Thursday, 3 July 2014

Rolf Harris and The Beatles

We are currently being forced to accept, reluctantly and to our collective sorrow and shame, that for a long time our society has been remarkably tolerant of the sexual abuse of children.  Our Royal Commission here in Australia has been sitting for some time now, hearing horrendous stories of abuse in institutions which are mostly connected to the churches, Catholic and Protestant.  That we are hearing these stories has little or nothing to do with the willingness of churches and institutions to admit fault and change their ways, and everything to do with the courage and persistence of abuse survivors who have fought to be heard every step of the way.

Now, as if to remind us that it's not just the church, the British legal system has finally wound its methodical way to the conclusion that Rolf Harris is guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault committed on four young girls between 1968 and 1986.  These charges seem to be the tip of the iceberg.  A makeup artist he once groped testified that he was known as "the octopus" because of his wandering hands.  Other victims have already started laying complaints.  It seems likely the 84 year old Harris will spend his few remaining years behind bars.

The most revealing thing I've seen about the whole story is the 7.30 Report's interview with Cathy Henkel, a long-time friend of Harris who testified for the prosecution.  In 1986 Henkel, a theatre and film producer, was shepherding a group of young players around the UK and Harris came to one of their performances.  Afterwards he went with them to a nearby pub and socialised with the cast and crew, giving them encouraging feedback on their performance.  However, what seemed to most participants like a happy, convivial occasion was hugely traumatic for one young girl.  Tonya Lee, who was 13 at the time, was sexually assaulted twice by Harris during the course of the evening.

You can see how sad and conflicted Henkel is in this interview.  Harris was a long-term friend and mentor and she herself has nothing but happy memories of their relationship.  Yet she was so completely convinced of the truth of Lee's story that she was prepared to give corroborating evidence about the evening despite not having witnessed the assaults herself.  She asserts, reluctantly but firmly, that the verdict is the right one and Harris deserves punishment.

What's interesting to me about this interview is how easily Sarah Ferguson lets Henkel off.  Ferguson is renowned for her confrontational interview style and willingness to ask pointed questions, but she keeps her guns in the holster this time.  I would like to know what Henkel thought she was doing.  If she knew Harris well, she would surely have known that he was "the octopus".  She would surely have heard the gossip from makeup artists, administrative assistants and junior performers.  Yet when Tonya Lee sat on his lap in the pub, no alarm bells rang.  It didn't occur to her to keep an eye on Harris in the company of her young charges and she didn't notice when he slipped out to the toilets straight after Lee.  She had it in her power to prevent the assault, but she didn't.

It seems to me that the best thing to come out of such cases is not the jailing of octogenarian offenders, justified though that is.  The best thing is the message these cases hammer home to us, again and again, that we need to watch over the children in in our care and make sure they are safe.  It is the introduction of protocols for abuse prevention - screening adults in positions of responsibility, visibility at all times, the removal of opportunities for abuse, the realisation that such things can never just be a matter of trust.  This cultural change in the way we care for children seems to be the most hopeful outcome of this seemingly endless series of revelations.  Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

However, we still have a long way to go.  One of the things that made me think this was watching the recent ABC documentary on the Beatles' 1964 visit to Australia.  There were scenes familiar from any Beatlemania documentary - the witty interview one-liners, the screaming fans lining the street or massed below hotel windows, the concert footage of young girls hysterical with excitement as their idols played.


Yet the story also had a sinister edge, especially in light of the Royal Commission and the Harris trial.  The hysteria was highly sexually charged.  Young girls hatched schemes to sneak past hotel security and get to the Beatles' rooms.  Some booked rooms in the hotel themselves for easy access.  The Beatles were not shy about taking advantage.  Every night was a party.  The band at that time were heavy users of stimulants which made them hyped up and reckless.  After a gig they would party, and they or their minders would select young girls from the throng and invite them to join in.  Sex was definitely part of the event, lots of it and with many partners.

This practice was even officially sanctioned.  Paul McCartney turned 22 during the tour and a local newspaper ran a competition which gave 10 lucky girls the chance to attend his party.  Girls were encouraged to send a photo of themselves and write a paragraph about why they wanted to attend.  The band themselves chose the winners.  Officially they were chaperoned, but the arrangements were far from watertight.

All this is told in breathless, nostalgic tones as if it was a great adventure.  Those were our wild days, everyone seems to be saying, and weren't they great?  Even some of the young women (no longer young now of course) seem to relish their parts in the occasion.  It's as if these events happened in a different world to that of Harris' crimes, a world in which boys will be boys and girls will be girls and it's all innocent fun.

Of course there are differences.  Harris was almost 40 at the time of his first offences, his victims as young as 11.  The Beatles, by contrast, were still quite young.  Ringo Starr, the oldest, was just short of 24, George Harrison the youngest at 21.  They were sex symbols in a way that Rolf Harris never was.  Girls literally threw themselves at them in a frenzy of adolescent hormones.  It could be that the Beatles never had any occasion to commit sexual assault because they were surrounded by so many willing partners.

Yet I wonder, were these over-stimulated young men and their minders always scrupulous about the age of the girls they bedded, or about issues of consent?  Did the girls themselves really know what they were getting into?  While some smile salaciously on camera at the memories, are there others who watch their TVs with shaking hands and tears running down their cheeks?  Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps we will never know.

Cathy Henkel thought Rolf Harris was a kind, friendly man.  Tonya Lee knew differently.  It took almost 30 years for them to compare stories and piece together the truth.  Is there a similar jigsaw still to put together about the Beatles?  Or about other people we admire?  Have we really learned the lessons we need to learn, or do we still need more high profile cases do drive the message through our thick skulls?

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