Without so much as mentioning a word, the moment Rolf Harris’ name made it to the press, his reputation was vaporised by speculation and condemnation. As with charges about inappropriate flesh pressing, notably with the underage, anyone’s reputation that comes within a bull’s roar of it finds a career ruined. That is specifically so if The Sun has anything to do with, a publication with a fetid ambience if ever there was any.
It has transpired that Harris’ home was raided by police in November last year, when he was interviewed by police as part of Operation Yewtree, an operation into alleged sex abuse that pointed a firm finger at the late Jimmy Savile. Last month, a few days shy of his 83rd birthday, the veteran performer was arrested and interviewed for another round of questioning. There have been no formal charges laid, but in the scheme of things, this won’t matter.
All that is needed is a tag-line – in this case, “Australian-born pensioner from Berkshire”, spiced with the additional “known performer”, and the suspicious brigades smell blood. The Sun was so good to “out” the pensioner, a long time entertainer who had moved to the United Kingdom and became one of Australia’s more known exports.
Harris over the years became a figure of mock fun and occasional mock reverence. He popularised the Australian idiom before British screens. He brought, for better or worse, the song Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, accompanied with “wobbleboard”, into wide circulation. The Edwardian parlour song Two Little Boys still strikes a note with a few, while his Jake the Peg made some listeners shudder.
Harris also thrilled children with his drawing programmes. Then came age, something that can have its own impending fatality in entertainment – and the feeling of embarrassment that comes with typecast settings and boxed roles. The culture vanguard was always peering with mild mannered suspicion at him – could he really be a genuine artist, or merely a dilettante dauber? Nonetheless, networks felt they had a reliable number in programmes featuring Harris as the concerned media star with an interest in animal welfare. He was, after all, the “family” figure.
Enter then, the terror about the alleged failing of such a figure, heightened in a culture that engenders it. “Paedophilia and the threat it represents to children,” writes the British public commentator and sociologist Frank Furedi, “has become a permanent feature of public concern and a regular theme of popular culture” (The Independent, Mar 18). Importantly, Furedi identifies the need to personify evil, to give it some corporeal form that settles the unruly mind. And what better than to attach it to this “symbol of malevolence”, this anti-Christ figure who somehow features as the immoral absolute? Throw out any sense of balance in terms of how one confronts it – the discussion is over before it starts, settled, as it were, with an image of supreme criminality, beyond not merely redemption but cure.
Added to that a sentimentalising of childhood, the overprotective sense now that children should not grow, should remain in a sylvan idyll ringed by regulation and surveillance, and we have the perfect nightmare of moral panic. Furedi does overstretch at points, but not much.
For such reasons, the UK’s Channel 5, suffering from premature adjudication, pulled two scheduled shows for screening: Olive the Ostrich and repeats of Rolf’s Animal Clinic. “While this legal matter involving Rolf Harris is ongoing we have removed [the programmes] from the schedule.” How good of the station masters to have an advanced sense of the legal.
So now, the whirligig of speculation goes around, with defenders and detractors muscling into the ring to have a say. “He didn’t do it,” bellowed one of his neighbours as the media presence spawned outside his residence in Berkshire. “And if he did, it doesn’t matter.” What certainly doesn’t matter is that the case remains part of ongoing police inquiries, and will mean nothing to those who have made up their minds in advance. Character portraits are already being packaged and released in advance for what might be a trial, though that’s anyone’s guess.
The current legacy is also a combination of Savile’s fiendishness – escaping the world of the living before any charge let alone conviction could ever be made on the abuses he allegedly wrought – and a “showbiz” culture of sleaze that seemed fungal in encouraging them. For Andrew Rule writing in Melbourne’s Herald Sun (Apr 21), “Rolf Harris might have been eccentric but he was never creepy.” This is more than an aside at that greatest creepy entertainer of all, Savile himself.
The spores have gone far, and Harris has found it impossible to escape. Whether formal charges will follow is up to the police. Whether they issue anything is almost irrelevant now – Harris the entertainer is no more. Harris the condemned paedophile has arisen.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org