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About power as much as sex

11 July 2014

Paul Vallely on the Rolf Harris revelations

SHOULD the 1969 No. 1 hit record "Two Little Boys", by Rolf Harris, be banned from the radio? The public reacted with extraordinary vehemence when that question was raised on a radio phone-in, after the 84-year-old entertainer was sentenced to nearly six years. He was found guilty on 12 counts of indecent assault - some involving a 14-year-old girl - over the past 30 years. Callers were fiercely divided in their views.

A similar division was evidenced over his paintings. One woman announced that she would be burning a £50,000 painting that she owned. Others declared that art had a life of its own, and was untainted by the behaviour of the artist - the line the authorities at Westminster Cathedral took when it was revealed that their Stations of the Cross had been sculpted by Eric Gill, who turned out to have had had sex with his own children and dog. Some hard-nosed callers even suggested that Harris's pictures would now increase in value.

The visceral nature of the debate was underscored when another TV presenter, Vanessa Feltz, came forward after Mr Harris was sentenced, to say that the disgraced entertainer had put his hand up her skirt during a live TV interview in 1996. Her testimony echoed that of one of the witnesses in the case, who had said that Mr Harris's behaviour made her feel "dirty, grubby, and disgusting". Yet Ms Feltz's disclosure was greeted, not with sympathy, but with a wave of social-media abuse that suggested she was climbing on a publicity bandwagon. Some comments were very nasty indeed.

All this high emotion reveals something about modern attitudes to sex. Roger Scruton, in his book The Soul of the World, says: "If you describe desire in the terms that have become fashionable - as the pursuit of pleasurable sensations in the private parts - then the sphere of sexual relations becomes entirely demoralised.

"The outrage and pollution of rape then become impossible to explain. Rape, in this view, is every bit as bad as being spat upon, but no worse." Rape and sexual assault violate a sense that sex is something far deeper and more sacred.

But this is about power as much as sex. That is underlined by the disappearance of documents alleging that a ring of paedophiles was operating in Westminster political circles in the 1980s. Not just the central dossier, but as many as 100 other relevant Home Office files seem to have vanished.

Lord Tebbit, who was a Cabinet minister at the time, has admitted that the unconscious instinct of top people in those days was to protect "the system", and not to delve too deeply into uncomfortable allegations. This abuse of power givesthe lie to the fashionable fiction the peddled by an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange: that it was all about liberation for children in the next stage of the sexual revolution.

There is irony then, in the fact that Mr Harris's "Two Little Boys" was a celebration of love between children, albeit of a nobler, more self-sacrificial kind. Of course, it was mawkish and sentimental. Mr Harris himself admitted that he thought the 1902 song, written about the American Civil War, was awful, when he heard an old Australian folk-singer perform it, but added: "Suddenly, he was singing the line, 'Did you think I would leave you dying?' and all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and arms."

The trouble is that what makes Rolf Harris's hairs stand on end is not something we want to think about - let alone endorse.

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