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Julian Assange and Rolf Harris: return of the convicts, by Steve Braunias

To mark a new edition (new preface and everything!) of the 2014 best-seller The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias, we present an extract from the chapter which entwines Rolf Harris and Julian Assange.

Unable to think of anywhere I’d rather be during a few days to kill in London, I got the last vacant seat in the public gallery at Southwark Crown Court to attend the trial of Rolf Harris. It was very exciting to be there. I like a walk in the gutter. But there was something else going on, something with a deeper resonance – a narrative about Australia and the colonies. England had given Australia its convicts; and now Australia was returning the favour.

I pondered such shifts of history as I legged it from London Bridge underground station towards the courthouse. I expected something with an Old Bailey vibe, a crumbling redbrick Victorian stage set, but Southwark was modern and large, a tremendously ugly fortress. Inside, the place was a dump. There were torn vinyl chairs, notices drooping on boards because they’d run out of drawing pins, holes in the carpet.

Harris’s jury trial was upstairs. I took my seat, looked around, and felt at home. The lay-out of the courtroom was identical to the lower order of criminal courts in New Zealand. There were the rows of tables for counsel, and there were the press benches. I smiled at the sight of the British press – they looked just like Kiwi journos, nicely dressed young men and women with narrow eyes and thin lips, dying to do away with the word “alleged” whenever they wrote of Harris as a paedophile.

Eventually I realised that the old man with white hair sitting by himself in a glass cage in front of the public gallery was Rolf Harris. He was dressed in a blue suit. He stood up. He wore his pants high around his waist; he was trim, dapper, with pink skin and a thin mouth. He walked to the door. He tried the door handle. It was locked. He bowed his head, and stood there, trapped, nowhere to go, an exhibit for everyone to stare at with disgust.

The usual crackle of celebrity that snaps around the silhouette of the famous had a different, weirder feel to it when I watched Harris in his glass cage that Wednesday in May. It was a damp summer’s morning, five to 10. He tried the door handle. It was locked. Eventually he walked back to his seat, and sat down. The glass cage, the eyes watching his hopeless little journey to the door and back, the small, blonde prosecutor Sasha Wass (“Cool as ice”, The Times) all set to stab him and stab him and stab him with her latest accusations – Rolf Harris, 84, in hell, in public.

The spectators wore raincoats, corduroy, big woolly jumpers. One old character changed into a pair of slippers. The two men next to me struck up a conversation.

“Never smoked or drank in my life,” said the older man, about 70, who was in superb physical shape.

“A drink’s alright,” said his neighbour, who rested his hands on his large stomach.

They fell silent.

“What’s in there, then?”, asked the younger man, pointing at the plastic bag that the teetotaler took out of his raincoat pocket.

“A hat.”

“A hat?”

“A wet hat.”

“This rain.”

“Terrible.”

“All stand,” said the court clerk. The judge entered. Harris was released from his glass cage, and led to the witness box. It was his second day on the stand. He was accused of 12 counts of indecently assaulting four under-age girls in the UK between 1968 and 1986 – there were also similar allegations involving two girls in New Zealand. The court would hear about that, in particular about a day in Hamilton; it would also hear about a day at the beach in Australia.

New Zealand and Australia, like remote, bright backdrops to the miserable business of Harris in court. Across town, at King’s College on The Strand, was the first New Zealand-Australia Festival of Literature ever staged in London. I was a guest speaker at three events and also got roped in at the last minute by Witi Ihimaera to play a role in an excerpt from his play set in World War I. It was performed in a beautiful chapel. There was a haka. I enjoyed myself tremendously, but it was such small beer. The forlorn hope was that New Zealand and Australian writers might attract a new market of English readers; in fact the three-day festival mostly played to small gatherings of expatriates. I asked the audience at one event if anyone was English. There was a show of hand. The truly spectacular – and more popular – festival of antipodean culture was at the packed upstairs courtroom, near the splashing Thames.

Harris, the Australian made good in England; Harris, a national treasure with his paintbrushes and his extra leg; Harris, harmless and asexual, chortling and whimsical, the light entertainer who had actually operated in darkness. Now, in court, was his Rick Rubin moment. Rubin produced the last, great records by Johnny Cash, turning his songs into high gothic. He had done the same with Neil Diamond. Harris, though, went further. His life was turned into high gothic, and the producer was Sasha Wass. Rubin made Cash and Diamond sound like their voices came from somewhere deep beneath the earth; Wass made Harris talk in frightened whispers.

She said, “You’re pretty good, Mr. Harris, aren’t you, at disguising the dark side of your character.”

“Yes,” he said. His voice was quiet and hoarse.

Wass said, “This case is about whether, under your friendly and loveable exterior, there is a dark side lurking. You know that, don’t you?”

The old, thin voice gasped, “I suppose so.”

Another Australian accused of serious sex crimes, half Harris’s age, was also more or less walking to the door and then sitting back down again in a cage in London. On a Friday morning, I went to the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge to pay silent tribute to the extraordinary Julian Assange.

Assange took political asylum in the embassy, which meant he had elected to hide inside a converted women’s bathroom. He owned a table, chairs, treadmill (a gift from film director Ken Loach), laptop, phones, and “safety equipment he keeps close to his bed”, according to the Daily Mail. He told the paper, “Of course it’s difficult to wake up and see the same walls but on the other hand I am doing good work…While I’m imprisoned here, there’s a developing prison where you’re living as well.”

The theme and point of his WikiLeaks work was freedom of information. But that right was supposedly taken away from Assange in a strange sub-plot to the Australia-New Zealand literary event.

The first I heard about it was when journalist Steve Kilgallon rang from the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland. He said, “What do you know about the New Zealand embassy getting Julian Assange banned from speaking at the festival?” I knew nuzzink, but it was a thrilling question. I said I’d ask around.

He called on Saturday morning. I’d made my pilgrimage to the Ecuador embassy the previous day. I thought: wouldn’t it be fantastic if Assange appeared at a window, and waved or something. I was a fan, an admirer. But when I looked into the claims of his expulsion from the festival, and wrote about it in the Star-Times, I presented myself to WikiLeaks as just another running dog of the mainstream media, a dunce, a stooge.

It was my own hopeless little journey. It started well. I went to Harrods, which is in front of Assange’s gilded cage, and bought a lobster sandwich. I stuffed my face with the sensational feast while mooching around the streets of Knightsbridge. A cherry red SJ Ferrari was parked outside Prada. Guiseppe Zanotti held an anniversary exhibition of its shoes in the front window; each pair was given a name, and boring history – “Slim” was inspired by a beach in wintertime, “Venere” was a fusion of woman and serpent.

There were two Rolls Royce’s on Sloane St, one white, one burgundy. Dolce and Gabanna, Bulgari, Versace. A serf in a top hat unlocked the gates to a private garden for a man with a greyhound. The mutt galloped inside, and shat on the grass. “Spare a pound, please?”, a beggar asked. She was from Brixton. “I’m a fucking mess.”

I got to the embassy. It was on a quiet street in a handsome red-brick building. All the curtains were drawn. You could probably see Hyde Park and the Thames from the top two levels. I thought that might at least afford the WikiLeaks savant some pleasure, but the policeman out front said Assange’s rooms were on the ground floor. Its only view was the Harrods loading bay.

He worked 17-hour days, according to reports. He had a personal trainer. He watched TV (West Wing, 60s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone), he shredded anything that might leave a paper trail, he waits – for something, anything.

The officer outside the embassy was feeling chatty. He said three cops kept constant watch from the street. A fourth was on a rooftop. A fifth was inside the building, patrolling the stairwell and lobby – the rest of the building are apartments, and the east wing is the Colombian embassy. “All this for a sex offender,” he said. “And we’re not even here because of WikiLeaks and all that. It’s just the sex.”

Julian Assange puts his fist in the air as he steps out to speak to the media from the balcony of the Embassy Of Ecuador on May 19, 2017 in London, England. Assange has been wanted in Sweden on charges of rape since 2012. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

It’s just the sex. On the second morning I attended Harris’s trial, he was busy inside his glass cage as the clock ticked towards 10am. He was talking to himself. It looked as though he were practising his lines. Was he perfecting the infinite ways he could mutter, “I suppose so”? On his opening day in the witness stand, he gave an astonishing performance – he mimed his amazing wobble board, he imitated the didgeridoo, he sang verses from “Jake The Peg”, his 1965 smash hit: “I’m Jake the Peg, diddle, diddle, diddle-dum, with an extra leg…”

There would be no repeat. After Harris’s strange rehearsal on Thursday morning, he took his seat in the witness box, and Wass said to him, “You are a brilliant and polished entertainer, Mr Harris. There’s no question of that, and the Crown have no wish to challenge that.”

Harris nodded.

“But,” she said, with dreadful scorn, “this isn’t a talent show, is it, Mr Harris?”

The dry, papery voice said, “No.”

She took away his music. The judge took away his art. Jurors spotted Harris drawing in court; it’s against court regulations, and Harris felt the full weight of justice. “The sketches,” announced Justice Nigel Sweeney, “have been confiscated and destroyed.”

What did that leave him? He had his dignity and he had his defence – he didn’t molest or abuse anyone. Wass said his victims were groomed, bullied, traumatised. He denied it. “They’re all lying.” His right hand hung over the edge of the witness box. The fingers were splayed. The hand looked like a kind of starfish. Harris, diabetic, with a bad heart, an old man in a damp month, gasped for air.

Wass leafed through his autobiography and tried to place him at the scene of his alleged sex crimes. Malta, Cambridge, Portsmouth, London, Hawaii, Hamilton…She had placed dozens of yellow and red Post-it notes in the pages. I thought: I’d like to read that book. When I got back to Auckland, I looked it up in the library system. The only copy was at the Northcote library, which has stunning views of the harbour; it stopped me in my tracks, all that blue water sparkling in the sun.

I took the book home and prepared for the usual happy narrative of fame. Most showbiz memoirs are cheerful, self-satisfied histories of success and happiness. But Harris’s book is a depressing read.

He admits to a terrible relationship with his daughter. He describes poor old Alwen as arthritic, isolated, alopeciac – her hair started falling out in her 20s. The one time he told his mother he loved her was on her deathbed. “I’ve never been very good at discussing anything emotional.” He dwells on failures in his career, his limitations as an entertainer – his manager once insisted he sing a cover of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on live TV, but it was a disaster. He couldn’t remember the words. He concludes he just wasn’t suited to that kind of song.

In his London Review of Books essay on the appalling Jimmy Saville, Andrew O’Hagan wrote, “There’s something creepy about British light entertainment and there always has been.“ In his book, Harris writes about the backing dancers who appeared on his 1960s TV shows: “They were dressed in microskirts or hot pants. Whenever they danced you saw a flash of panties, which is why it quickly became known as the Twinkling Crotch Show.”

There are weird recollections. Bindi’s birth: “I gazed at this little naked girl child, marvelling at the minute size of everything. My eyes travelled down from her neck, to her delicate shoulders and the incredibly smooth skin of her stomach. I reached her genitals and skipped that part. My brain was saying, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Why are you so uptight about nudity?’ I couldn’t help it.”

The time his mother knitted her own bathing suit, which had tassels: “I announced, ‘They look like pubic hairs.’ She swung her hand around and slapped me across the face. Mum didn’t talk to me for two days. I was 30 years old when that happened.”

Harris left out an even weirder memory. He shared it in an interview in 1974: “I grew up in the belief that sex was dirty. When I was ten or 11 my mother decided I should see her naked to let me know it was all natural and everything. We had a bath together…”

The loveless book, the dismal affairs. He talked in court about sleeping with a penniless lodger. As for Bindi’s friend, Harris claimed they started having sex only after the girl turned 18, at the girl’s prompting: “She was flirtatious, coquettish.” It went on for 10 years. The court heard a brief history of blow-jobs. “Sex,” said Harris, “with no frills.”

Wass: “Ten years, and the only conversation you can recall is about cleaning your sperm from the sheets. It wasn’t a deep relationship, was it?”

His reply: “I don’t suppose it was.”

*

Harris and Assange, the two white-haired Australians, the light entertainer from Perth, the most dangerous man alive from Townsville, both brought low by sex scandals – but the comparison is odious. To reduce Assange to Harris’s level is to trivialise him, tar him with Harris’s guilt, and distract from his work with WikiLeaks.

Assange and his supporters are wise to such tactics. Among them is the legendary Australian journalist John Pilger, who wrote a superb column in the New Statesman taking careful note of the “lies, spite, jealousy, opportunism and pathetic animus” of Assange’s critics.

It was an honour to meet Pilger at the literary festival on the Strand. He was behind a desk, signing a stack of his books for the festival bookseller. A few days before I flew out, I’d managed to track down a copy of Pilger’s very first book, The Last Day: America’s final hours in Vietnam, published in 1976. I took it to London in case I was able to ask Pilger to sign it. The chance arrived.

He was astonished. “My God,” he said. “My first book. How did you get it? American edition! My God.”

He picked it up tenderly, turned the pages with delicate fingers. He shook his head. “My God.” Pilger, 70, was tanned and in good shape, tall and fit, with luxurious hair and an open, lovely smile. He was deeply moved to see a copy of his book, to hold it. I alerted him to the sticker inside the front cover, listing it as the property of the Nazareth Hospital in Philadelphia, and speculated that it may have passed into the hands of a hospitalised US soldier.

“That’s right,” he said. “A Vietnam vet.”

We stood there wondering about the phantom who had once held the book.

He signed it, and I said, “Thank you.”

“No,” he said, “thank you. Thank you so much.”

I should have asked Pilger if he’d heard Assange was pulled from the festival, but I didn’t want to risk ruining the moment. Festival director Jon Slack was standing nearby. I asked him about it, and he said, “It’s bollocks.” He described it as laughable. He laughed, not very convincingly.

Paula Morris, a New Zealand novelist who sat on the festival advisory board, also rubbished the claims. She said the board considered the idea of an interview with Assange, but no one was very keen on it. Slack went a bit further, and said Assange would have been “a distraction”.

All of which was kind of pathetic. Assange appeared via Skype at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, in March, and discussed the case of Edward Snowden, government surveillance, “the military occupation” of civilian space, and hinted at WikiLeaks releasing fresh information – important subjects, addressed by a well-known international figure who happens to be Australian, which might have made him a speaker worth having at an otherwise rather obscure festival of Australia and New Zealand culture.

But the point of the rumour wasn’t about programming. It was about political interference. WikiLeaks spread the rumour on its Twitter account: “Assange talk blacklisted after pressure from NZ High Commission. Funding threat was twofold 1) if Assange spoke 2) If the threat was leaked.”

It emerged that the source was Australian journalist Andrew Fowler, author of an admiring book on Assange, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, and who was keen to conduct the Skype interview. He said the festival were ordered to pull Assange from the festival – by the wife of Lockwood Smith, the New Zealand High Commissioner to London. Lockwood Smith’s wife! According to Fowler, the threat was made at a cocktail party. A cocktail party?

It sounded crazy. Closer inquiry suggested it really was crazy. I ran into Fowler at King’s College. He said he wasn’t actually at the cocktail party, but that’s what he’d heard Lockwood Smith’s wife had said, and whether her threat was made directly or indirectly to the festival, it was hard to tell, but the fact of the matter is that Assange would not be appearing….

That weekend, I ridiculed the situation in my satirical diary in the Sunday Star-Times. I invented a monologue for Assange, fulminating at the power and influence of Lockwood Smith’s wife at cocktail parties…I tried to balance the stupid column, make it clear I admired WikiLeaks, that Assange was heroic and brilliant.

It was all in vain. WikiLeaks on Twitter that day linked to the column with the dismissive comment, “Today’s idiotic op-ed trend: fake journal entries from Julian.” I writhed in shame and betrayal. I was called out as an Assange hater, a stooge, a dog, a dunce, “idiotic”, stuffed to the gills with “pathetic animus”.

I remembered something Fowler had said at the cocktail party. Unlike his other comments, this one might have been accurate. I asked: “Who writes WikiLeaks stuff on Twitter?”

He replied: “Usually it’s Julian.”


The new edition of The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins, $37) is available at Unity Books.

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