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Film & TV

May 30, 2014

Rundle: apres Rolf, le deluge

Britons are reeling from a series of high-profile children's entertainers who are being accused -- and in some cases convicted -- or child sex abuse. But Australia's turn is still to come -- and it will be ugly when it does.

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Rolf Harris

Well, there goes Rolf. That familiar, near iconic, beard and horn-rims has spent two days in the witness box defending himself against multiple charges of sexual assault of teenage girls. Harris stands accused of groping and fondling a girl when she was 13. She was friends with Harris’s daughter, Bindi, and Harris was friends with her parents.

To complicate matters, Harris and the girl/woman in question began a consensual sexual affair after she turned 18, an affair that continued for some years. Both Harris and his accuser attest to the adult relationship, but Harris denies that anything untoward took place before she was 18.

The woman claims that Harris’ attentions damaged her psychologically. Harris and his lawyers claim that she has spun a consensual relationship into something else to have a story to sell to the newspapers, and that she has struck a deal with Australian tabloids.

In support of her accusations, the prosecution has put on the witness stand a number of women who claim that Harris sexually assaulted them in the much the same way as his accuser suggests — groping and a little more, usually in the context of some appearance Harris was making.

Under cross-examination today, Harris was unable to offer any reason there would be so many similar stories from women who do not know each other and are gaining nothing from the current prosecution. “They’re lying,” he told the court. “How would I know why they’re lying?”

Whatever the ultimate judgement, today’s performance is the end of him and quite a turnaround from his main evidence, when his barrister had led him through a recital of his long career, from the invention of the wobble board, allowing him to charm the jury with a few verses of Jake the Peg.

The end also — or another instalment on it — too, for the fond childhood memories of a swathe of the British public. Several DJs and TV music show presenters are now doing time for sexual assault on young girls and some young men. The crimes are varied and multiple, the convictions split between those who focused on young teenagers and those who effectively assaulted and raped “barely legal” young women interested in a career in showbiz. In every case, it appears that they “groomed” some of their subjects from an earlyish age. People really began to get the seriousness of this when Max Clifford — white-suited PR to the stars — got eight years for this sort of stuff. He was joined by professional “cheeky chappy” Stuart Hall, onetime host of It’s a Knockout, who, already jailed, faces new charges. And there was the dark lord of them all, the late Jimmy Savile, was a one-man mobile paedophile charnel house, using his access — via charity appearances — to abuse and rape children in hospital, and the mildly mentally disabled.

Comedians have already developed a good line in jokes about “here’s one of the three film clips we can show you from the 1970s”, but it’s no more than a nervous way of dealing with the underlying horror. A vast swathe of memory is just gone, for millions, and no one has much of an idea about how to deal with it yet.

“Like cops and psychiatrists, kids’ TV presenter is one of those jobs where a desire to do it should automatically disqualify someone from the role.”

Since TV became universal, kids’ TV has been a central part of shared cultural experience. Indeed for anyone under 60 or 65, kids’ TV probably represents some of the simplest, happiest memories of childhood. That is hardly coincidental. Kids’ TV uses the capacity of children for simple wonder, their inability to tell metaphor from reality, to create a hypnotic effect.

No harm in that (kids’ advertisers do that, too, with more pernicious results), but it means that kids’ TV has the same structure and content as a cult — it’s a compelling private mythology spruiked by a charismatic leader. Many kids’ TV presenters are a little cracked — they’re good at it because their own psychological development got stuck early on, and they developed no more than a shell of adulthood to go on.

Best-case scenario, that means no more than that they are in touch with a playfulness the rest of us lose. Worst-case, they are sexual beings with no capacity to relate to adults — and by virtue of their very defect, thrust into a world offering an unlimited supply of devoted and gullible children and adolescents. Like cops and psychiatrists, kids’ TV presenter is one of those jobs where a desire to do it should automatically disqualify someone from the role.

The Brits are going to have to deal with this for years. But here’s the kicker — our turn is still to come. I will be very surprised if this cultural disaster does not break Down Under in the next couple of years. In a way, it’s already begun, with the conviction of Hey Dad star Robert Hughes. That had little impact, because no one ever liked Hey Dad –– they just watched it because pay TV hadn’t been introduced yet. But it won’t be the last, and there are a number of people out there starting to sweat a little.

Should this happen, will we handle this any better than the Brits did? Having failed to investigate Jimmy Savile and others for decades, the UK cops and Crown Prosecution Service went way overboard and launched prosecutions based on minor incidents, some occurring more than 40 years ago, and with a case impossible to prove.

The UK case seems to have thrown up all sorts — the clearly guilty, the almost-certainly guilty-but-can’t-be-proved, and those who may have been put through a year or so of hell and had their reputations trashed on some very dodgy and self-serving claims. Much of the vehemence appears to be a response to a sense of collective guilt that monstrous predators were allowed to operate for decades because of the strange half-awareness of child abuse that was present from the ’60s to the ’80s.

Beyond that is the mystery of child sexual abuse itself, and the question that haunts the present — have we only recently become aware of something that has been occurring at a rate more or less unchanged for decades? Or have social changes — from the total liberations of desire stemming from the 1960s to the social reorganisation caused by the internet — produced a pathology far more widespread than hitherto? Neither is particularly palatable, and wherever the truth lies — well, you’re never going to listen to Rolf panting and groaning over the wobble board in quite the same way again …

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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