Webworm looks at how Sir James Wallace, a man worth $165 million, operated in plain sight for so long. And why so many people supported him.
There’s been this fascinating (in an awful kind of way) story going on in New Zealand, where the 85-year-old multi-millionaire businessman called Sir James Wallace has been sent off to prison for sexually abusing three young men.
What makes this whole story so strange — and something that’s been written about at length — is how it all kinda happened in plain sight.
That’s because after making his money off his family’s meat empire (Boggis, Bunce and Bean come to mind) he poured a lot of his $165 million fortune into the arts, amassing New Zealand’s largest private art collection. He also poured a lot of money into supporting young, and almost exclusively male, artists: painters, theatre makers, TV and film makers. And many of those young men ended up being invited to his house, and it’s there, at Rannoch House, that some of them would be assaulted.
Boiling it down to its most simple — an incredibly rich meat man held a shit-tonne of money and to unlock it you’d go to his house and jump through his hoops and you might get his money.
You’d see him out at the opera or at a play opening or a movie premiere, and there he would be, flanked by some young man or men. It turned into a joke.
A comedian staged a play about it — no names were used, but there were the drunken dinner parties where an old man would request that dinner guests all take their shirts off. People went and they laughed and they felt a bit ill, but nothing changed.
There was this idea, I think, that everyone knew what the game was — and because they were young men, they could sort of look after themselves. Entering Rannoch House was simply a weird episode of Fear Factor, but instead of eating a cockroach to get your $10,000 you’d get a slap on the ass or maybe a tongue in the ear.
Of course this was a convenient idea to hold.
No-one really thought to dig deeper. Or they thought to, but never did. Because of course the slap on the ass or a request that everyone take their shirts off at a drunken dinner was the tip of the iceberg. There was a huge power imbalance at play, and of course Sir James got increasingly emboldened. Some of those young men visiting had no idea of the trap they were walking into. Since his conviction, and since his name suppression has stopped, other stories are coming out of the woodwork — of druggings and assaults, of missing memories, or memories people wish were missing.
New Zealand’s best and brightest all dined at Rannoch House. Dames and knights, prime ministers and politicians. The wine kept flowing, the money kept flowing, and everyone just sort of got on with it. Sir James certainly did.
Of course things caught up with him, and he took things too far. Victims went to the police, and he embarked on an ill-conceived plan to shut those victims up. It all failed spectacularly, and a few weeks ago — five years after first being charged — his name suppression finally dropped, and so everyone can now talk about him.
I mean they were all talking about him before, for decades, but everyone just got on with things.
Including Sir James.
I went to Rannoch House probably 10 years ago now. I went once, for a friend’s fundraiser, and saw Sir James feebly feebling away. Around us, everywhere, art.
As time went on, he started to focus more on film. He’d always had an interest in this field — his first credit was being a producer on Race Against Time, a TV show that came out in 1982, the year I was born. His list of credits in film and television sit over on NZ On Screen and IMDb — mostly producer and executive producer credits. He didn’t have a creative bone in his body. He was a money man.
He showed interest when Dylan Reeve and I made Tickled back in 2016. Looking back it should come as no surprise: It was getting a lot of attention at the time and involved young men taking their shirts off.
We didn’t take any of his money. I would like to take the moral high ground, but the truth is we already had investors and didn’t need his money. Looking back, I wonder if I would have taken it if my back was up against the wall. Making shit is hard. Getting money to make shit is hard.
When 2016 came around and Tickled premiered at Sundance, James Wallace turned up at our premiere. There were a few New Zealand films at Sundance that year, and James had been ramping up his interest and investment in film. So there he was. It wasn’t a huge surprise he was there, because he was everywhere. I’d been spotting him at what felt like every major creative launch or event for the last 15 years.
I just went to search Getty Images, as I knew a bunch of Tickled media shots had ended up on there. Looking for Sir James was like looking for a more perverted Where’s Wally.
I won the game, I found him.
There was our producer and editor and colourist and DP and my co-director and a series of people who appeared in the documentary. And there at the edge is Sir James, a few years away from police charges.
There he was, somewhat awkwardly, all in white — eyes half shut, hands firmly clenched onto his belt.
I remember seeing him at that photo wall back in 2016 and how he made me feel a bit ill. “There is the old man who surrounds himself with young male artists, luring them in with all his money” I thought.
But I didn’t think much more.
Two years ago, I received an email from James Wallace. It was to my public burner Protonmail account.
It gave me a fright. I knew he was probably close to being sentenced, and I knew he had name suppression. It was a letter begging for references, for people to talk about how good he was.
I found the email. It’s been quoted in various news reports, as it was sent to a load of people. I think this is the first time the whole thing’s been out there.
Subject: Request for Letter of Support
Sometime ago we sent you the attached email asking for a letter of support but it appears that there has been no response. However I apologise if our emails have crossed.
I would greatly appreciate such support as it follows from the sentences the judge has already handed down for the other two accused that I will be sent to jail.
I am innocent of all charges as I have stated in my earlier email. An Appeal is already being prepared and will be filed immediately after I am sentenced. My QC believes there is incontrovertible Crown evidence which disproves the primary charge and necessarily undermines the others.
The Prosecution has asked for a starting point of 5 years 2 months imprisonment which would take me well into my 89th year. However this will be reduced with discounts which include my contribution to the arts and society for over 60 years. Although we will win the Appeal, that is not likely to be heard until towards the end of this year (at the earliest) or next year. I doubt I would survive any period in prison.
In these circumstances innocent people can and do rot in jail only to be cleared some time later. Such is the law.
(I am writing this letter to you to ask for your Letter of Support if you have anything good to say about me as a philanthropist and/or friend, with full confidentiality and for only the Court. There is no breach of Name Suppression nor any media risk to you of association with me as long as these letters are sent only to my lawyer, and he can send the select few to the Judge and no one else will need to see them.)
The sentencing date has now been moved to 27 May so there is still time for you to act. If you do not wish to do so because you believe that it is likely that the perjured evidence of the accused and witnesses is more believable than mine, then let me know or do nothing and it will be clear.
There was a PS, which I’ve included as an image as I think it’s a shame to lose the formatting. The begging italics; the pleading red.
I thought that it was one of the more odd emails I’ve ever received, and I’ve received a lot of odd emails.
I didn’t reply.
I couldn’t have given fewer shits about this man. And here’s the thing: I should have. I should have 10 years ago when I was mooching around his house looking at his dumb art. Back then I was an arts and entertainment reporter for TV3. I covered the light and fluffy. But I wasn’t a fucking idiot. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.
I could have Webworm’d this creep, who everyone knew was a creep. I could have tried.
I am confident his smartest move was to operate in such plain sight. It created a sort of bystander effect: If everyone saw how gross it all was, but no-one was saying or doing anything, or digging deeper. Maybe it was fine. Maybe it would resolve itself somehow.
It ended up taking brave people to go to the police and press charges. The whole process took so long. Sir James desperately tried to stop witnesses talking, and then once the whole thing was over in court, he still had name suppression. No-one could talk about the meat man or what he’d done. Until these last few weeks.
I look at all the other people in the world of art and music and TV and film and politics that were CCd in Sir James’ email. There was no BCC: this was an open plea.
I see so many names, and I wonder what we were all thinking and how this all came to be.
Today Herald reporter Sam Hurley revealed 89 people had taken up Sir James’ request for glowing reference letters.
They were actors, authors, musicians, politicians and university professors. People whose email addresses I’d seen on the list.
Director Vincent Ward had written, “How could anyone refuse someone of such unimpeachable repute?” going on to say he only knew “the rumour of the accusation(s) held against him, which seem to me completely preposterous.”
Actor Rena Owen said she’d known Sir James since the 1990s, writing — “To me he is an old school gentleman.” She wrote on: “I am one of the many New Zealand artists he has generously supported whether that was investing in NZ films, supporting live theatre, opening his home to host industry gatherings, or providing accommodation when needed, and Sir James never expected anything in return.”
Some of those 89 people expressed regret when contacted by the Herald. They probably never imagined their names or letters would be public knowledge. Some said they didn’t know how bad it was. They didn’t know what was up.
One person — a novelist and receiver of The New Zealand Order of Merit — doubled down, standing by what they’d written: “I have not followed his trial, being unable to believe the things that were being said about him. James Wallace is a man I trust and love. Nothing will change that,” she said.
I guess nothing did.
These letters mattered, Judge Geoffrey Venning telling the Herald they allowed a 30% reduction to Sir James’ final sentence.
Not bad. Not a bad percentage. Not a bad percentage for Sir James.
Many of those who wrote long, sprawling letters of support talked about the money. So much of it came back to the money. And the number of people on this email (there are heavy hitters in there) hints at Wallace’s other really smart move.
It wasn’t just operating in plain sight. He was funding so many people, and involved himself in so many projects, that many probably just felt too indebted to him or conflicted to speak up.
I suspect there’s something self-justifying in the ‘well everyone knew it was happening, all those boys went into it with their eyes open’ claim because the truth is, it paid for people not to scrutinise that idea too closely; to not look too hard and long at whether the money they were accepting was tainted.
Arts organisations — big and small — got sucked into his orbit the same way those young men did: They were underfunded and desperate.
Currently Sir James sits in prison, “Where I believe I will have health problems”, James had written to me. I imagine an 85-year-old man probably will have health issues in prison. He might not live through his two year, four month sentence.
He’s faced justice for his actions, and now a load of New Zealand’s art community will have their own stories, and be having their own discomforting reflections on their experience with this meat man who surrounded himself with art and young men.
If anyone in that CCd list wants to talk to me — in confidence, or on the record — I’m curious to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.