Rolf Harris scaled the highest peaks of the entertainment industry in both Australia and Britain. He wrote hit songs as a performer, was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, won an Order of Australia and painted an official portrait of the Queen.
His hit song Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport made it into the top 10 in the Australian, UK and US charts in 1960.
In 2012, the British Academy of Film and Television gave him its highest honour – a fellowship. He even has an honorary doctorate from the University of East London.
But all of this could be forgotten following a UK trial in which Mr Harris faces 12 counts of indecent assault against four young girls spanning several decades, all of which he denies.
If the court finds Mr Harris guilty of the charges, his monuments to art and entertainment could be dwarfed by the activities that failed to make headlines until he was old and grey. Now in his 84th year, this court case could be the final word on his life and life’s work.
That is, unless his defence barrister Sonia Woodley QC prevails, and unless his PR team can rehabilitate his reputation. Fairfax Media has reported that Mr Harris has engaged the services of Bell Potter, an international PR firm that specialises in crisis management.
Too far gone?
Toby Ralph, self-described “marketing bloke and occasional propagandist” thinks this is a useless exercise. Mr Ralph is no stranger to difficult and controversial clients. He has advised tobacco companies, the nuclear waste industry and politicians in Afghanistan, but says Mr Harris’ reputation “is finished”.
“[Bell Potter will be] telling him to appear everywhere with his supportive family – and sending big bills.
“Very little can be done to help Harris at this stage. Truth is what matters, and the courts will unearth that. PR is too trivial a tool to deal with such a serious issue.
“Jimmy Saville took the precaution of dying. Gary Glitter didn’t fare so well. While Jordan Belfort got out of jail and made a virtue out of villainy he was only a corporate scoundrel. A pederast is a whole different thing,” Mr Ralph says.
The other side
Mr Harris is, of course, innocent unless and until the jury at the Southwark Crown Court in the UK finds otherwise, but victims advocate Noel McNamara, founder of the Crime Victims Support Association, says the impact of crimes like the ones Mr Harris is accused of can be “absolutely horrendous”.
“Young people, from my experience, tend to put it away, to block it out somehow or other, and it seems to come back and haunt them when they get into the older years,” Mr McNamara says.
“They have terrible trauma with it, and we have had cases where they’ve taken their own lives.”
Mr Harris is described by the prosecution as a Jekyll and Hyde. Some of the allegations are of brazen abuse – of groping in public, obscured only by clothing, furniture or the invincibility of fame.
The prosecution says that the likelihood of every one of these allegations being false is too small to countenance, made smaller still by numerous bad character references.
Crown prosecutor Sash Wass QC has told the court, “The chances of so many people making up similar false allegations are just ludicrous.”
His main accuser is a childhood friend of his daughter Bindi who, in evidence a fortnight ago, said she’d always found the entertainer’s hugs “creepy”.
In the stand on Tuesday, Harris admitted: “I’m a very touchy-feely sort of person. I would normally hug anybody,” he said before a packed courtroom.
However, during questioning by his defence lawyer, Mr Harris said he never hugged his daughter’s friend in a sexual way.
Asked about the main complainant’s allegation that he indecently assaulted her after she had a shower at their hotel in Hawaii in 1978, the entertainer told the court: “No, it didn’t happen.”
He also denied having assaulted her on another occasion in Hawaii. The alleged victim says he assaulted her after wrapping her in a towel on the beach after she’d come out of the ocean.
For Mr McNamara, the story is a familiar one. In cases like Harris’, he says there are some common threads, one of them being what stops victims from coming forward.
“Who’s going to believe us? He’s a household name.” This is what Mr McNamara imagines goes through the minds of people who allege abuse by famous people.
“That’s the whole problem. I mean, [the victims are often] kids, and they’re told by the perpetrators that ‘no one will believe you. I’m friends with your mother and your father’ and all this sort of business.”
Mr Ralph said he expects that Mr Harris’ public life is over, but cautions against presuming guilt.
“The tragedy of a public accusation is that shit always sticks. Even with the presumption of innocence, which he and everybody deserves, he’s very unlikely to be asked to host Young Talent Time, nor yet be asked on a TV show as an entertainer again.”
The trial continues.