Rolf Harris and unreliable memories

I have to admit that, as a survivor of child abuse and a victim of groping in my teens, I was really pleased to see Rolf Harris convicted and given a prison sentence last week. Every time this happens, it gives me hope that, one day, my abusers might be brought to trial too. I feel huge relief on behalf of the victims.

However, I was then directed to this blog post. I read it with increasing alarm, not because it casts doubt on Rolf Harris’ conviction, but because of all the references to uncorroborated memories as evidence. For me, this is the main reason why I have never reported the abuse I suffered.

In 2006, the school where I was abused conducted an “independent” internal inquiry into the reports of abuse there in the 1970s and 80s. As a part of this inquiry, I was asked to write a submission, detailing as far as I could all the abuse I had suffered, giving dates, places and names where possible. I found this very difficult. The abuse I suffered happened when I was between the ages of four and fourteen. As Mr Rothbard says in his blog post:

“Consider for a moment, what you can accurately remember from when you were eight? I am not as old as the witness but I can’t remember the name of my best friend, my teacher, my birthday party, frankly anything. I have a childhood scar, it must have been caused by a significant trauma. I remember it hurt and bled a lot, but I can’t remember how it happened, let alone where, when or who was with me at the time.”

All my memories were like this. I could remember the specific details of the acts of abuse I suffered, but I found it impossible to remember exactly how old I was when the abuse occurred or what year it was. That ten-year period is like a continuum in my brain, with specific incidents strung along it in only a very vague order. Even though I believe that each incident is clear in my memory, that is also impossible to prove.

This is the problem which faces the judicial system when something like this case arises. My main issue with the Libertarian View blog post  is that Mr Rothbard is basing his assumptions on what has been reported in the media. Even his links to other sources are to online newspaper articles. I find it hard to believe that any jury, faced with only the “facts” that have been reported in the media, would have been able to convict Rolf Harris beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t think any of my abusers would be found guilty on my evidence either. There must have been something else which swayed the jury’s decision. Of course, it could well be that this is a massive miscarriage of justice, but one can’t assume that based only on the fact that the victims’ memories are unreliable.

I believe that we have to be careful how we judge our judicial system when we don’t have all the facts. The only people who know what really went on at Rolf Harris’ trial are those who were in the courtroom. Unless one of them decides to tell all, we will never know what evidence was presented to the trial which the media were not allowed to see/report on.

By all means cast doubt on a conviction, but using only media reports of the trial to do so is lazy, and disrespectful to those of us who suffered abuse in childhood. Our memories may well be fragmented, but that does not mean the abuse did not happen.


About Liz Terry

I love to write, and have had quite a few articles published over the years. I write non-fiction on all sorts of subjects, including my own life and what matters to me. I write a blog, called "My Random Ramblings", which you can access by clicking to view my complete profile and then clicking on the link at the bottom. I also wrote a new blog in 2013 called "The 365 Project - a photo diary in words". Intrigued? Then you need to click to view my complete profile and click on the relevant link at the bottom.
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3 Responses to Rolf Harris and unreliable memories

  1. mraemiller says:

    I dont think there’s anything lazy about it at all
    After all media reports are usually what is used to set he burden of proof

    There are massive gaping holes in the case against RH.
    So what sunk the defence case?
    1) Poor defence. If you want an object lesson in how not to behave in the witness box watch Rolf stmbling into all the traps prosecutor Wass lays for him and her clever use of insinuation, inuendo and leading questions. Contrastingly the defence fails to settle on a single line of attack. Plus Harris contradicts himself several times.
    2) Most importantly there is contemporneous hearsay evidence from Harris daughter’s best friend’s schoolfriend that it is hard to prove as manufactured
    3) Harris’s main defence witness Bindi’s statement that she would have known if Harris was abusing someone in the same room is holed below the waterline when Harris says he consensually masturbated the victim in the same room without Bindi noticing
    4) The main thrust of the prosecution is if the relationship was consensual why was it so secret

    I have no idea why so many abuse victims cant remember who their teachers were or what age they were but if the prosecution doesnt even have to get the year right the burden of proof is beingblowered. So why didnt they? Well moving the date back in time changes the charge from abuse to child abuse. There is much wrong with the Harris trial but on the main charge he is pretty much bang to rights. Although this does not explain why their relationship continued so long into adulthood… It’s all very odd


    • Liz Terry says:

      Hi and thanks for engaging with me on this.

      “media reports are usually what is used to set the burden of proof”

      I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. You can not “prove” anything that happened during the trial unless you were actually in the courtroom. Media reports certainly don’t set the burden of proof in any way, as they will always be skewed towards selling papers/getting hits on their website or whatever. Unless you were there, or you’ve seen the official court transcripts there has to be room for doubt about what happened.

      The relationship that Harris had with his daughter’s friend is, I grant you, a strange one. However, if you look at any description of how a child can be groomed into believing they want/deserve the abuse they are suffering, then Harris’ claim that it was all consensual starts to look shaky, and the reason why the relationship continued so far into adulthood becomes more understandable. Any claim that sex was consensual before she turned sixteen would be legally wrong anyway as she was below the age of consent.

      I must also try and answer your implied question about why child abuse victims often can’t remember what age they were or even the correct names of their abusers. Any traumatic experience in childhood can leave an adult memory confused about exactly what happened. We tend to remember things in a more visceral that literal way, particularly when we are children, and therefore traumatic experiences leave a strong visceral memory of what things felt like, but are less likely to leave a literal memory of how old you were or the name of the person abusing you. In my case, I can remember names and specific incidents in a very visceral way (meaning that I can often still feel what it all felt like physically in minute detail) but I can’t remember how old I was or exactly where it happened.

      I agree that Rolf Harris did experience trial by media. However, I feel that, as bloggers, we have to be careful that we don’t perpetuate this simply by re-iterating what was said in the media and contradicting it, with no real knowledge of the case. This is what I think is lazy.


      • mraemiller says:

        “I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. You can not “prove” anything that happened during the trial unless you were actually in the courtroom. Media reports certainly don’t set the burden of proof in any way, as they will always be skewed towards selling papers/getting hits on their website or whatever. Unless you were there, or you’ve seen the official court transcripts there has to be room for doubt about what happened”

        I think if two or more media outlets report basically the same information it is a fair bet that things actually happened. I dont think there is much doubt at to the main events at the Rolf Harris trial. It is indisputable for example that the Star Games footage charge on the chargesheet relates to a completely different year to when the TV show actually took place. I do not think it is plausible for someone to be confused about what happened when they were 15 and what happened when they are 17. A 17 year old is not legally a child. Anyway all the confusion about this episode could have been sorted out by someone at Scotland Yard learning how to use IDBM. So how did a jury find him guilty of an assault that happened in a year no one is certain of?

        Well, it is clear there were many offences that took place abroad for which Rolf cannot be tried for technical reasons so my view is the jury found him guilty of the lesser charges in lieu of the charges that were unable to be brought in some instances. This is after all how corroboration by volume is supposed to work. Is it likely based on his other behaviour about which we do have proof that he committed this other crime about which we do have proof? It is unsuprising then that such a process will turn up individual verdicts that seem questionable. But is the process as a whole relatively just? Probably … but there are issues.

        Transcripts. The transcripts are not available to the general public. The prosecutors or defence must request them from the court at their own cost so unless you are prepared to sit in Southwark Crown Court for three and a half weeks which is beyond most people’s pecuniary ability you have to rely on reporters. However, most reporters are actually fairly good. The Rolf Harris trial was covered by a huge number of reporters so there is a wide range of different sources that can be cross referenced against each other. That said it is worth remembering that reporters are covered by qualified privilege and are allowed to make more mistakes covering trials than they would a private conversation with less libel risk. It’s interesting how some less scrupulous media outlets have not so much made stuff up as carefully edited the truth to fit their particular editorial agendas.

        As to Transcripts. Transcripts can only going to tell you so much. Having read the transcripts of the entire Chilcot Enquiry (minus redacted bits) I would obverve this on reading transcripts. It took me about four times as long to read it in on the page than the events took in real time which can significantly alter your perception of session …and also, of course, transcripts cannot relate non-verbal data like bodylanguage which in a trial such as this are just as much evidence as the actual words. The jury are there not just to judge people’s words but how they behave in telling their stories. There may be much that the jury sees that cannot be recorded easily in a transcript or indeed a court report. That said if you were to read the transcripts of the Harris trial I doubt you would discover much more evidence than is already in the public domain as much of the court’s time was spend in discussing what was admissable as evidence rather than the evidence its self meaning if you had sat in Sothwark Crown Court throughout the entire trial a good percentage of your time would be watching the Prosecution and the Defence arguing in the absence of the Jury. So you still wouldn’t see events as the jury would see them because you would mave more information than the jury did. If you follow that. It was very interesting at the end of the trial when reporting restrictions were lifted and we could finally see what had been witheld from the jury.


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