UK

Rolf Harris: How sex assault case brought down star

Rolf Harris in 2000

He was a fixture on British TV screens for more than 50 years; a children's entertainer, songwriter and performer, an artist who painted the Queen. But the life of a man often seen as a national treasure lies in ruins after he was convicted of indecently assaulting girls aged seven to 19 between 1968 and 1986.

Rolf Harris became known to successive generations after arriving in London from his native Australia at the age of 22 in 1952.

Rolf's Cartoon Time, Animal Hospital and Rolf on Art were some of his TV shows and his appearances at the Royal Variety Performance, Glastonbury Festival and in pantomime testament to his appeal.

So when news of his arrest on sexual assault charges became public in March last year, there was a genuine sense of disbelief.

Twitter was abuzz with messages expressing surprise that Harris was a suspect in the Scotland Yard investigation set up in the wake of allegations against the late BBC Radio 1 DJ Jimmy Savile.

Indeed, some of Harris's offences were said to have taken place in the 1980s when he was campaigning against child abuse.

Known for his joviality and easy-going manner, less than a year before his arrest, Harris played a prominent part at the Diamond Jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace, was rewarded with a Bafta Fellowship and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.

The journalist Amanda Platell spoke of her shock and hope the allegations against her friend would turn out to be untrue.

And Andrew Billen, television critic from the Times newspaper, said: "He was the last person, the last of the great iconic figures from children's TV of my youth I would have suspected of any wrongdoing - let alone this hideous series of charges."

Harris continued to perform and received a standing ovation at a show in Bristol, where he made reference to a letter of support he had received.

Image caption Rolf Harris with the Queen and Kylie Minogue at the Diamond Jubilee concert in June 2012, less than a year before his arrest

However, the backing was not universal - an art gallery in Devon featuring his work was vandalised and Channel 5 announced it was replacing Harris with another presenter for its Animal Clinic series.

By the time the 84-year-old was charged in August and made his way into Westminster Magistrates' Court flanked by his wife Alwen, daughter Bindi, and a team of private security guards - a scene to be repeated on a daily basis when his trial began at Southwark Crown Court the following May - he was looking increasingly solemn.

At his home in Bray, Berkshire, the strain was affecting Harris.

He had become withdrawn and stayed at home painting, said his friend since the 1960s, the musical director Laurie Holloway.

'Too lyrical'

Harris pleaded not guilty to indecently assaulting four girls between 1968 and 1986 when they were aged between seven or eight and 15, as well as assaulting one of the alleged victims when she was 19.

Some of Harris's victims were shielded from him as they gave evidence from behind a screen and said the reason they had not reported the incidents at the time was because they felt they would not be believed.

The women described how the assaults affected their lives and later relationships. Prosecutor Sasha Wass QC suggested Harris saw himself as "untouchable".

She went on to describe Harris as a "pervert" who had shown a pattern of "deviant sexual behaviour" towards victims, accusing him of having a "dark side".

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Media captionTV presenter Cilla Black: "I'm really disappointed"
Image copyright Julia Quenzler / BBC
Image caption The witnesses were shielded from the dock by a screen

Standing in the witness box, Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident, popularised the didgeridoo, and was made an OBE, an MBE and CBE.

He talked about his hit records and briefly sang a line from one of them, Jake the Peg. But Harris admitted he was "waxing a little bit too lyrical" and his voice dropped as he sat down to be taken through the charges by his barrister Sonia Woodley QC.

The central allegation concerned a friend of Harris's daughter, whom it was claimed he groomed and molested from the age of 13 until she was 19.

Harris denied having sexual contact with the girl while she was under 16, but said they had consensual sexual contact later.

This was one of the two extra-marital affairs that the court heard Harris had engaged in.

Harris told the jury he was a "touchy feely sort of person" and rejected the other women's claims of sexual assault - these concerned allegations of touching and groping, sometimes at his public appearances - as "ludicrous".

'Secret arrest'

Although his arrest was unconnected to Jimmy Savile's offending, the publicity surrounding that case had prompted the friend of Harris's daughter to come forward. He was first interviewed by police in November 2012 under caution.

After Harris was arrested on 28 March 2013, he was named on some blogs and social media websites.

Police did not confirm Harris's identity and newspapers opted not to name him, reportedly after receiving a warning letter from his lawyers. The BBC also chose not to run a story.

A few weeks later the Sun identified Harris, justifying its front page story on the grounds of public concern over "secret arrests". Other papers followed and the publicity saw more complainants come forward.

Image caption Harris has been a fixture on UK television screens since the 1950s
Image copyright PA
Image caption He went on to appear at the Glastonbury festival on five occasions

In the 1980s, Harris made two educational video warning children and their parents about the dangers of abuse.

He also did some work for the NSPCC. The charity's Peter Watt says while there was no reason not to trust him at the time "after the tragic stories we have heard... it is with enormous regret that he was involved".

Mr Watt says Harris "abused the very powerful position he got himself in to to abuse people who were vulnerable. That's both an abuse of the trust of the individual and abuse of the public who believed in him".

"The real Rolf Harris was two people," he added. "He was undoubtedly an iconic children's presenter who would have bought pleasure to millions over decades [and] there was obviously a dark side to Rolf Harris."

In his native Australia, Harris was affectionately known as the the Boy From Bassendean, after the suburb of Perth where he grew up.

But the town's mayor felt it was "inappropriate" to have the entertainer's framed photograph in its council chambers as the trial got under way and had it removed.

John Gangell was quoted as saying he would also consider withdrawing Harris's freeman of the municipality honour depending on the verdict.

Now Harris is convicted, there will probably be many other revaluations of his life and achievements.

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