Michelle Diskin: Life on the outside for Barry George

She fought tirelessly for the release of her brother. Now Michelle Diskin explains to Mark Hughes how Barry George is adjusting to his freedom – and reveals the help he is receiving from another man convicted of a crime he did not commit

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:36

Michelle Diskin will step on a plane tomorrow and travel back to her home in Ireland for the final time. The flight out of Britain is one she has made many times, but this time she has no intention of coming back.

For eight years she campaigned tirelessly to clear her brother's name. Earlier this month, Barry George was cleared of murdering the television presenter Jill Dando. Today, in her first interview since her brother was freed, the 51-year-old tells The Independent of how the family, and Mr George, have adjusted since he walked out of the Old Bailey's Court No 1 a free man two weeks ago.

She reveals how she nearly gave up her campaign following the death of her husband last year and how the stress of the trial almost killed her mother. She also details exactly how she spent her first few weeks with her now exonerated brother and told how he has turned to an unlikely counsellor as he attempts to adapt to life outside prison: Sion Jenkins, the man wrongfully imprisoned, also for eight years, for the murder of his step-daughter, Billie-Jo.

That meeting took place on the Isle of Wight, where Mr George spent his first week of freedom with his mother, Margaret, and sister, Michelle.

"It was our first family holiday together and we decided to go there because it was peaceful. It's somewhere I had been before and I knew Barry would like it. The whole thing felt like a dream; it was certainly something I had dreamt of," Ms Diskin said. "While there we met up with Sion Jenkins and his wife, Tina. I got to know Sion through the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation and we became firm friends. Barry and Sion spoke about the difficulties Barry would have adjusting to life on the outside. I knew they would get on well because they have so much in common.

"It's funny, because in their previous lives they probably would have had nothing in common. It's a very different type of bond they have compared to most friendships, but they got on extremely well."

The holiday on the Isle of Wight lasted a week, and since then Mr George has seldom been outside, according to his sister.

She said: "We went across to Fulham once to visit his friends from his old street. They were ecstatic to see him. Apart from that, though, he hasn't done much. We can't go out and celebrate because of the media attention. During the first trial, we decided we would have a massive party if Barry had been released but as time went on we realised we couldn't do it if, as eventually happened, he was released after the second trial.

"We are now under so much scrutiny and if we were seen having a party it would be considered disrespectful to Jill Dando and that is something we have never been.

"He mostly spends his time in the house and we talk a lot. He has spoken about how he wants to get his own house in London again. But it's been difficult as he doesn't have any money."

Those are not the only difficulties Mr George has faced. Ms Diskin added: "Before he went to prison he had a disability travel pass and got benefits. But it's a very slow process and he is still waiting for them. In the meantime, he has had to get used to using an Oyster Card to travel. They weren't around when Barry went into prison.

"He had no clothes either, so we had to buy him a whole new wardrobe and, like all men, Barry hates shopping.

"The main problem, though, has been that he is overwhelmed by everything. Even walking in the street is strange to him. He has been used to a strict regime of having to ask permission to do anything, but now he has freedom and he doesn't know how to handle it."

But at the same time, Ms Diskin is anxious that Mr George gets back to normal as soon as possible. "Barry is fiercely independent, he always has been. He will need help in the coming months and years because he is bound to have post-traumatic stress disorder, but he also wants to do things on his own.

"At the moment that is difficult because of all the press attention. I am used to the photographers as I've dealt with them for eight years, but Barry isn't; he's been in a cell all that time.

"I wouldn't say he's now a celebrity, but he has become public property. That has upset me more than it has Barry. It seems that it isn't enough that he didn't kill Jill Dando, he still has to be part of some kind of media circus.

"He takes it all in his stride, but he doesn't like the attention. It would be a very strange type of person who would."

Sitting in a café in East Acton, west London, just a few miles from the White City high-rise flat that the George family grew up in, Ms Diskin speaks eloquently about her brother's new-found freedom.

She also reveals that, upon his release, Mr George received a phone call from his father, Alfred, who left the family and moved to Australia more than 20 years ago.

She added that, contrary to press reports, her father, who is now living in Wales with his new wife, has been in sporadic contact with Mr George since his arrest and even visited him in prison.

But she is keen also to discuss the struggle her family endured during the eight years her brother was wrongly imprisoned.

She adds: "There were times my children could not leave their own house because of the hordes of photographers outside. We were inundated with calls from the media and had to screen all of them. We even had the phone tapped twice. My mother didn't leave her house for 13 days because of the media; she had to have neighbours pass food across the fence to her.

"Eventually she got so ill with stress that she didn't eat and drink. Luckily a vigilant relative realised what was going on. If it went on for any longer we probably would have lost her.

"The stress put a lot of strain on my body and it resulted in me having lumps in my breast. In those eight years I had two biopsies.

"When my husband, Patrick, died of a brain tumour in April 2007 I had decided to give up. It was too hard and I felt it was unfair on my three teenage children as they had lived with this for years. But when I told them they refused to let me stop."

Her children might have spurred Ms Diskin on, but there was another factor in her determination to fight for her brother's freedom. "My faith is absolute," she said. "I am a Baptist and I could not have gone through one day of this if I did not know I had God there with me."

That faith might have seemed blind at times, but it did not desert her on 1 August.

Recalling the day her brother was finally freed, she said: "Throughout the week we had sat in the canteen waiting for the verdict. Every now and then the Tannoy would call us back to court only for us to find out the jury had come back with a question for the judge.

"On that Friday we expected the jury to retire for the weekend and come back on Monday. When the Tannoy called us back I expected it was another question. It wasn't until we were back in the courtroom that I was told we had a verdict. I didn't dare to allow myself to think that everything was going to be all right. I was preparing myself to continue the campaign.

"When the jury came back in I looked at their faces, but they were giving nothing away. It wasn't until I heard the word 'Not' that I realised he was going to be free. I didn't even need to hear them say 'guilty'.

"The newspapers said I punched the air and screamed yes. At first I didn't realise I had, it was just a reflex reaction. When I composed myself I looked at the jury and said 'thank you'."

That verdict was two weeks ago yesterday and tomorrow Ms Diskin will finally return to Co Cork.

"I need to get back there and put my own life back together," she said. "I've been living two lives for the past eight years: one in Ireland and one in Britain. I feel like I've been pulled in two."

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