We thought we knew her so well
She was a successful journalist who cultivated a girl-next-door image. Now she's dead, we are left with an unhealthy obsession
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 02 May 1999
Not long afterwards she met a younger man, a game warden, Simon Basil, while filming in South Africa. He followed her back to England where they had what Jill later described as a "very Lady Chatterley" relationship. It did not last but Jill was soon telling TV Times readers: "I don't want to be single for too long".
Then, on a blind date, she met a gynaecologist, Alan Farthing. They announced their engagement in January, at a party attended by Sir Cliff Richard, Nick Ross and Anna Ford. "I always dreamed of marriage and now I've found the man I love," Jill told the Daily Mail, which bought the second serial rights to an exclusive interview she gave to OK magazine.
Does anything strike you as extraordinary about this narrative? Or about the pictures that accompanied it in virtually all last week's newspapers? Possibly not. Like the Princess of Wales, Jill Dando was accustomed to opening her private life to the public gaze. If she had not been coldly executed on Monday with a single bullet to the head, readers and viewers would have continued to look forward to Jill's wedding - quite probably covered exclusively by OK or Hello! - and months of speculation about whether she was pregnant. In the aftermath of her murder, anxiety has been expressed about the easy availability of all this personal information, with journalists listing the names of A- and B-list celebrities who have been stalked and occasionally killed by obsessive fans.
Yet what few people have seemed to notice is the way in which this dual process - recounting minute details of her life story and speculating about how it ended - is a continuation of what went before, rather than a critique of it. In another parallel with the Princess of Wales, Dando has been mythologised in death as she was in life.
"She was perfect ... so beautiful, kind and gentle. Who could murder her?" was the headline in Thursday's Sun, paraphrasing a remark from Jill's understandably devastated fiance, Alan Farthing.
According to Tuesday's Daily Mail, she had been "the girl next door", as well as "Britain's best-loved TV presenter" and "a princess among ordinary people". The Prime Minister, paying tribute, just stopped short of calling her "the people's presenter". There is a tradition of not speaking ill of the dead, but the sense of deja vu, for those of us who did not take part in the festival of mourning following the death of Princess Diana, was acute.
An ambitious journalist, who had parlayed her talent for speaking to camera into a stellar television career, was suddenly being spoken of almost universally as "good", as though she had devoted her life to the poor.
Dando's unassuming prettiness was transformed into beauty, while a recent career decision - leaving the Holiday programme for the new antiques show - was presented as an act of singular courage. In an explicit comparison with Diana, she was dubbed "another English Rose".
"I had the privilege of meeting Jill Dando exactly a week ago," gasped the Sun's Jenny Eden, as though securing an interview with a television personality with a new series to promote was a rare privilege. The paper urged its readers to phone and fax with their tributes, while bunches of flowers with mawkish handwritten tributes began to appear in Fulham.
This is not to say that Dando was an unpleasant person, or that friends and colleagues should not mourn her. What is disturbing is the almost complete absence of reality in the reporting of her life and death, a state of affairs that reached its nadir with the Mail's banner headline on Wednesday: "Was Jill killed by a Serb gunman?"
What this amounted to was an admission that, after the initial shock faded, at least some of the grief which followed Dando's death was recreational, a national game of Cluedo. The next day, when the BBC television executive Tony Hall was given police protection following a death threat from a man claiming to represent a Serb death squad, other papers started taking the "Serb connection" seriously. Yet it is a well-known fact that hoax calls follow a sensational event such as Dando's murder. It seems perfectly possible that the caller got the idea from the increasingly fantastic media coverage.
On Monday, Dando's friend Kate Adie reported for the BBC from the scene of the murder, telling viewers "she had no enemies" - an illogical comment to make about someone who had just been gunned down. Successful people such as Jill Dando inevitably prompt powerful, if unacknowledged, feelings of envy, which are swept away by an event as shocking as her murder. The over-estimation that follows may result, as it probably did with Diana, from a submerged sense of guilt.
Murder statistics suggest that the most likely culprit is someone who knew or had at least met Dando, with a deranged stalker - such as the fan who killed John Lennon - coming further down the list of probabilities.The reason this latter theory has some credibility is that stalkers tend to amass personal information about their victims, precisely the kind of material that was available about Dando, to bolster the illusion that they "know" the target.
What has not been sufficiently acknowledged is the way in which certain personalities are offered up by the media as the vehicle for a range of fantasies. That they bear little relation to reality, and frequently contradict each other, matters not one jot. Dando was the girl next door, even though this entity rarely drives a BMW convertible, earns a fabulous salary and attends glitzy parties. She was one of Britain's biggest stars, "the golden girl of the BBC", even though her career consisted of little more than fronting TV programmes. She was a career woman who really wanted nothing more than to settle down with the man she loved and have babies.
She was just like us, leading other journalists to speculate emotionally that "it could have been me" - but way out of our league. She was "wholesome", in her own phrase, yet her Radio Times cover in black leather revealed a raunchy new side. "Did this picture drive a stalker to kill Jill Dando, or was she the victim of a callous hitman?" the Mail asked on Tuesday, the day before it stumbled on the sensational "Serb connection". Like Diana - who was simultaneously portrayed as mother and sex symbol, victim and superstar - Dando had been positioned as a screen on which her fans could project their illusions.
Whatever she believed to the contrary, she had also been sexualised: "Sexy looks wowed men while women saw her as their pal", a Sun headline said last week. Dando is far from being the only TV personality of whom this demand has been made, as we can see from the relentless eroticisation of Charlie Dimmock. Dimmock, a landscape gardener, has suddenly become the target of fevered speculation by columnists and TV critics, for whom her most interesting characteristic is that she does not wear a bra.
Nor are the tabloid press and supermarket mags the only culprits in this respect. Laddish commentators are just as likely to turn up in the broadsheets, salivating over Dimmock's breasts or Dando's leathers. In this arena, the expectation that women should expose intimate details of their lives extends to female columnists, who are encouraged to write at length about their broken marriages or their search for boyfriends. There is a striking asymmetry here, with few of their male counterparts required to include revealing personal anecdotes: "The economy is recovering but, hey, I still can't get laid."
What we have witnessed in the last week is not, as it has been presented, an uncomplicated outburst of mourning for a much-loved national figure. Of all the parallels between Jill Dando and the Princess of Wales - celebrity, physical resemblance, closeness in age, a new romance, the prompt emergence of a conspiracy theory about each of them - the most chilling has not been noted. It is the evidence each death provides of a media fascination with blondes, especially tragic ones, as obsessive as any stalker could be expected to exhibit.
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