Rolf Harris: His costly moment in court

NICK MILLER
Last updated 07:16 01/07/2014
Sydney Morning Herald

Veteran Australian entertainer Rolf Harris was found guilty on Monday of 12 charges of indecently assaulting four girls over nearly 20 years from 1968.

Rolf Harris
Reuters Zoom
Rolf Harris arrives with his daughter Bindi (L) and wife Alwen Hughes (2nd R) at Southwark Crown Court in London May 29, 2014.
Rolf Harris
Reuters Zoom
Media surround Rolf Harris as he leaves court after being found guilty of 12 indecent assault charges.

Entertainer Rolf Harris found guilty

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Rolf Harris said a lot of odd things on the witness stand.

His excuse for not telling police about some of his sexual encounters with his main accuser - that he was embarrassed by the presence of "very attractive young ladies" on his legal team - was one.

But if there was a moment when Harris came closest to convicting himself, to that mythical 'you can't handle the truth' explosion, it was one particular exchange early in his cross-examination.

It may even have cost him his freedom.

He was sitting on a cushion on a chair in the witness box, puffed with confidence and outrage after explaining, via the gentle questioning of his defence counsel, how his accusers had lied and invented their accusations against him.

Enter prosecutor Sasha Wass QC, with her leather boots and quizzical eyebrows, a thin scalpel of legal acumen.

Once during the trial, a young British reporter leaned over to me during one of Wass' better moments and breathed "she's wonderful!"

She was. Subtly, alternating persuasion and surely-you-must-admit questions, impossibly, inevitably, Wass led Harris into confessing that he had been sexually attracted to a bikini-clad then-13-year old girl, 35 years his junior, the friend of his daughter - and the main accuser in the case against him.

It went like this. Harris had, in a letter, admitted to telling the girl she looked good in a bikini. It was this, he had claimed, that she later warped into an accusation of abuse.

"You were saying to (her) 'you have got a great body'," Ms Wass said.

It was just logical. Harris had to agree. Wass moved in for the kill.

"You admired her sexually... Saying 'your body looks good in a bikini', that's a sexual remark."

"In hindsight I suppose so," Harris said.

"You admired (her) body sexually during that holiday," Ms Wass said.

"It's possible, yes," Harris said.

It was at this point I first thought 'you know, he might actually be found guilty' (other journalists reached this conclusion much earlier in the evidence). I actually had to stop myself slapping my forehead in disbelief.

Harris clearly thinks he is the match of anyone. The colonial inferiority complex he describes in his autobiography has worn away, eroded by royal favours and decades of applause.

After the curtained-off misery of his accusers, Harris had treated the witness box like a stage, telling anecdotes, recreating the whoop of a wobble-board, singing a snatch of Jake the Peg, perhaps recalling a lesson he recorded in his book: "performing was like a war. If you don't win, you lose".

But faced with Wass he faltered, and the mask slipped. And it was at that point that his defence started to look frail.

The Rolf Harris of courtroom No. 2 was not the Rolf Harris we thought we knew.

Entering Southwark Crown Court each day, usually with wife Alwen and daughter Bindi on each arm, he smiled for the cameras.

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But in the dock he was all business (apart from the few times he was caught doodling little caricatures). He was a dead weight centre of attention, his lurid ties the only bright note below an eternal scowl, bent over the copious notes he was scrawling and passing to his legal team.

He met few gazes. Occasionally he would glance over to Alwen, who made it to court almost every day despite the clear physical strain - she is recovering from an operation that made the repeated standing up and down for the judge a painful chore.

Alwen herself calmly sat through claims that must have shocked and appalled her the first time she heard them, one eyebrow raised but not a tear on her face as her husband confessed to affairs and shame and regret.

It was as if somehow she had found serenity amid the rest of the Harris family and friends who audibly tutted and scoffed through the evidence.

Perhaps she was thinking back to that day, decades past, when she walked down the wedding aisle in a pencil-thin dress with flowers in her hair, with a manic Australian who had proposed on their second date.

If this is Rolf's last performance, it has been an intriguing drama with colourful characters, intense emotions, pathos and bathos.

We've heard from the self-titled 'king of panto', we've been hectored by a deaf West Country-accented pensioner and we've watched a cheesy '70s game show.

But we've also heard the dull, dead voice of a woman who blamed her ruined life on abuse by one of Australia's til-now-favourite sons.

And we have heard of others left scarred, disgusted and disillusioned by their encounter with a man they had admired, even loved.

In a way, a lot of us have come to the end of this trial feeling the same.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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