continence. But given that this relationship must represent the lion’s share of the criminality corresponding to his sentence, its legality is critical. The jury must have believed one of the first two scenarios, which is perplexing, to say the least.
Harris was refused leave to appeal, even though even a non-practising lawyer like me can see that there would have been grounds. Why the jury were not directed to acquit in the case of Hairy Hands, where no evidence was presented of his presence on the scene, is certainly a matter that could be the subject of an appeal.
So many people have claimed to be victims of Jimmy Savile since his death, that even a sceptic like me is obliged to give some credence to the ‘no smoke without fire’ theory. But there are two things that we sceptics should bear in mind. The first is that Savile was never convicted of a criminal offence during his lifetime, and went to his grave believing himself to be a national treasure, if not hero. Now he is dead, he cannot be the defendant of any criminal case. The second, related thing is that a sudden avalanche of people claiming abuse at the hands of a famous person need not only be because they are scared of the person, or of not being believed. It might also (or instead) be that they know that their claims are never going to be subjected to forensic scrutiny, and there is a chance for them to be publicly part of something shocking. And a certain kind of person likes that.
Now Rolf faces a set of fresh charges.These people (possibly spurred by the success of the other four) at least believe that their stories will stand the test of the courtroom. Let us see if they are right.
In criminal law, it is the norm to exclude ‘character evidence’ of a defendant. Fat chance Rolf will have of finding a jury which is ignorant of his convictions.