Tony Hall: On a Rescue Mission

Tony Hall: On a Rescue Mission

By Anne McElvoy,
Friday, 3rd July 2015
Tony Hall
Tony Hall
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As Tony Hall prepares for an epic Charter battle, Anne McElvoy detects an upbeat mood at Broadcasting House. Can he win over the BBC’s critics?

For an insight into the day job of the BBC Director-General two years into his role, I pop into Tony Hall's plate-glass eyrie at New Broadcasting House. I arrive in the aftermath of one of the regular encyclicals that DGs dispense.

He's sung the praises of the BBC's place in a "thriving, free and competitive market", an alternative to what a colleague terms the "Joni Mitchell" school of heartstring-tugging about the Beeb's innate brilliance.

The most powerful figure in British broadcasting has lulled the non-­specialists into catatonia with a description of the end of "managed competition" – the BBC's cherished in-house commissioning quotas.

He is replacing it with something called BBC Studios, a producer big enough to vie with the new mega-­independents. This leaves BBC staff able to sell their wares to other networks – "free to stand on their own two feet", concludes Lord Hall, in what is a masterful alchemy of threat and promise.

A year into the job, it still felt as if the mild-mannered son of Birkenhead was sweeping up the shards from the horrors of Savile to the debris from the evanescent tenure of George Entwistle.

The end of year two feels more like it embodies his BBC. "The place had blown in a Shakespearean sense when he arrived," says an ally.

A largely defensive posture has been replaced by an upbeat one. In a building where few senior executives regularly stroll the corridors glad-handing staff, the DG frequently strides out, often with strategy chief James Purnell in tow, nodding and smiling to startled members of the workforce.

He reels off visits to Belfast, Salford – and, yes, even other parts of the BBC's still-neglected north – as a sign that he has reconnected to what the corporation does day to day. When he wants to go incognito, he dons an old-fashioned pair of sunglasses, reminiscent of a 1950s package tourist.

I ask the head of a major arts organisation if he reckons that Hall's key achievement is a return of stability, and am pointed to the fact that there "hasn't been a real crisis on Tony's watch and he makes sure there isn't one".

With the inevitability of Greek fate, we all wake up the next day to find that Jeremy Clarkson has allegedly thumped his producer, putting the future of Top Gear, one of the corporation's most beloved, loathed and internationally profitable brands, in jeopardy.

A petition of 1 million people subsequently demanded the presenter's reinstatement, while Clarkson less than helpfully added that he thought the nation's biggest broadcaster had "fucked up" his show. Crisis, what crisis?

The incident showed how precarious the BBC's balancing act can be. Hall's early response was typically judicial. He wanted "to get to the facts".

But the facts mask a vicious culture war, between those who think that Clarkson's rebellious streak is a tonic in a broadcast realm in hock to safely calibrated beliefs and multiple diversity targets, and those who see the presenter as a menace, best left to roar off to a commercial competitor.

In the end, Clarkson was let go, but the affair pointed to the central BBC contradiction: is it, at heart, a big, popular broadcaster or a lightning rod for preferred values?

Hall has taken on similarly fraught challenges before, though, at the Royal Opera House. There, he calmed fractious unions and ended managerial off-stage strife.

Antonio Pappano, its Music Director and a close friend, says he appreciated Hall's "eternal calm in many storms", and his capacity for combining commercial savvy with good (and strategically useful) works.

Sensitive to the Opera House's reputation as an elite institution, he expanded its work on education and participation, attending the meetings in person.

As a member of its Learning and Participation Committee, I have had an insight into Lord Hall the operator. He would balance out instincts and aversions cannily, encouraging challenges as well as applause, while sounding sympathetic to almost everyone.

The only difficulty – which persists in the new role – is knowing which proposals one could take as likely to result in action and which not. Much is described in Hall-world as "fantastic". Anything less than outright enthusiasm means disapproval.

That brings us to the thorny part. Does the DG's intention of creating a BBC that is open to all talents, less clique-ridden (by implication) and less over-stuffed with managers, stand up to scrutiny?

He admits that the corporation is still somewhat devolved in the wrong places, despite a drive to excise at least some management layers. Yet unions and freelancers share a view (often for opposing reasons) that roles are somehow parcelled out on an inside track, and that, creatively, the BBC is more like Gormenghast than open mic night.

Add to that: shifting targets for a higher on-air profile that tend to lurch from women one year to older women the next to ethnic diversity this last year. Quite what the Beeb considers meritocracy can be a bit muddy.

Much is described in Hall-world as ‘fantastic’. Anything less than outright enthusiasm means disapproval

Hall's team has come under scrutiny. He appointed prominent outsiders – the former Labour minister Purnell as strategy boss and ex-Times Editor James Harding as Director of News and Current Affairs – as well as bringing the former Guardian Deputy Editor Ian Katz in to edit Newsnight.

The logic was clear: a fresh start at the top, employing talented voices with experience of politics and the media outside the BBC bubble.

But the impression of a clique remains. "Tony has not met a 40-something, privately educated, matey male with a short name he doesn't like," sighs an executive outside the inner circle.

He has appointed and promoted women: Anne Bulford, Hall's feared Managing Director of BBC Finance and Operations; Fran Unsworth, head of the World Service; and Fiona Campbell, an outspoken new current affairs chief.

Still, a senior (female) editor wonders if Hall "has the courtliness of his generation [he's 64] and deems women a bit less naturally ambitious than men".

That would surprise his wife, Cynthia, until recently a ferociously strong head of the elite Wycombe Abbey girls' school turned headhunter.

If Hall might have to plead guilty to the charge of cliquishness, he has diplomatic talents to seduce the outside world. And few outright enemies.

He arrived at the corporation via Birkenhead grammar and PPE at Oxford and has the kind of CV the BBC relishes – namely, a long and well-padded internal one: Editor of BBC Nine O'Clock News; Director of News and Current Affairs; and the man behind the launch of Radio 5 Live, BBC News 24 and BBC News Online.

He was not, however, an inevitable victor in the 1999 race for the top job: he was passed over in favour of Greg Dyke, and decamped to the Royal Opera House and the Channel 4 board.

Even after that, the BBC was never far from his thoughts. Giving me advice on how to pitch programmes to Channel 4, he recommended "thinking of what you do for the BBC and suggesting the exact opposite".

He has said that he "cannot imagine a world without the BBC". These days, however, the fragmentation of the corporation, if not its annihilation, is quite easy to imagine.

Disaggregation, I suggest, is a force so powerful that it is likely – later, if not sooner – to subvert a licence-fee-funded broadcaster that relies on a one-size-fits-all funding model.

If Hall might have to plead guilty to the charge of cliquishness, he has the diplomatic talents to seduce the outside world

Hall replies (rather hotly) that he firmly believes that there are "things everybody should have" – things that hold the national fabric together, whether it is a notable performance of The Duchess of Malfi on television, The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing. All DGs have to profess a love for shiny floor shows.

He is convinced that universality is what people crave in a more segmented media landscape (though we don't really know what people crave until they get a say in it).

In truth, he does not much relish "what if " conversations about whether the BBC might one day run a partial subscription model – a subject on which he is unusually testy. But then, "no politician argues for coalition," explains a senior ally of his in the licence-fee renewal talks. "We have to pitch for an overall majority."

The immediate objective is to secure a return of the licence fee in the 10-year Charter renewal to be negotiated by 2017 (almost no one is counting on a real-terms rise). Perhaps the licence fee is like Matthew Arnold's "long, withdrawing roar" – but it has proved resilient.

Few fear that Hall will fail outright to deliver its renewal, whoever is in No 10. His headache is how to make it fund his ambition to keep the BBC up to date with digital innovation, while serving a wide audience, to prove its relevance, and keeping enough in the kitty to adequately fund factual programmes on TV and radio.

Mind-stretching programmes can wither on the vine of a cash-strapped broadcaster; it is much harder to grow them back.

An emotive case for the BBC is easy to make, but one made for its cost-effectiveness might sound less and less convincing as audiences increasingly segment themselves.

Hence his announcement of "compete or compare", opening the BBC to competition and benchmarking its performance in back-office areas and production.

If old-timers sniff the approach of further squeezes on staffing, they're probably not wrong. The strategy is clear: "I will not make a case about the future level of the licence fee until I am confident... that we have done everything to make the BBC as efficient as possible," says Hall. It is body-armour for future negotiations.

The definition of what is subject to competition and what is not does tend to wander a bit.

Television drama production is a case in point. It is being floated off into BBC Studios, a complex pseudo-­company that will create scale and a platform for the best to sell their shows elsewhere. But BBC drama cannot necessarily compete at the market rate and neither can it be sold off.

"Playing at shops," snorts an American producer.

At the same time, current affairs – the part of factual output that could profit most from more eclecticism in commissioning and ideas – remains a semi-autonomous republic of news. And thus not open to competition.

Hall thinks that tough calls, such as a difficult Panorama, need a short chain of management. This might be true, but it is hardly an answer to whether commissioning is bold or curious enough overall.

He has taken much of the heat out of allegations of political bias. Some think he errs on the safe side and that the near-saturation coverage of Wolf Hall was the sign of a safety-first approach to the dramas that help define a network.

His greatest personal enthusiasm is reserved for the arts, albeit with less focus on challenging those who produce the shows than on reassuring us that arts will be covered. Edginess may not prove a Hall speciality.

Hall's message to the purse-string holder in No 10 after May will be a recasting of sturdy BBC principles: tooth-and-nail impartiality and the argument that, in a bewildering world, the Beeb is better than most broadcasters at separating the signal from the noise.

And, beneath the geniality, watch out for a touch of steel as the haggling gets under way.

Anne McElvoy is Policy Editor of The Economist and presents programmes for BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.

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