Barry George: a victim of emotional tyranny?
The fate of Barry George shows that the sort of public mourning unleashed by Jill Dando’s death has a dark, vengeful side.
This much we know: on 26 April 1999, the 37-year-old television presenter, Jill Dando, was forced to the ground on her own doorstep. From close range, she was then shot in the head.
For the past seven years it was also assumed that we knew who the perpetrator was. However, following the initial conviction in July 2001, a failed appeal in 2002, and a further five years of evidence gathering before a successful appeal in November 2007, a retrial has finally seen Dando’s putative assassin, Barry George, acquitted.
As details of the retrial have emerged over the past few weeks, the verdict didn’t come as much of a surprise. The basis of the conviction hinged upon a tiny speck of firearms residue in the lining of an inside pocket of George’s Cecil Gee coat. As Professor Marco Morin explained last year, the ‘particle of explosives’ found in George’s coat pocket could have come from paint (1). In short, it was so small a sample as to be virtually useless – hence in many other countries’ law courts, including the US, it would not have been permissible.
Without it, the case against George, resting entirely upon circumstantial evidence, fell apart. In fact, the belief that George, a heavily medicated epileptic who, by all accounts, isn’t the brightest, could have carried out a ‘meticulously planned and thoroughly professional’ execution simply looked absurd. Which does raise a question: how did George come to be convicted?
Predictably the media have featured high up on the blame list. As George’s barrister William Clegg QC explained on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘All these cases that attract widespread publicity put huge pressure on the police and the prosecuting authorities to try to find the perpetrator and I sometimes feel that that pressure distorts the objectivity that would otherwise be present, were the publicity to be absent.’ (2)
Clegg does have a point. At the time, Jill Dando’s murder, as ruthless as it was inexplicable, received relentless press coverage. While theories as to the culprit whirled, be it a Serbian contract killer or a demented fan, the public’s emotions were unceasingly churned. The Daily Mail was quick with the call to grieve: ‘Jill Dando was the nation’s favourite “girl next door”. That is why her death leaves so many mourning today.’ (3) Elsewhere, the Independent was equally lavish with sentiment: ‘Only very rarely does a broadcaster become so much a part of our lives that the mere mention of the name is enough to conjure up an instant and wholly positive image.’ (4)
However, it wasn’t just the press whipping up a storm of sentiment. Every public figure, or so it seemed, rushed to air his or her grief. The Queen was ‘shocked and saddened’; then Tory leader William Hague admitted that he was ‘shocked and horrified’; and former Prime Minister Tony Blair was simply ‘deeply shocked’, adding that he found her ‘totally charming and hugely talented’ (5).
In the aftermath of Dando’s death, politics seemed suspended in grief. Indeed, so powerful were the emotions engulfing the public sphere that nothing else was deemed that important; even the war in Kosovo became little more than background noise. This was duly noted by George’s barrister, Michael Mansfield QC, during the 2001 trial. Comparing the Crimewatch presenter’s death to the Cuban missile crisis, and more tellingly, to the death of Princess Diana, he declaimed: ‘What happened in this case has assumed the magnitude of these epic occasions because again, quite rightly, she had a place in everybody’s hearts and minds and on their television screens.’ (6)
This ‘orgy of emotionalism’ as Mick Hume called it at the time, was not without precedent, of course (7). After Diana, the rituals and rites for public grief were firmly established. No tragedy was too private that it couldn’t be solicited for collective, national mourning. It seemed that a community forged through ersatz grieving and suffering was better than no community at all.
Indeed, as much as the Dando’s murder was newsworthy, the public reaction to it was deemed equally so. From reports on the number of letters and condolences sent to the BBC, to the national coverage of the funeral, the private tragedy of Dando’s family and friends offered an opportunity to, as Frank Furedi put it at the time, ‘celebrate the more caring, compassionate Britain’. The famously stiff upper lip could now tremble on cue.
But the strange case of Barry George tells another side to the story of public mourning. For in the feverish atmosphere subsequent to this all too public bereavement, far more destructive forces were unleashed. For public grief, just like its private counterpart, can quickly turn to anger. And a furious demand for retribution, all the more dangerous for being sincere, is no help to an under-pressure murder investigation. As Furedi argued in 2002: ‘The encouragement of collective displays of emotion does not simply lead to the celebration of the community of mourning. It also unleashes powerful forces that reveal the destructive side of emotionalism.’ (8)
At the time of Barry George’s arrest in June 2000, while the police investigation was flagging, public interest was not. Little wonder that George appeared, according to one policeman, as a ‘bright shining light’ (9). For while there might not have been a motive, nor a murder weapon, what the police had in ‘mad Barry’ was the local lunatic: someone who could be held up as an evil figure who killed our golden girl.
In the desperation to charge someone, anyone, the weirder they were the better. And with his history of imposture – from claiming to be Gary Glitter’s alter ego Paul Gadd to posing as Barry Bulsara, the cousin of Farookh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury – Barry George was a socially inept fantasist. Add to this his previous convictions for indecent assault and attempted rape, plus an adolescent fascination with guns, and the authorities had their identikit weirdo-loner.
While the police may not have got their man, at least a grieving public looking for revenge had its villain. While George’s acquittal raises many legal questions, more serious questions need to be asked of state-sponsored grieving, the exploitation of rare and tragic incidents by an elite looking for some sense of coming together; and the institutionalised cultural script that was responsible for fostering the dangerous post-Dando witch-hunting sentiment in the first place.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Rob Lyons pointed out that the reaction to the death of Jill Dando was an example of ‘mourning sickness’. Tessa Mayes showed how minor irritations like most instances of ‘stalking’ are lumped together with serious crimes. Mick Hume discussed the Diana inquest circus. James Le Fanu argued why we can’t always trust expert witnesses. Or read more at spiked issue: Crime and the law.
(2) Publicity distorted Dando case, BBC News, 2 August 2008
(3) Monitor: The Murder of Jill Dando, Independent, 1 May 1999
(4) Obituary: Jill Dando, Independent, 27 April 1999
(5) Public shock and sadness at Jill Dando’s death, BBC News, 26 April 1999
(6) Dando jury urged to be dispassionate, BBC News, 21 June 2001
(7) Monitor: The Murder of Jill Dando, Independent, 1 May 1999
(8) Mourning Sickness, Independent, 25 August 2002