Tuesday 1 July 2014

Effacing Rolf Harris

We now see him for what he is. For decades, Rolf Harris was adored by millions. His was a warm, avuncular presence on our screens. Whether introducing kids to classic cartoons, or shedding a tear over a dying puppy, Harris was a reassuring fixture and one of those very few celebrities to reach national treasure status. No one disliked Rolf, how could you? The women who were abused and assaulted over a 30 year period knew another Rolf Harris. The one who couldn’t keep his hands to himself, the predatory sex pest, the man who groomed and assaulted his daughter’s 13 year-old best friend. That Harris, the one who left trauma and bitterness in his wake has been dragged from the shadows by his survivors and exposed for the world to see. We should be thankful Harris has lived to a ripe old age. Unlike Savile, he will go to his grave knowing he didn’t get away with it, that justice has been done, and the women he abused have seen him brought low for his crimes.

There are two wider, slightly related points I want to make about Harris and celebrity abusers. There is the monstering of sex offenders. They – rightly – inspire visceral loathing. In the case of Harris and, to a far greater degree, Savile, this gut reaction is all the more potent because of the esteem and trust in which they were held, and that their crimes, their abuses, often took place in plain sight. Yet sex offenders, though guilty of monstrous things, are not monsters. Writing that line tastes like ashes in the mouth, but there are human beings too. They were not born sex offenders, they are not a species apart. Like everyone else, these men were made. We might not do it under the circumstances of our choosing, but all of us make our own way in life. For Harris and Savile, there was no especial trigger that flipped their abuse switch. Understanding them does not lie in a putative paedophile gene – the reason anyone chooses to abuse is rooted in their biography, and how this is formed and constantly reformed by choice and circumstance. In Harris’s and Savile’s cases, fame conveyed upon them an aura. Celebrity gave them opportunities to offend, and a means of silencing the survivors of their abuse. It feeds back time after time, heightening a sense of invulnerability and entitlement. Their offending are early examples of pathological narcissism (Ian Watkins, for example), a state of nihilistic self-centredness in which people – men, women, boys, girls – are so much adjuncts of their wants, their lusts. What was it the First Baron Acton said?

The second is the effacing of the celebrity abuser. Foucault’s classic Discipline and Punish opens with the detailed description of a hanging, drawing and quartering from 1757. The victim, Robert-Francois Damiens had attempted to murder Louis XV. Tortured and found guilty of regicide, his body was obliterated through dismemberment and burning, his house destroyed, his siblings forced to change their names and his immediate family banished from France. In 21st century Britain, the body – if still living – is incarcerated. Yet for the likes of Savile, Gary Glitter, and now Harris, a process of effacement begins. It is impossible to undo the damage their abuse of trust caused, but society can recuperate itself by erasing their position in popular culture. Commissioned retrospectives of the 1970s, for instance, avoid all mention of Savile and Gadd, despite their then looming figures on. Top of the Pops retreads are carefully edited to keep them out. The same will now happen to Harris. Reels and reels of archive footage rendered unusable, a place in the popular consciousness unthought. This is replaced with trial images around which the old memories are illustrative flutters. The organising principle for these men from now and for many decades hence is their offending. This is held up to be the truth of their characters, and how they will be forever re-remembered.


David said...

The effacing makes me uneasy. While probably necessary - not least to avoid further pain for those who were abused - won't it misrepresent 1970s popular culture and even hide the truth that these were central figures, not marginal pariahs?

davidjc said...

Good piece, but I don't agree that "No one disliked Rolf".
As little kids we all thought he was really creepy. You only watched his stupid, filler drawing bits to get to the Loony Toons cartoons.
He was one of those crummy celebrities upper middle class producers thought kids should like, as with the films put out by the Children's Film Foundation.

Speedy said...

It certainly boggles the mind to have all these 70s icons exposed as paedoes... I can see the whole connection between sex and power (like Max Clifford, leaving aside the allegation of child abuse, convicted for basically doing what media moguls have always done).

However I struggle with your assertion -

"Understanding them does not lie in a putative paedophile gene – the reason anyone chooses to abuse is rooted in their biography"

I don't doubt that there may be an element of that, and neither of us is presumably an expert on these matters, but having being exposed to paedophile pornography when I was doing some work for the police, I am not entirely convinced.

To actively pursue the sexual abuse of children (and we're not talking about some "barely legal" I'm talking about kids ranging from 1 to 10) is so beyond any normal sexual spectrum that I struggle to believe there is not a biological element, a malformation. This was so unbelievably sickening it was the only time I can say hand-on-heart I have witnessed true evil.

Maybe I'm wrong, maybe a confluence of circumstance can lead to such activity, but I can't help but think there is something else going on - and by classifying these people as "sick" or "malformed" is in a sense compassion, it accepts they do not entirely take responsibility for what they do. I can not see how someone can "choose" to do those things. If they do in fact "choose" then that indeed justifies their punishment.

Anonymous said...

I will make a controversial point, for me in every crime there are 2 victims, the perpetrator and the victim of the particular crime.

I don’t believe in the idea that ‘evil’ is something people are born with, I also think ‘evil’ is arrived at by consensus. So Saville is evil, soldiers are heroes. Bin Laden was evil, Bush was liberating humanity. Western consumers are civilised, people in the tora bora are barbarians.

My problem with a purely liberal view of crime is that they attempt to locate the problem in liberal ideas, so power causes crime, sexism causes crime. But you could equally argue that the sexual explosion of the 1960’s and the feminist movement were a factor. The sexualisation of society would inevitably have side effects, some not so nice. But liberals want to avoid these questions, as do conservatives. Society likes to sweep these uncomfortable issues under the carpet.

Conservatives simply want to punish, liberals want to exploit for their own agenda. I hope a government seeks advice from ‘experts’ and bases its actions on this.

Humanity is still in an infantile state. Consumerism probably exacerbates this.

Speedy said...

Anon, there was plenty of child abuse before the "permissive society", only it was swept under the carpet.

I'm with John Gray - Technology etc may progress, but "the human animal remains the same".

Anonymous said...


I studied history and the abuse took a different form, in some cases it wouldn't have been called child abuse at all. Girls married at a younger age, they were considered sexually active when their periods began etc. As society progressed these attitudes changed, but with progress come side affects.

Liberals and conservatives can't intelligently and rationally consider these without looking like apologists or condoning the actions. They just reflect the infantile state of humanity.

Morality is always a time and a place. it isn't absolute.

Anonymous said...

Really, I think people who say Rolf shouldn't be on TV and Glitter shouldn't be on the radio are nothing but vicious, brutal, PC Nazis.

Your letter was only the start of it. One letter and now you're part of it.

Speedy said...

"Morality is always a time and a place. it isn't absolute."

Well, that's an interesting topic for discussion. A Nietzsche thing I guess.

Historically, I think there's probably a difference between marrying off girls (and boys) post-puberty consistent with cultural mores and fiddling with kiddies, which has probably been frowned upon in most societies.

I know someone who was abused as a child in the "classic" sense in the 1930s and never got over it.