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Friday, 3 March, 2000, 02:22 GMT
Broadcasters in a spin
Laurie Margolis and Caroline Thomsett in the BBC News Centre
In the hotseat: The BBC's Laurie Margolis (right)
It is every TV newsroom's nightmare - the big story that starts to go wrong. The broadcasters were thrown into a spin when General Pinochet left the Surrey mansion that had been his home for 16 months - and disappeared.

The plane that would take him home to Chile had flown to an unknown airbase. There were no pictures - just a fleeting shot of Pinochet's car. No pictures in TV and you're in big trouble.

In the hotseat at the BBC News Centre in west London was TV News Organiser Laurie Margolis, who takes up the story.

In theory, the BBC's TV coverage of the final days of General Pinochet's detention was straightforward, if complex.

For weeks we had a van parked in the best camera position at the entrance to the exclusive Wentworth Estate in Surrey.

Also for weeks, a dark grey Chilean Airforce Boeing 707 had been waiting about 80 miles west of London at RAF Brize Norton to take Pinochet home if ever he was freed.

So it should be simple. Cameras and satellite dish at Wentworth, more of the same at Brize Norton, and Adios Senor Pinochet. It's never that simple.

BBC News Centre
The nerve centre of BBC News
It started to come off the rails at 0530 GMT, two and a half hours before the Straw statement. The Chilean Boeing took off. No indication why, or where it was going. Had Pinochet been slipped away early ? Was he not to be freed at all ? Was the plane just running safety checks ? Where had it gone ?

Officials at Brize were not helpful, only saying that we were wasting our time there, and also at nearby RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, an obvious alternative.

In the newsroom, we'd been playing Guess The Airport. Would it be Heathrow or Gatwick, both quite close? We were told not. How about RAF Northolt ? Probably too small to handle a 707, though we sent a camera crew to take a look.


Then the bit of luck even the most sophisticated news operation needs it now and then; someone, either a plane spotter or an informed source, rang our Nottingham newsroom. The plane was at a base many of us hadn't heard of - RAF Waddington near Lincoln in eastern England. It sounded unlikely - why there? - but Nottingham sent camera crews, a microwave truck and correspondents, and there it was - through the rain and mist, a grey Chilean Boeing 707.

BBC crew organisers in the News Centre
Camera crew organisers had a hectic day
Meanwhile, we were tracking the Pinochet convoy in case there was some further twist to this pursuit. We got one call saying there was, after all, a Chilean 707 at Farnborough. A Chilean reporter assured us it would definitely be Gatwick. Someone was certain they'd seen Pinochet's car near Brize Norton.

Our motorcyclist followed the convoy through the leafy Surrey suburbs, onto the motorway system, reassuringly round the north side of London and onto the A1 main route north. It looked like Lincolnshire.

We aimed another cameraman at Elstree Aerodrome in Hertfordshire, to try to get aerial pictures of the convoy heading north. By this time we were getting pictures of the plane on the ground.

In the end it all came together. Nottingham's cameras got the convoy going into RAF Waddington. Our helicopter caught the convoy on the road just before it entered an exclusion zone around the military airfield. We got live pictures of the Boeing leaving for Chile, through rain and cloud, ahead of all the other broadcasters. Pinochet was gone and, with relief, we handed the story on to our foreign news colleagues.

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