Yesterday Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 counts of indecently assaulting four girls. David Renton argues that his conviction goes some way in corroding the stereotypes with which rape and sexual violence are surrounded
One theme running through the evidence given by the the women assaulted by Rolf Harris was the destructive effect his behaviour has continued to have on their lives. One witness Tonya Lee descried suffering anorexia and bulimia after being grabbed by Harris. She said that after being assaulted by Harris she had considered killing herself. A second woman, 11, when Harris kissed the inside of her mouth, told the court that she cannot bear now to be kissed in that way, not even by her husband. The principal complainant, 13 and happy at the time when Harris began abusing her, described feeling panic afterwards, and drinking gin to hide her feelings. She was an alcoholic by her 20s.
Harris fought his trial in the newsrooms as well as in the court. He appointed Margaret Thatcher’s former publicist Abel Hadden to advise him on press strategy. And his defence seemed to have been planned with more than half an eye on how it would play outside court. The trial judge allowed Harris, on the first day of his evidence in chief, to impersonate a didgeridoo and a wobble board and to sing his 1965 song, Jake the Peg. Few people other than celebrities are allowed such freedom to perform under oath. Harris attended court daily, presenting himself to be photographed with his wife Alwen and his daughter Bindi.
It is often the case in sexual harassment trials that the accused fits his evidence to what he knows of the case against him, admitting only as much as he feels compelled to admit, and otherwise conceding as little as he can get away with conceding. So it was also with Rolf Harris.
During his cross examination, Harris made a number of admissions which came within a whisker of conceding the charges against him. He accepted that he had had sex repeatedly with the principal complainant, although where the victim said that she had been 13 at the time that Harris first had sex with her, and he had been 48, Harris said that it had not begun until she was five years older.
He admitted hiding the relationship from his daughter, Bindi, and wife, Alwen, for many years. He accepted telling the thirteen year old girl that she looked attractive in a bikini, and admitted (how could he deny it?) that the comment had had a sexual overtone. He accepted the prosecution’s description of his arrival each day at court with his wife and daughter as “a show” for the cameras.
In another exchange, which could only have further antagonised the members of the jury, Harris accepted that his relationship with the complainant, the closest friend of his daughter Bindi, had been “sex with no frills”. The most he could remember discussing with her was the need to wipe his sperm from her sheets.
There will doubtless be plenty of people on the left whose starting response is to believe Harris is innocent, despite everything, or to insist privately that the state should have no part in our lives, and to regret his conviction. I wish we had a different justice system where women victims did not have to rely on the institutions of our existing state. But we are decades of victories away from being in that situation.
The task for the left, now, is to show Harris’ victims, and all the victims of sexual harassment, that we are on their side, that we start by believing them, and that their struggles for justice are just as central as any strike to our vision of socialism.
All around the world, there is a growing movement against the toleration of sexual violence against women. It is visible in Egypt, India and in Britain. This rising politics shapes the way in which people have responded to the accusations against Harris. Ten years ago, the popular consensus would have been that the accusations were groundless, and Harris an innocent old man.
A Companion of the British Empire, who eight years ago painted the Queen, Harris is not short of the ruling class connections which once protected Jimmy Savile. And yet, despite these allies, his conviction is most likely to have a destabilising effect, corroding the stereotypes with which rape and sexual violence are surrounded.
Harris’ conviction makes it harder to sustain the cliché that “good men” don’t rape, and makes it easier for women complainants everywhere to be believed.