Panorama and other media coverage of the Gilderdale affair

I’ve been following the media coverage of the Lynn Gilderdale attempted murder trial with some interest as I found it quite emotionally affecting, and have found most of the coverage to be sympathetic to Lynn’s mother, Kay Gilderdale, who was acquitted last Tuesday. It now turns out that Panorama, the BBC documentary series, had been following Kay Gilderdale on and off for about a year, as well as interviewing others associated with the drive to liberalise Britain’s assisted suicide laws, such as Jane Campbell (AKA Baroness Cambpell of Surbiton, a title I find quite amusing) who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and is passionately opposed to such changes in the law. The Daily Mail has covered the story extensively, mostly sympathetically although there have been a couple of critical voices there. I have also come across a blogger and a Guardian columnist who were exactly the opposite.

First, Panorama. I dislike the present, thirty-minute soundbite-o-rama format and I intensely dislike Jeremy Vine’s sensationalist style of reporting, as demonstrated in the past on his Radio 2 news phone-in and interview show at midday. I didn’t think the format could do the Gilderdale story justice and I was right. Vine had this article published in the most recent Sunday Telegraph in which he declares his admiration for Kay Gilderdale, and there was more meat to it than there was to the programme. The name of it, I Helped My Daughter Die, speaks for itself (they could have just called it something like The Lynn Gilderdale Story, but they had to kick you in the gut). It did feature Kay going into Lynn’s old room, which she hadn’t changed anything of (except open the curtains); the bed was still in front of the French windows (ready for an occupant to be taken out, flat on her back, to hospital) and the fish tank that was there throughout Lynn’s illness was still there. She was shown taking items of clothing Lynn had ordered from catalogues to wear when she got better, but presumably never wore, and held up a dress she thought Lynn would look lovely in. She also explained that her interventions were to make Lynn more comfortable, not to speed up her death.

What was missing was any coverage of the culture of disbelief which greeted ME in the 1990s, when Lynn fell ill. They showed a clip from a Frontline documentary (beginning here, ending here) made in her teens, which featured not only Lynn herself but also a young male victim who was sectioned (i.e. forcibly taken into a psychiatric unit) and put in standing frames and let go of in a swimming pool to force him to stop “faking” his paralysis. The fact that parents were expected to keep the sufferers active, when what they really required was rest, was not brought up. An extra quarter or half hour would have given space for a much deeper treatment of the situation.

The culture of disbelief still persists, however. In today’s Guardian, there is a column by some doctor calling himself “Dr Crippen”, whose blog is to be found here. The general point, that legalising medically-assisted suicide raises a lot of dilemmas and that, as with legalised abortion, it will lead to things it was not intended to lead to, is valid. However, this paragraph is what causes offence:

A caring mother who kills her severely brain-damaged son is found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. A caring mother who kills her daughter who is suffering from “myalgic encephalomyelitis”, a condition that many doctors only recognise as an inappropriately named psychiatric illness, is found not guilty of murder. It is incomprehensible that she was found not guilty. Where is the logic? The law is clear, but juries are not prepared to enforce it. The law must therefore be changed.

However, whatever the best name for Lynn Gilderdale’s illness was, it certainly was not “merely” a psychiatric illness, let alone malingering. Why would someone who had been a happy, active teenage girl suddenly fake an illness and keep it up for seventeen years, then kill herself? Regardless of the fact that psychiatric illnesses are themselves neurological (hence the drug treatments), Lynn’s autopsy revealed inflammations to her spinal cord, as had been the case with an earlier victim, Sophia Mirza. Psychiatric illnesses don’t usually do that. (Of course, a psychiatric illness may lead to someone throwing themselves out of a window or whatever, and injuring their spinal cord that way, but by all accounts, neither of the two women mentioned were in a physical condition that would allow such an action.)

There are also obvious factual inaccuracies in that paragraph. She was not charged with murder, but with attempted murder, and if the facts are as presented in last night’s Panorama, her actions were not attempted murder and some of what was reported was not true anyway. The autonomy of a jury to rule against the law is important, even if it is rarely invoked. It is only “incomprehensible” if you assume she was lying and take no other facts into account.

Then there was the blog Bad Medicine, written by another pseudonymous British doctor “Dr No”, who posted an article called The XX Factor, in which he asserts that both the Inglis and Gilderdale cases led to a “wave of mother-love hysteria”. I didn’t notice it around the Inglis case, but in the case of Kay Gilderdale, I thought that the love demonstrated was quite genuine; she did, after all, dedicate 17 years of her life to caring for her daughter and was quite prepared to go on doing so. Besides, male carers have also acted in a similar way and received leniency from the law, such as a gay man whose partner was dying of skin cancer, who was interviewed on one of Radio 4’s morning interview shows a few years ago; he confessed to the police but was never prosecuted. I don’t dispute that you get selfish mothers (actually, people don’t doubt this when it comes to single mothers on sink estates, but they have a harder time accepting it when it comes to “respectable”, married, middle-class mothers), but I don’t believe for a moment that this was the case here. Lynn (using the pseudonymn Jessie Oliver) testified to it more than once, as noted here in the Guardian:

Lynn would frequently describe her fervent love for her mother in emails and texts to friends online. In one, written during one of her many hospital visits she said to a friend: “You asked if my parents are able to visit and the answer is they actually never leave my side. One of them’s ALWAYS here and mum sleeps here too.

“It’s because I was treated so horrifically when I was first ill… so many mistakes have been made with my care here… mum/dad continue to do everything for me.”

In a further entry, Withered on the Vine, Dr No notes that Mrs Gilderdale seemed “too composed” at times and that “she even smiled while saying the most difficult things”. Such impressions really doesn’t count for much and are a common foundation for prejudice. People smile when asked awkward questions when they are nervous, which is often taken for unseriousness or an indication of guilt. One recalls that in the Angela Cannings trial, the mother was perceived as not displaying obvious signs of grief, when in fact some time had passed between the deaths of her children and the trial. Many miscarriages of justice have been based on such impressions.

Finally, we come to the matter of the Daily Mail’s coverage. As soon as the acquittal happened, the paper suddenly became all sympathetic, printing a lengthy extract from Lynn’s online diary (which was actually kept very secret during her life) and an equally lengthy interview with her mother, along with the usual stock pictures of Lynn in her bed with a feeding tube and a few pre-illness photos. (The diary extract was also printed in the Times.) However, blogger Anton Vowl noted on 10th Jan a flurry of stories hostile to the idea of ME appeared in the paper along with an online poll asking readers, “do you think ME is a genuine illness?”. The headline which followed Lynn’s death read, “Mother arrested as ‘yuppie-flu’ daughter is found dead after 16 years in bed”. Of course, Lynn fell ill too early in life to have ever been a yuppie. Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News gives some details about the Mail’s biases; they would not have given a damn about the Gilderdales if they had been black and lived on a council estate in Kennington. They were a model of respectability and everybody in their Sussex village apparently agreed.

This doesn’t change the fact that the Gilderdale story was a worthy human interest story. However, despite having published a feature on the Gilderdales in 2006 (whose author later wrote this), the Mail’s sudden show of sympathy rings rather hollow. They also published an article by Anne Atkins, whose brother has had ME (much less severe than Lynn’s, by the sound of things), whose son has Asperger’s and attempted suicide and whose cousin (Toby Churchill, although she doesn’t name him) had encephalitis, got paralysed and invented a communication tool for people who cannot speak. All very laudable, but suicide prompted by sudden changes in circumstance (e.g. Daniel James) are not the same as the situation Lynn Gilderdale was in. She did not kill herself a couple of years after falling in but after being in that state for seventeen years. I’m sure many people wish they could somehow have dissuaded her from taking her overdose. Atkins’s suggestion that spending so many years caring for somebody so ill may have clouded Kay Gilderdale’s judgement may have some validity. It’s very easy to think of things that could have been done to make her condition more bearable, but I wasn’t there and neither were these commentators. Most of us have never been in circumstances anything like that extreme, either as a sick person or as a carer.

I don’t approve of assisted (or even unassisted) suicide, and I do not support changing the law on it. We have seen many people over the years who have helped loved ones die when they are terminally ill receive leniency from the law, usually in terms of suspended sentences or no prosecution at all; I have never heard of someone getting the maximum 14-year sentence. The law is there to protect those of us who become ill and whose relatives cannot live with a disabled son or sibling, or would assume that such a person is better off dead; a lot of disabled people have this fear. I believe that Kay Gilderdale should not have been sent to prison, but as Deborah Orr wrote in her column last Thursday, it is unreasonable to expect that an assisted death should not be investigated. (I do think that Frances Inglis’s sentence was quite just.)

However, the public and media sympathy was not an outbreak of mass hysteria but a show of genuine compassion for a woman who had acted in extreme circumstances that most of us never have to deal with. Her support came not from the euthanasia lobby but from her family, the local community and from the ME community which has lobbied against her prosecution and helped raised legal funds for her. I must say that I cannot remember feeling so emotional about something I heard in the news. This article is by Lynn’s friend Emily Levick, who also has ME; it gives some idea of how debilitating ME can be and how loved and valued Lynn was in the community. The sense of loss, there and on various ME message boards and blogs, is palpable.

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