Following Barry George’s acquittal for the murder of Jill Dando, today’s papers are awash with lengthy analysis of the case and profiles of George himself. My own opinion is that I think it highly unlikely that George “did it”, based on reports of his low IQ and other mental and physical problems. Why on earth did the CPS ever go to trial with a disabled man who was clearly vulnerable?
Some papers have made much of the fact that George has epilepsy. The Guardian was lax enough to publish as fact that “his other sister died at the age of 28 after swallowing her tongue during an epileptic fit“. I’m reproducing the text here as I’ve made a formal complaint to the Guardian about recycling this tiresome old myth and with any luck, it’ll be corrected shortly. It wouldn’t have taken much time to do a little fact-checking on that with one of the epilepsy charities. The Times also saw fit (pardon the pun) to report likewise.
I have an interest in how George’s disabilities are being reported as I, too, have epilepsy and have written about it, albeit in passing. It is immensely frustrating to see reporters making assumptions about this common neurological condition. Most people, around 75%, will gain good control over their seizures with the right medication. Most, like me, lead very normal lives. I’m not allowed to drive but otherwise have no restrictions on what I can or can’t do.
In George’s case, I’d be very surprised if his severe epilepsy had not been a major factor in shaping his sad and sorry existence. We know that epilepsy runs in his family. He was diagnosed at a young age when the drugs used to treat epilepsy were limited in choice and can have severe side-effects. Certain epilepsy medications are known to trigger depression or create other emotional or behavioural disorders (the suicide of Joy Division singer, Ian Curtis, was thought to have been caused in part by his prescription for phenobarbitone for his seizures). Epilepsy, while a disability, is not necessarily disabling, but the medication can often make it more so. And George has other disabilities too.
Undoubtedly, George’s weirdness (even his barrister at the original trial called him “the local nutter”) was the reason the police first arrested him. But it should have been blindingly obvious that someone with such disabilities was almost certainly incapable of committing such an organised killing. Certainly, he should never have been put in the dock on such flimsy, circumstantial evidence.
The press have a responsibility to report accurately and while they have done so on the facts of George’s case, it’s not been the same as regards his personal background. The 450,000 people living with epilepsy in the UK already spend far too much time having to disabuse others of the notion that we might swallow our tongues – inserting something like a spoon in the mouth during a seizure will not prevent something that is physically impossible from happening but could result in broken jaws, smashed teeth or worse. Two serious broadsheets perpetuating such a myth is beyond irresponsible.