Secret papers reveal shock and panic that swept BBC after Dando's murder
'A call had been received claiming that Jill Dando's death was linked to Nato action in Serbia, and that the BBC's head of news would be next...'
Thursday 18 June 2009
Her death shocked a nation and led to a police hunt for her killer which continues today. Ten years after Jill Dando was killed with a single bullet to the head, confidential minutes disclosed to
The Independent reveal for the first time how the BBC responded to the cold-blooded murder of its most popular television presenter.
The first reports alerting BBC staff reached the corporation's head of news, Tony Hall, during a senior managers' meeting at Broadcasting House on the morning of 26 April 1999. A telephone call to Mr Hall said that Ms Dando, 37, had been attacked outside her London home but did not say she was dead. Nevertheless it was serious enough for him to leave the meeting and return to Television Centre in White City. From there, he relayed the news to the director-general, John Birt, still chairing the executive meeting, that the TV news presenter and host of Crimewatch and Holiday had died.
A confidential minute, headed "any other business", one of five documents discoclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, says: "Tony Hall reported that Jill Dando had been attacked outside her home and he and Matthew Bannister left the meeting to return to the programme-making base.
"Later, DG confirmed that Jill Dando had been killed, a shocking and deeply saddening piece of news: the Committee observed a moment's silence."
By the time the Board of Governors met a few days later it was clear that Jill Dando's death was cold-blooded murder. Security was now of prime concern as senior staff believed that the attack could be part of a wider operation against the BBC.
Mr Hall told the meeting he had himself been named by a caller to the BBC who claimed responsibility for Ms Dando's death.
The confidential minute notes: "A call had been received from someone with a mid-European accent, claiming that Jill Dando's death was linked to Nato action in Serbia, and that Tony Hall would be next."
The threat was taken very seriously by the BBC which stepped up security and asked all staff to wear name badges. Bag searches and scans were introduced for visitors along with tighter rules on escorting visitors from reception and stronger security for couriers and commercial deliveries. Similarly tight security measures were adopted for outside broadcasts. All BBC presenters and other high-profile staff were offered advice about how to cope under these new working conditions.
Mr Hall and his family were moved from their home into a hotel.
But while the BBC was taking the threat extremely seriously, the same may not have been true of the police. The board of governors minute notes: "The police were sceptical about the claim but had advised that care needed to be exercised."
This may have been a key moment in the investigation. But instead the police homed in on Barry George, a loner already known to the police, who had been seen in the area at the time of the shooting. His conviction was quashed last year, prompting criticism of the early investigation.
Oblivious to the police inquiries at the time, BBC staff were paying tributes to the loss of a much loved talent. That week, Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of the board of governors, expressed the board's sorrow at her death, saying he had written on the board's behalf to her fiancé and family.
"She had touched many people in the BBC and her murder was a particularly awful event," said Sir Christopher.
Tony Hall said he could not remember anything which had hit staff so badly: "Jill Dando had been a wonderful, warm, person and very professional." A minute's silence had been observed in the News Centre and much time had been spent talking to staff, helping them cope with a very personal loss and to carry on doing a professional job, the report said.
Matthew Bannister, then chief executive of BBC production, added that counselling had been offered to staff on Crimewatch and on Holiday.
Mr Birt said Ms Dando had represented the quintessential face of the BBC. "She had sterling personal qualities, with no element of the prima donna. She was a stalwart member of the team and a true loyalist to the BBC. Her murder was simply devastating."
As for the coverage of Jill Dando's death, BBC governor Dame Pauline Neville-Jones said that while outsiders shared the BBC's sense of devastation, it was important, "to keep matters in proportion". Mr Hall said the most difficult programme to get right had been the Six O'Clock News, where all the staff had worked with Jill. "It had been right to reduce the coverage at nine."
Finally Sir Christopher read out a letter he had received from Nick Ross, Jill Dando's colleague at Crimewatch, expressing appreciation for the support provided by management.
Four days after the murder, a BBC weekly programme review board met to discuss the network's coverage of her death. Alan Yentob, then the BBC director of television, acknowledged that everyone in the newsroom had been deeply affected but said that it was, "it was very unusual situation to have to report on the murder of a close associate".
Jane Lush, a close friend of Jill Dando and controller of daytime television, said that in Monday night's "hurriedly compiled tribute" they had aimed at simplicity and to show the breadth of her work. It was what they believed Jill would have wanted. She said that several former colleagues had turned up to help with the tribute.
William Wyatt, chief executive of BBC broadcasting, said it had been an "excellent" programme, adding that everyone had, "behaved well in very difficult circumstances". He commended News 24 (launched two years previously) and the bulletins, especially Michael Buerk's piece on the Nine O'Clock News. Mr Wyatt said Jill Dando, "embodied old-fashioned virtues but was a completely modern person... This was a tragedy which was not yet over." And he predicted that there would also be "difficult decisions for her programme-makers".
Two years later Barry George was on trial for Jill Dando's murder.
A meeting of the programme review board on 9 July 2001 (after the guilty verdict) made it clear that the BBC had wanted to be ready on the day with a special programme about the killing, and that executives were concerned about viewing figures. Lorraine Heggessey, BBC1 controller, explained that she had decided on a 7pm broadcast slot, regardless of whether or not there was a verdict that afternoon, rather than saving it until the next day. But she added that it was "unlucky having Tim Henman against it".
A high-profile murder
11.47am, 26 April 1999 Jill Dando shot dead on the steps of her home in west London.
Pm, 26 April 1999 Tony Hall is told at Broadcasting House that Jill Dando has been attacked. He later phones John Birt to say she has died.
Six months later The murder investigation team had spoken to more than 2,500 people and taken more than 1,000 statements. With little progress after a year, the police focused on the odd behaviour of a man who lived around half a mile from Dando's home.
29 May 2000 Barry George charged with murder.
2 July 2001 George convicted. He was later sentenced to life.
29 July 2002 Court of Appeal rejects George's claim that key evidence was flawed.
20 June 2007 New scientific doubts over gunshot residue lead to George's conviction being quashed.
1 Aug 2008 George unanimously acquitted in retrial.
June 2009 Scotland Yard says the murder inquiry remains open and is under review.
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