The Rolf Harris affair

v2-rolf-harris-4With the conviction of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of sexual abuse, it is difficult to know what aspect of the whole affair is most shocking. Is it the length of time that Harris was active as an abuser? Or the age of his victims—one as young as seven? Or the devastating impact of his actions on his victims? Or his grooming of his daughter’s best friend over several years? Or the fact that child pornography was found on his computer from as recently as two years ago? Or his arrogant defiance in which he refused to offer any explanation or apology—symbolised by wearing his ‘lucky tie’ with matching briefcase to hear the verdict?

Harris was prodigiously talented. A serious sportsman, he was an Australian junior national champion and narrowly missed out on winning a place in the Australian Olympic team. At the same time, he was winning prizes for his art, and receiving serious training in impressionist painting techniques. I remember as a child being entranced as he conjured extraordinary images from a blank wall, and with our children we used to enjoy listening to his classic songs he wrote and performing in his role as an entertainer. All that is lost—but pales into insignificance in comparison with the damage done to individuals.

I have been struck at how response to these horrors resonates with some biblical themes. To ‘remember someone’s name no more’ is the ultimate sanction (Hosea 2.17, Ps 83.4) and continuing a name was a major concern in having offspring. If someone was childless, apart from practical concerns, a major fear was that their name would be forgotten. Just as there is now no-one in Germany with the surname ‘Hitler’, everyone who was associated with Rolf Harris is hurrying to remove his name, even digging up plaques and memorials.

And in a culture which is generally uncomfortable with notions of sin and judgement, no-one hesitates to names this as evil and call for appropriate retribution. In fact, the final shocking thing has been the lenience of the sentence (5 years and 9 months, which would work out in practice at 3 years in jail), which arises from the principle that people are sentenced in accordance with the law in place at the time of the offence. There is some logic in this—yet we would not hang someone now who was convicted of a murder in 1963. And given that the change in sentencing, particularly in cases of sexual abuse, has arisen because the previous sentencing guidelines were shown to be incorrect and unjust, it seems strange to be continuing to follow such guidelines.

Once the immediate questions of this case have settled, there are some wider issues to consider. The most immediate is: what other leading figures will now be found out? If there really has been not only child abuse but an establishment cover up, will this threaten the very basis of Parliamentary democracy? Given the distrust of politicians, will this confirm the views of the most sceptical sceptics?

And the questions run even deeper than this. Our culture is prone to depict itself as the end-point of human cultural evolution; how could they, in the past, have had the views they did, when we now know so much better? We have now attained the end-point of human maturity and enlightenment. But of course that is exactly what the 1960s thought about itself. And it is precisely that culture of sexual liberation which created the context for Jimmy Savile’s abuses, and which prevented people from asking serious questions at the time. Our presumption here lacks perspective, which Giles Fraser helpfully corrects in discussing the connection between consumerism and the right to die:

When the moral history of the 21st century comes to be written, I predict we will look back with horror at how the word ‘choice’ became a sort of cuckoo in the nest, driving out all other values…The moral language of the supermarket has become the only moral currency that is accepted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt wouldn’t be unfair to characterise Harris’ offences as a symptom of (male) abuse of celebrity power. Yet we now live in a culture where celebrities are more revered and influential, not less. Worse than this, the rapidly growing imbalance of financial resources means that many leaders in business, culture and politics have almost endless resources: the contemporaneous trial of Andy Coulson was almost in jeopardy simply because the defendants’ legal team was far better resourced than the prosecution team, simply because of the defendants’ personal wealth. And we also live in an age where, despite a greater awareness of the importance of consent, substantial sectors of society assume that casual sexual encounters are the norm. This seems to be the uniform assumption of popular entertainment, whether dramatic or ‘docusoap’.

It could be argued that the Harris episode marks a watershed, encouraging victims to speak out. But it is not clear that there really is a new culture of openness. All the evidence from the use of the Freedom of Information Act is that people now simply do not write things down or email any more, but communicate in an alternative, less traceable way. Those we might want to probe in twenty years’ time will likely have found better ways to conceal themselves.


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10 thoughts on “The Rolf Harris affair”

  1. It is the rush by all and sundry to dissociate themselves from Harris (and similar figures) which I find significant. I’m tempted to suspect that one deep unconscious motive behind this is that the notions of forgiveness and redemption are amongst the “lost icons” of our times. Because we have no deep-rooted concept of forgiveness, we cannot apologise, and those guilty of misdemeanours become scape-goats who must be driven out because they remind us of our own flawed and fallible nature……………

    • I agree about the unpopularity of forgiveness, David, but I think a lot of that is tied to its abuse, the sort of “cheap grace” whereby a person who voices repentance is forgiven by their church community without consequence, and without the victim’s consent. It’s grossly abusive to the victim to forgive on their behalf. I’m not saying that you’re advocating this, not for a second, but many have done, and it leaves a bad taste.

      Ian, Harris’ abuse, like all abuse, exploited an imbalance of power. The sexual revolution didn’t enable him. If it had never occurred, he would still have found disempowered people to victimize. The previous consensus rested of patriarchal assumptions that diminished everyone from “fallen” women to “illegitimate” children. creating vulnerable and stigmatized people in droves. Even if it hadn’t, authorities would’ve still fallen silent in the face of Harris’ celebrity.

      Abuse is only combatted when we set aside agendas and work against the conspiracies of silence in which it thrives.

      • “Cheap grace” is certainly a problem within the faith community, but I think there are signs of a wider malaise, as seen in the general tendency to issue “pseudo-apologies” which do not actually acknowledge any wrong was done (“I am sorry if anyone felt that my remarks/actions were in some way offensive…………..”) and in the level of vitriol aimed at those who are caught out.

        • Many non-apologies are tied to a fear of litigation, since an apology is an admission of culpability. Always leave a bad taste. It would be a lot less hurtful if they just substituted, “On legal advice, I can’t comment at this time.”

          To be meaningful, an apology must be tied to a desire to make amends, such as you can. The Jewish concept of forgiveness is likewise tied to atonement, and is IMO a lot more appealing than no-strings-attached forgiveness.

          Many Christians do seem to feel obliged to forgive regardless of the actions of the wrongdoer. I’ve even heard Christians say that you can “forgive” an unrepentant person without having to tell them! Forgiveness is framed not as an act of kindness, but for its psychological benefit to the person forgiving, subverting the whole concept.

          If forgiveness were tied more to personal responsibility, it would, I suspect, have more fans.

      • Yes, I agree about the imbalance of power. But as far as I can see, that imbalance is worse now than it was when Harris was at large…so I am not sure why we should expect that this kind of abuse will abate.

  2. One of the things we have to ask is the extent to which sexual abuse is found in the church. Protestants like to point the finger at catholics, whilst downplaying the sin in their own camp.

    We also must remember that it’s not just children who are at risk. Men molesting women has also been widespread, again including in the church.

    It seems to have been a societal problem and we shouldn’t be surprised that it our MPs were also at it and covered up their tracks.

    I’m no expert, but I think abusers are almost always in positions of power over their victims. Abusers get away with it because people give excessive respect to those in authority or who are famous. Again, this is very relevant to the church.

    I think a lot more is going to come out in the next decade or two.

  3. Hi ian
    Is it just possible that SOME of the good that may come out of this could be a lessening of the trust we put in celebrity and fame? Maybe others are now being very careful about how their celebrity is used under renewed scrutiny? The old and triumvirate of money, sex and power has reigned for a long time now. Your post mentions the supermarket choice culture and that relativism is destructive and reminds me of the Psalmists lament: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” – the rest of psalm 11 is chilling in this context! Also, in a time where it is becoming more of a crime to condemn evil than to do it maybe many are being made to rethink that notion? There is hope! Sorry, should have spelled that with a capital H!

  4. I agree with James that the big issue is the imbalance of power and that this imbalance is increasing. There is a live issue of Scottish authorities gagging a campaigner for a proper investigation of some powerful people who are accused by vulnerable people of improper conduct. I think they are getting a court order banning him from making further reference to the case which has still not been investigated.

  5. Just found this site, and though I doubt this four-year old thread is still active, it’s interesting to note how the situation regarding historic allegations against public figures – which frequently have no solid evidence to substantiate them – has changed since the Harris case.
    Of course, we now know that Harris didn’t assault a seven-year old (indeed, it should’ve been obvious at the time that he was never even at the location where this was claimed to have occurred – and even more obvious that he couldn’t have possibly carried out such a shocking assault in front of an audience without it being seared into that audience’s memories – and yet there were no witnesses … ) and that charge has been, quite rightly, overturned.
    We also now know that no child pornography was found on Harris’s computer, and that it was just a fiction which somehow got into the media … it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that someone allowed this faux story to circulate in order to prejudice feelings against Harris prior to the trial. Inevitably, given the obvious ineptitude with which the case was handled, there will always be doubts as to whether any of the other charges against him were true, or whether they led to a monstrous miscarriage of justice. (Bear in mind that Harris was found not guilty of any of the charges against him in two later trials, which suggests that by that time the public was growing sceptical of decades-old allegations.)
    By the way, regarding the claim against Harris by Vanessa Feltz, I wonder why no charge was ever brought on that score, since such an assault during a TV recording would surely either have videotaped evidence or loads of witnesses among the production crew?!
    Other investigations into alleged abuses of power, such as Operation Midland, have collapsed, as they’ve been found to have placed too much reliance on the words of fantasists .. but not before causing suffering to those accused, such as Leon Brittan, who died without being told the investigation against him had been dropped.
    The most shocking false allegations, in my view, were those which were made against Cliff Richard, and which descended into a grotesque media event before being finally proved groundless.
    We have to acknowledge that false allegations can and do occur, and that it’s not just celebrities who are affected … witness the case of David Bryant, the Dorset fireman who was wrongly jailed for years due to false testimony, and whose wife worked herself literally to death to prove his innocence.
    The most lasting messages to carry away from this sorry saga are – to probe all accusations thoroughly, without blindly trusting in the complainants’ versions of events; to not bring charges without proper forensic evidence; and never to allow fear and mistrust to lead us into another hysterical witch-hunt, where accusations are everything and proof is deemed irrelevant.


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