Like many other people, especially in Australia and the UK, I was shocked and unbelieving when allegations started being made about sexual abuse by Rolf Harris. In 2014 he was found guilty in a British court and is now serving a 6-year prison sentence. Now I read that he is to be charged with seven more counts of indecent assault, allegedly committed between 1971 and 2004.
I don’t condone any kind of sexual activity that is not 100% consensual. Nor do I believe that serious crimes should be subject to a statute of limitations. But I would point out two things that I don’t think have been taken fully into account in the Court of Public Opinion:
- Back in the 1960s and 70s there was a broader understanding of what was normal and acceptable behaviour between men and women. A sly pat on the bum was not considered an assault and a suggestive remark was not harassment. And celebrities were cut a lot of slack: there weren’t so many of them in those days, so it didn’t matter so much.
- Whatever crimes Rolf Harris may have committed, they do not extinguish his extraordinary achievements as an artist, song-writer and performer. I see nothing contradictory in condemning his morals while celebrating his talent.
As soon as Rolf was sentenced there was a sudden disappearance of his paintings from the walls of public buildings and of his recordings from the airwaves. To my mind this connotes either vindictiveness or cowardice or both. I say ‘cowardice’ because many people, I think, feared seeming to be insufficiently outraged. It reminds me – on a different scale – of show trials in the USSR and Nazi Germany, and the enthusiastic display of support for the verdicts by people who feared they might be next.