A secret 10-day emergency process has culminated in the appointment of Royal Opera House chief executive Lord (Tony) Hall to the 450,000-a-year job of running the BBC, as the corporation turns to a former veteran to help begin the process of recovering from the Jimmy Savile and Newsnight crises.
Hall, 61, was the only person approached by chairman Lord Patten, who is himself under fire over the appointment of the short-lived previous director general George Entwistle. He was selected after a confidential meeting of the BBC’s governing Trust on Tuesday about which Patten said: “We interviewed him and he interviewed us.”
Patten added that he was relieved to appoint “a man who wasn’t available first time round,” saying that “almost everybody said he would be the best candidate”. And he insisted that having completed the rushed process that he would serve out his four-year term as chairman, despite criticism of his handling of the Savile crisis.
Hall joined the BBC as a trainee in 1973 after studying philosophy, politics and economics at Keble College, Oxford. He spent 29 years at the corporation, rising to become head of BBC News, where he was once on the receiving end of a death threat in the aftermath of the death of Jill Dando. He ran the news division for 11 years mostly under John (now Lord) Birt, before moving over to run the Royal Opera House in 2001. At Covent Garden, Hall is credited with stabilising the institution, in management turmoil when he arrived, and helping it shed its elitist image, by, for instance, introducing cut price nights for readers of the Sun.
The new director general made a brief appearance at Broadcasting House, saying that “it’s been a really tough few weeks for this organisation” but added that he was “absolutely committed to our news operation” and that he believed the BBC was “an essential part of the UK” and “part of who we are”. He took no questions, but went to visit the broadcaster’snewsroom and found, even after more than a decade away, he knew “half the people there”.
With so little time to consider his strategy for the BBC, Hall could offer few clues as to how he would lead it. He will have the task of agreeing new licence fee settlements and a new royal charter by 2017 – and a reorganisation of the BBC’s governance looks likely as Hall is sceptical about the effectiveness of the BBC Trust which acts as a regulator.
Hall said it was important to “have the right team in place” to run the BBC. At the moment, the broadcaster is currently without a director of television, a controller of radio and its director of news, Helen Boaden, is facing questions over whether she played any part in the suppression of an investigation into Savile’s child abuse, which was quashed by the Newsnight’s editor Peter Rippon last year. Patten said that he hoped Hall would work closely with Tim Davie, the acting director general, who is the only survivor of the broadcaster’s senior managers in place earlier this year.
Hall, a crossbencher, will retain his seat in the Lords, when he takes up the post in March 2013. His pay is below the level received by Mark Thompson, who, in some years, received more than 800,000 in pay and pension contributions during his eight-year tenure.
The incoming director general will, unusually, be old enough to draw a BBC pension in his time in charge, although the BBC declined to say how much. However, his accrued pension was worth 82,000 a year in 2001, according to the BBC annual report of the year when he left.
The surprise elevation was widely welcomed inside and outside the BBC. David Dimbleby, the presenter of Question Time, said he thought Hall was “a good public face for the BBC. I feel like I’m serving in the Royal Navy when the message came in: ‘Winston is back.’” Maria Miller, the culture secretary, praised his “very strong track record” before reminding him that it was “important now that Tony Hall gets to grips quickly” with the organisation to “restore public confidence”.
The BBC Trust decided to take the unusual step of making a direct approach to Hall after a series of meetings in the wake of Entwistle’s resignation the weekend before last. Ironically, Hall did not apply for the job when it last became vacant as a result of Thompson’s departure earlier this year – partly because he felt he was too old – and told Patten that he believed it was time for a new generation to take on the job.
However, with the BBC stricken first by the Savile child abuse revelations and then shattered by the disastrous Newsnight broadcast that wrongly linked Lord McAlpine to historic child sexual abuse in North Wales, Hall told friends that he “felt that it was his duty” to take the job.
Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, said that he believed that Hall was “the right man to run the BBC” given that he has both experience of the organisation and spent “10 years outside the BBC”.
At 61, Yentob said, he believed that Hall had “the judgment and wisdom” to run the BBC – and that his age was not a barrier.