Deborah Orr: Let's keep this loner in perspective

‘Only sectioning Barry George under the Mental Health Act can bring him some of the support he needs’

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:08

The Sky News anchor Kay Burley collapsed on air this week, just as she was finishing off a lunchtime bulletin. Her ill-health, it has turned out, is linked to her worries about Barry George, who was acquitted on appeal, in August, after spending several years in prison for the murder of television presenter Jill Dando.

Burley interviewed George after he won his appeal, and this encounter, it is reported, has triggered his obsessive interest in her. The hard evidence of such an obsession, or the hard evidence that has reached the public domain, at least, is fairly slender. George cycled seven miles a couple of weeks ago to Sky's headquarters in Isleworth, west London, to request a copy of the interview for himself. Most people, it is true, would simply hit the phones to find out if they could procure a record of themselves on the telly. But the desire to have such a record is not so very unusual, even if the circumstances under which George has achieved his notoriety are hardly the stuff of which happy memories are made.

People cited as "friends" of George add that he has indeed developed an obsession with Burley. It is said that he has downloaded images of the newscaster on his laptop computer, and has "slept" with the images. Again, this is creepy, but not so very extreme in its abnormality. The sexualisation of public figures, male and female, is considered to be part of the territory they inhabit. In her younger days Burley, who is now 47, regularly appeared in lists compiled in men's magazines, detailing the women in the public eye who were considered to be the most fanciable.

George, it is accepted, took such cultural mores to serious extremes. He was linked to the murder of Dando largely because he was known to the local police as someone who stalked people and harassed them. He had had previous convictions for attempted rape and for indecent assault.

A search of his home confirmed that women in the media were of particular interest to George. In his chaotic home – where he stored 800 newspapers – police found the addresses, descriptions, photographs and car registration numbers of almost 100 women, including Princess Diana, Anthea Turner, Caron Keating, Emma Freud and Fiona Foster (but not Jill Dando). Precisely because of this, in hindsight, it was not sensible for a female presenter to have talked to George in the first place.

Now, the police intend to interview George again, only a couple of months after his release, and in a blaze of publicity. Yet nothing that he is reported as having done thus far – by way of collecting pictures of Burley – is against the law, even though the fear and stress that Burley reported as suffering from are entirely understandable, if not completely rational.

The fact that this pathetic man, who has an IQ of 75, is in such trouble again already is an indication that his release has not been handled well. George is under no parole obligations, as he would have been if he has served a full sentence. Yet he is under observation by the media that he finds so fascinating himself, and his life cannot continue as it did before.

Unless he decides for himself to co-operate fully in rehabilitation, only sectioning George under the Mental Health Act can deliver to him some of the support that he needs. This approach, however, minutely discussed during the recent progress of the new Mental Health Act, is entirely at odds with the basic principles we accept as essential to the flourishing of a free society.

The unpleasant truth is that few ordinary women are unlikely to be unaware of how unsettling and frightening it can be to be approached on the street by a weird man, or even approached less randomly by someone she knows. Even when there is enough evidence of harassment for an exclusion order to be made, protecting people from those who have developed obsessions with them is tremendously difficult. It is far from unknown for people living in such fear to have had their windows barred or their homes reinforced by the police.

Burley, who has been given protection at her home, is luckier in this respect than most people who find themselves so afraid, whether that fear is justified or not. People with problems similar to George's are not so unusual, even if his own peculiarities are extreme. It is always very hard to balance their own rights with the needs of their unfortunate targets. Like so many sad and dysfunctional people, George remains his own most degraded victim, a person who should inspire only pity, but will never stop inspiring fear instead.

One tragedy. But many explanations

A 17-year-old, Frederick Moody, pictured, was recently stabbed to death on my street, and one of my neighbours responded by organising a meeting at the local community centre, where, he imagined, we might all come together to discuss the issues that were thrown up by this unsettling tragedy.

I don't think it reflects as badly on the local people as it sounds, the fact that only nine people turned up. The meeting was called at an odd time of day, and at 5pm most people are either at work or looking after their school-age children. Nevertheless, it felt desolate, this tiny turnout, and a poor tribute to the young man.

Nevertheless, the show went on, and the chap who had been billed as the main speaker at the meeting did his stuff anyway. He was keen to establish what youth gun and knife crime was not connected to. It was not, he said, connected to rap music, which, he pointed out, was mainly listened to by white boys. It was not, he said, connected to single-parent families, or boarding schools, where there were no parents at all, would have been pumping out killers for centuries. It was not, he said, connected to school discipline, because in Jamaica discipline is rigid, and similar patterns persist over there.

Poverty was the root of the problem, and any illusion of a racial element was down to the fact that people in ethnic minorities are more likely to be poor. None of the assembled citizens had any trouble in accepting that poverty was a defining problem. But many of his other assertions were quietly dismantled anyway.

One woman, a primary school teacher, said that her grown-up son had gone on a residential course with some boys with behavioural problems, and had been touched when each and every one of these hard cases, at some point, blubbed about how much they missed their dad.

Another, from Scotland and visiting her grandchildren, suggested that people expected much more materially than when she was young, and that youth culture fosters the idea that great wealth and fame could be achieved with ease. Every person (except the first speaker) believed that schools could offer firmer guidance. Then the teacher suggested that the power of schools to be the centre of communities could be realised only if we all wrote to our MPs insisting that the academy programme be halted.

There may only have been a small number of us, but there were plenty of agendas. This lady was admirable, as was the gentleman who opened the debate. But I've been to enough community meetings to know that the tendency for them to be dominated by campaigners is what puts so many people off them in the first place.

Goodbye Mrs Ritchie. We hardly knew you

Blimey! It's going to take quite a while for us all to get out of the habit of calling the hoary old pop queen Madonna Ritchie, isn't it? Celebrity marriages are measured in dog years, after all, and the two of them have managed to stick it out for a very long time indeed. They've become as familiar to us, the Ritchies, as that road sign warning that a particular part of town, sadly, has a bit of a problem with fantastically elderly couples trying to have walks.

Again, I must salute Madonna, though, who is always thorough in all her endeavours, and has quickly taken the opportunity to dispel any little doubts Guy might be harbouring. Cleverly suggesting that she knew an "emotional retard" on stage in New York, Madonna confirmed that she must be one herself. Everyone knows that when children are involved, you bite your lip during break-ups. Especially when everybody on the whole planet is listening.

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