Barry George: 'I am not angry, certainly not at society. But I would use the word disgusted’

Ten years on from being wrongfully jailed for the murder of Jill Dando, Barry George tells Mark Hughes that freedom hasn't put a stop to those who would vilify him

Monday 31 May 2010 00:00 BST

Last month Carine Diskin threw a surprise party for her uncle Barry George. She booked tables at a bar in Cork, where he now lives, and invited his friends and relatives. There were balloons and gifts and on the wall was a banner which read "Happy 50th birthday".

"As soon as I saw it I pointed at it and said 'but I'm only 49'," Mr George says. "I was sure I was only 49. I was so sure that my family started thinking they had made a huge mistake. But they were right. I was 50. That is what prison does to you. It makes you lose track of time."

It is almost two years since Mr George was released from eight years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering the television personality Jill Dando.

Drinking peppermint tea in the lobby of a Cork hotel, Mr George cuts a different figure to the man pictured being driven away in a taxi from the Old Bailey on 1 August 2008. The hair looks thinner and greyer and the bright blue jumper has been replaced with a smart black suit and blue shirt.

On his right wrist is a large silver watch. Time is a precious commodity for Mr George. In the months since his acquittal, he has attempted to quickly rebuild his life.

"I was 40 when I went into prison," he says. "And I very clearly know that I will never get those years back. But that doesn't stop me wanting to do everything at 100 miles per hour."

But any hopes he had that he would be allowed time to forge his new life of freedom in anonymity have been in vain. Since his release, a steady stream of newspaper stories, which have variously accused him of stalking celebrities Kay Burley and Cheryl Cole to trying to fraudulently obtain drugs from a hospital, have kept his name and face in the public eye.

After prison, he stayed in London but left after being harassed by photographers and journalists. He moved across the Irish Sea to be closer to his sister Michelle Diskin and her family.

His anger at the treatment he has received from sections of the British media is barely concealed. "I have been persecuted, vilified and intimidated by certain sections of the journalistic society – and I must say certain sections because it is mainly the red tops. The words they use I find incredible. These names they call me are very hurtful and offensive."

The offending articles nearly always carry a prefix to his name. "bug-eyed", "oddball", "loner" and "obsessive" are a few. It is a tabloid tendency which he says is tantamount to mocking his Asperger's syndrome – the autistic disorder he was diagnosed with before his trial in 2001.

"I have a disability which effects my communication and interaction. The people in the media who call me names would not dream of describing someone in this manner if they had Down's Syndrome or if they were in a wheelchair so why do it to someone who has Asperger's? It is hurtful, not just for me but for other people who have Asperger's. By using these words to describe me, the newspapers are suggesting it is okay to label people with the disorder as 'oddballs'."

Even when wearing a flower-patterned silver tie and cotton scarf, Mr George is an imposing figure. He is tall, wide and has huge hands and feet. But his size is belied by a soft handshake and when he talks of the public reaction he feared the tabloid descriptions of him would provoke, his nervousness and fear is apparent.

He tells a story: "A while after I was acquitted I was going to get a photograph taken for some documents. I walked past a gymnasium and two people came out. Because of the way I was vilified in the media I was really scared. They walked towards me. I thought they were going to batter me in the street but it was totally to the contrary; they shook my hand and said congratulations. They were full of praise.

"I was very relieved, but I don't know how different people are going to react. I do not know if some people read these stories about me and believe them."

So how does the real Barry George's life compare to the one we read about in the papers?

Upon his release he lived in a flat in Hackney which cost him £310 a week in rent. He paid for it not, as was suggested, by claiming benefits, but by using the proceeds he was paid to do a tabloid interview on the day of his release (the one which described him as "bug-eyed" and an "oddball").

Today he lives in a guest house just outside Cork, west Ireland. His two main interests are computers and music. His favourite bands are Queen, Genesis and Electric Light Orchestra. He plays the synthesiser and plans to enroll on a university course in music technology. He reads the Irish Examiner newspaper. He takes cooking lessons. He plays chess ("I'm not very good at it"), reads self-help and interior design books, and walks his sister Michelle's two collies.

When I ask if he likes to socialise, he replies with a smile. "No, the dogs can't talk." He goes on to explain that he regularly meets with a group of friends to watch football at a bar in Cork city. Not that he drinks much. "I have the odd drink, but it doesn't agree with my epilepsy."

He mentions one man with whom he likes to talk about football: "He is an Arsenal fan," he says. "And I am a Leeds fan. I love reminding him of the 1972 FA Cup Final."

He lives near his sister Michelle, who for eight years, campaigned against her brother's conviction. Mr George describes her as his rock. He also speaks fondly of her children, Shane, 22, Emma, 20, and Carine, 24.

So is life is simpler in Ireland?

"Over here no one gets on my case," he explains. "They treat me as a normal person. Over there there was the thing with the media. They would follow me and take pictures."

Is that why he fled London? He did not flee, he points out: "I am not hiding or running from anyone. And I never will hide. I have not done anything wrong. I have been acquitted."

Mr George is understandably wary about looking too far into the future. He says he would like to buy his own house and one day get a job. At the moment he survives on money won from libel cases. But he knows it will not last. "I am running very close to not having any money," he admits. "I read in the papers that I was paid £100,000 for the first interview. It was nowhere near that."

He is also open to the prospect of a relationship, but it is not in his immediate plans. "I am not ready for a relationship yet. My mindset is focussed on doing a degree and that will take four or five years so I am not thinking about a relationship. But if something comes along that is not to say I will not let it grow."

In Ireland, as in London, Mr George is a member of his local church and plans to get baptised soon. The church, he says, offers him the chance to discuss his feelings and problems.

"I think anyone who has been vilified like me is going to feel very stressed at times and I do. I am not going to say I am angry because I am not angry, certainly not at society. I would use the word disgusted. I am disgusted at how I am treated by certain elements of the media. I am disgusted at how they can do that to someone. I would not give them the satisfaction of my anger, but sometimes I get so wound up – how am I supposed to deal with it?"

At times Mr George is incredibly articulate. But due to his Asperger's he sometimes struggles for words and will gesticulate wildly as if searching for them in the air. His reading of body language is poor and it is a struggle to move him from one topic to the next. Often his mind wanders and he goes off on a tangent. When the topic is the media he is hard to stop. Mr George has fought their allegations in the courts, winning libel actions against two Fleet Street titles. But the stories hurt him.

"They are trivial things when it is just one thing, but it is 101. It is things like they said I wear a Superman T-shirt. I have never owned a Superman T-shirt. They said I was buying books about Jill Dando when I was buying a book about civil law."

Jill Dando. During three hours together the name is scarcely mentioned. But like it or not, Mr George will forever be known as the man once convicted of murdering the Crimewatch presenter. He knows this, but says: "I cannot change history and I am not going to begin to try."

He also knows that some people still think he did kill her.

"I cannot do anything about that," he says. "And I am not going to try because in a court of law my innocence has been proven on all the evidence. It frustrates me, because I feel like I am being asked to prove my innocence over and over. But I cannot control what people think."

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