Dando Murder: The mourning struck a strange note in the context of country at war

"IT'S JUST like Princess Diana," was one comment reported from inside BBC Television Centre yesterday after Jill Dando's murder. And as tributes came in from sources as elevated as the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and Sir Cliff Richard, an extraordinary sense of national mourning did seem to be taking shape.

Apart from the much-quoted physical resemblance between Ms Dando and the princess, words of regret from charities and schools she had helped bolstered the impression of a similarity. Office workers were said to be gathered around radios and TVs, following the developments. Tears were being shed.

The Jill Dando Internet site even became an impromptu book of remembrance, as fans left tributes at the rate of two "hits" per second.

While friends spoke of a genuinely nice, grounded person and a fine professional who never got carried away with her own celebrity, it all nevertheless struck a strange note in a country at war abroad and in fear of racist bombings at home.

Tony Blair took time away from preparing his Commons statement on the Nato summit to frame a suitable response. "He was deeply shocked. He had met her both professionally and socially at Downing Street and in common with many people he found her totally charming and highly talented," a spokesman reported.

From Buckingham Palace, the Queen was said to be "shocked and saddened". Ms Dando had helped the Duke of York to promote the Fight for Sight charity, of which he is patron, and he was also particularly saddened by the news, a spokesman said.

Sir Cliff Richard, a close friend and fellow Christian, spoke from Copenhagen where he is on tour. "I'm finding it really hard not to wish Jill's killer an horrific death. I'm absolutely shattered," he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said: "Jill Dando was a hugely popular broadcaster. It is a terrible irony that, after all her work defending the victims of crime and help in pursuing criminals, she should fall victim herself to an horrific crime."

In the Commons, Jack Straw spoke of the "tragic and appalling loss". His statement on the Brixton and Brick Lane nail bombings came later. In response to Sir Norman Fowler, the shadow Home Secretary, who raised the subject, Mr Straw said: "She was someone who was at the height of her powers. She had done a huge amount personally in the fight against crime by her role not least in Crimewatch UK and therefore this makes her death all the more poignant."

BBC Director General Sir John Birt said: "This is devastating news. Jill was loved by her audiences and by everyone who worked with her at the BBC. Jill's public and private persona were one and the same. She was always warm, generous natured and cheerful - a good companion on and off screen."

It was a theme expanded on in typically blunt style by John Humphrys, the TV and radio presenter. "For most of us who appear on telly half a dozen times it does something to you and some of us get airs and graces, we become prima donnas. But that didn't happen to Jill," he said. "She was an entirely natural person, just a completely normal unaffected person and viewers spotted that."

BBC director of television Alan Yentob said: "She was a natural television performer and outstanding journalist as well. She connected with audiences, she was an incredibly warm human being.

Chief Superintendent David Hatcher of Kent Police appeared for years alongside Ms Dando on the Crimewatch UK. He said: "Her involvement with Crimewatch was as much for the victims as for society, so it's unbelievable she should have died in this way. I know the whole police service will be galvanised to find her killer."

Ms Dando was held in particularly high esteem in the West Country, where she did her journalistic training and continued to do charity work. The Bristol Evening Post, where her brother Nigel is the chief reporter, last night issued a commemorative edition.

Fellow Six O'Clock News presenter Martyn Lewis was in the newsroom when the news broke. He described the "bewilderment, tears and quiet anger" among her colleagues.

One of the most touching tributes, however, came from Andrew Harvey, who worked with Ms Dando on breakfast television. He last saw her at her engagement party in January. "Jill was obviously the star of the party but you never felt that," he said. "She spent the whole evening not waiting for people to come up and talk to her but rushing around taking photos of her friends so that she would have a memento," he said.