It is not the least tragic aspect of the case of Rolf Harris that when Reader’s Digest Australia compiled a list of the country’s 100 most trusted people, the man who described himself in the third person to his victims as ‘Rolfie’ came in at number 90. But then what was there not to like? Until his prosecution on 12 counts of child abuse — on all of which a London jury has convicted him unanimously — he was half renaissance man, half favourite uncle. His first brush with fame was as a champion swimmer in Western Australia. But, also, he wrote, he sang, he played and invented musical instruments, he painted, he fascinated, he entertained: though those last two are, or were, a general view, since he left me cold. Now he is exposed as a ruthless, manipulative pervert with a penchant for very young girls. On the list of trusted Australians now he would be several hundred thousand rungs below Ned Kelly, who was at least a decent, honest criminal.
Tony Abbott pronounced himself ‘gutted’: here was a man Australia had given to the world, and he had proceeded to cock his leg over it. Those who call Australia ‘the lucky country’ presumably have in mind the fact that ‘Rolfie’ chose to leave it for England in 1952 to seek his fortune. That he became a much-loved celebrity within a few years of getting off the boat was a testament to his talent, and there is no doubt he contributed much to the sum of human happiness among the simple-hearted and uncynical for decades afterwards. The price Britain eventually had to pay for having him has, however, turned out to be rather more than it had counted on.
He was especially wonderful with children, or so it seemed. They loved his magic with the paintbrush, and the silly noises he would make with his wobble board. In the 1960s, each Christmas morning, he hosted a television programme where he went into children’s wards to visit those youngsters unlucky enough to be spending the festive season in hospital. As one of those parental exercises deemed to be improving to the soul, and to convince us how lucky we were, my father would suggest my brother and I watched this cringe-making programme the better to reflect on our good fortune. Being seven or eight years old, and not then fluent in Australian, I found it rather patronising that ‘Rolfie’ would snuggle up to each child — to whom life had already dealt a vicious enough blow — and address him with maximum sentimentality as ‘mate’: any adult who had cosied up to me like that would have been given short shrift, but then I was probably a revolting child. I do recall at the age of nine going down with tonsillitis just before Christmas, and hearing the doctor say I might have to have my tonsils out.
What I most remember is pleading with my father that if I did have to have an operation — happily I didn’t — that I wouldn’t mind, provided Rolf Harris was prevented from coming to visit me in hospital: which I assumed must be the fate of all children institutionalised at that time of year.
I came across Harris only once, and it was enough. In 1988 I was part of the press party that went around Australia with Margaret Thatcher in the year of the bicentenary. The caravan pitched up in Brisbane that August, for the Expo: and it was orchestrated that the British Prime Minister should meet one of the world’s greatest Australians. ‘Rolfie’ entertained us with an amusing little number, singing ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’ to the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. There may have been a didgeridoo or even a wobble board in attendance, but the memories one has of Harris from the saturation viewing one had of him in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was hardly ever off British television, may well have merged with this rare sighting in the flesh. It was all faintly embarrassing, but then being faintly embarrassing was patently one of his better attributes.
Harris is part of a new genre in Britain, that of the Historic Sexual Abuser. It seems that almost any male household name in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s was at one time or another involved in pursuing and molesting the children who, in their innocence, fawned on them. The BBC appears to have been rife with such people. Almost the only person who was on television so much as Harris was his friend Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who died in 2011 and who has just been the subject of a post-humous inquiry. Savile — who was knighted for his services to charity — abused hundreds of young women, some young boys but, worst of all, patients in hospitals and mental hospitals where he worked as a volunteer porter. He went to a level of depravity way beyond Harris’s in engaging in acts of necrophilia.
However, as with Harris, his celebrity status protected him from scrutiny, and his victims mostly chose to keep quiet for fear of being disbelieved. When the stone was lifted up for the investigation into Savile’s crimes Harris and his activities were just one of the things the police found under it. There have been other trials of ageing celebrities: some have been convicted, some acquitted, some are being retried, some have had the case thrown out before trial, some are still being investigated. It seems everybody in the world of pop music and light entertainment was at it, or knew others who were at it. It is, it seems, a repellent cultural fact. And now it has become a national obsession.
About 30 years ago Harris mounted a particularly sickly campaign in Britain on behalf of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to warn youngsters how to keep away from predatory adults. He became rather holier-than-thou about it, but no one said anything because he was doing it In A Good Cause, and he was Dear Old Rolf. The cynicism and calculation are quite breathtaking. As with so many celebrity child-molesters, we just thought he was a bit odd: we didn’t realise he was an out-and-out criminal. It would be going too far to say that his case represents for a large section of his public the death of innocence, but not that much too far.
Simon Heffer, a political columnist with the Daily Mail and a former deputy editor of The Spectator, is author of Simply English, out now.