Going live: Can new Director General Tony Hall overhaul the BBC?

The honeymoon is over. His new team, minus a trusted deputy, is in place and a heaving intray of problems awaits. Ian Burrell rates his prospects
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“The BBC’s best days lie ahead of us,” Tony Hall wrote in his cheerleading introductory email to staff in April. Three months later, his best days may already be behind him.

The honeymoon is over for the new director-general, now that he finally has his top team in place. From here on, the serious work begins and the task before this popular peer of the realm looks a daunting one.

Most importantly he must – in an era of austerity and an atmosphere of unrelenting hostility from cash-strapped commercial media rivals – persuade hard-pressed ministers to underwrite the BBC’s financial future until 2026.

His negotiating hand will be a weak one unless he manages to restore the organisation’s damaged reputation as a news provider and can silence critics who say the corporation has lost its nerve in commissioning original entertainment shows.

And he will not have his staff behind him unless he can head off the possibility of strikes over pay and conditions and address long-term problems over bullying and gender inequality.

Today, Hall lost Roger Mosey, a key lieutenant, who has opted to give up his new role of editorial director in favour of becoming master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. Today, BBC unions begin a consultative ballot over whether to accept Hall’s latest pay offer or head towards industrial action.

When a storm cloud burst over New Broadcasting House this week, following revelations of the BBC’s astonishing largesse in paying £60m to departing senior managers over the past five years, the organisation was quick to write the matter off as a legacy issue. It even fingered the guilty parties by rushing out details of the earnings of the BBC’s former leaders in the past financial year.

And when Hall emailed staff to say he was closing down the BBC’s disastrous £100m digital media initiative (DMI) archive project, it was to “draw a line” under the pecuniary “waste” of his predecessors.

He won’t be able to carry on like this forever. “It’s a bit like a new government coming in,” one BBC source said. “You can carry on blaming the previous administration for a certain amount of time but you have got to show you are getting to grips with it.”

While this defensive strategy is entirely understandable, it also illustrates some of Hall’s problems. Appointed last November in the wake of the Savile crisis, he must have hoped that matter would be largely dealt with by the time he started work nearly six month later. Instead the legacy issues have kept coming. 

The conviction of the former BBC presenter Stuart Hall for sexually abusing girls, and the arrests of other BBC figures as part of Scotland Yard’s Operation Yewtree, have damaged the broadcaster’s reputation, as has the news of its profligacy on computers and severance packages.

Mark Thompson, described by the BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten as “an outstanding director-general” when he left last year, has some serious questions to answer to the Commons Public Accounts Committee. Now running the New York Times, his time at the BBC doesn’t look as rosy as it did.

Few directors-general survive unscathed. Thompson’s predecessor, Greg Dyke, was forced to resign over the David Kelly affair. His successor, George Entwistle, lasted only 54 days before he quit over the Lord McAlpine fiasco. Why should Tony Hall get an easy ride?

The truth is that he has inherited an organisation with more deep-rooted problems than many thought possible in the heady days that followed the BBC’s triumphant coverage of the London Olympics last summer.

Speaking this week with current and former members of the executive board, figures at the BBC Trust, presenters and journalists from the BBC newsroom, and producers of entertainment shows, it is clear that the director-general’s problems are manifold.

The loss of Mosey is significant. Not only was he the figure who masterminded the Olympics triumph, he had the crucial role of overseeing coverage of next year’s centenary of the First World War. This is crucial programming for the BBC, an opportunity to emphasise its difference and define the debate about the need for a properly funded public service broadcaster, ahead of the negotiations on the licence fee which are likely to take place soon after the 2015 general election.

“World War I is a classic BBC landmark event and a lot will be thrown at that anniversary,” one senior executive said. “You are looking for the sweet spots that work with the public and the political classes.”

The strategy was to use the anniversary of the war to highlight the centenary of the BBC itself, in 2022, emphasising the broadcaster’s great traditions. “It’s a shrewd way of framing the debate,” a source said. “The World War I anniversary is only a few years away from the centenary of the BBC. It gets the politicians and the public thinking about the BBC as a long-term national asset rather than something short term.” But Mosey was supposed to head all that up.

Furthermore, as editorial director, this experienced journalist was also tasked with providing a buffer between Hall and the news room to protect him from the kind of fallout which brought down Entwistle.

In the pristine corridors of New Broadcasting House there remains a sense of hiatus, nine months after the Savile scandal rocked the confidence of the BBC’s most important division.

Hall has appointed James Harding as his director of news, but the former editor of The Times is on paternity leave and will not start work until August. “We feel like we’ve been a bit rudderless,” one well-known television news figure said.

BBC journalists welcome Harding as a “sleeves-rolled-up” leader who will want to focus on stories while his deputy, Fran Unsworth, concentrates on the more managerial elements of running a team of 8,000.

But with backgrounds in newspapers, both Harding and Ian Katz (the former deputy editor of The Guardian and the new editor of Newsnight) face a steep learning curve in broadcast journalism. Harding has, on a visit to his new troops, acknowledged that more mistakes are inevitable in a large news organisation, but the reality is that both he and his director general will be easily bruised, given what has gone before. As one source said: “We can’t really afford any other big mistakes.”

Most of Hall’s appointments, up to his right-hand man and director of strategy and digital, James Purnell, have been male. Two astute exceptions have been the no-nonsense finance chief Anne Bulford, who has already impressed colleagues, and the new controller of BBC1, Charlotte Moore, an executive with bravery and ambition. But that’s about it.

“There had been quite a lot of women in high positions and suddenly there aren’t,” one insider said. Certainly the BBC Trust will expect Hall to do better in this regard, in both  executive roles and on-air positions.

But he must address this issue without adding unnecessarily to the BBC’s management payroll. The excess of senior executives was highlighted during – although not initially acknowledged by – the Thompson regime. But there are too many junior managers too.

John Lloyd, a pivotal figure in BBC entertainment for decades, said the bureaucracy in the comedy and drama departments was stifling originality. “There’s a huge hierarchy and at every stage the idea has to be filtered,” he said. “News guys run the corporation and they don’t realise this is going wrong.”

Already suffering from the budget cuts that resulted from the Delivering Quality First programme introduced after the freezing of the licence fee at the last settlement, many BBC workers feel unloved: witness the packed-out sessions at New Broadcasting House on workplace bullying led by the consultants Change Associates. To avert a strike, Hall’s team has raised its pay offer to 1 per cent or £800, and the deal will go to a vote this week.

Against this background, the director general and his bright aide Purnell, a former Culture Secretary, must prepare their case for charter renewal and a new licence fee. The 2006 settlement was played out with an expectation that any economic dip would be short-lived. Hall, however, is bartering in hard times.

The Liberal Democrats, helpful to the BBC last time, are likely to be weakened after the next election. If the Conservatives form part of the next government, some Tory backbenchers will want to settle perceived scores with the corporation. At least with two peers and a former minister in its senior ranks, the BBC will not be short of political connections.

Hall’s charter proposals will need to set out an entire vision for the BBC in the next 10 years, guessing the great unknown of technological advance and seeking to identify the future equivalent of the iPlayer. It must also explore the BBC’s global ambitions and how much it funds itself through foreign investment in its services and programmes.

Good luck to the genial Hall if he sees all this as the “best days”. With luck, he will still be in post when the BBC marks its centenary nine years from now. But well-placed colleagues believe he – and the BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten – will not wish to stay that long. In which case there is also a succession issue to work on.

Tony Hall’s big challenges

Licence fee Tony Hall’s biggest challenge. In the face of austerity cuts he must lobby politicians for a new Royal Charter and Licence Fee, setting the budget that the BBC must exist on until 2026.

World War One The BBC’s coverage of the Great War centenary next year can show the need for properly-funded public service broadcasting. The loss yesterday of editorial director and Great War supremo Roger Mosey, who is taking a new job at the University of Cambridge, is a blow after he led the BBC’s successful Olympics coverage last year.

More women Hall has a largely male top team, balanced by BBC1 head Charlotte Moore and finance chief Anne Bulford. He has a big challenge to increase female on screen talent and will be monitored closely on this by the BBC Trust.

Bullying The DG needs to head off staff industrial action and follow up on promises to improve safety after the Dinah Rose QC review into workplace harassment at the BBC, another key concern for the BBC Trust.

Sex abuse The Dame Janet Smith review into the culture that allowed Jimmy Savile to operate is a legacy issue but still has the potential to damage the BBC when it is looking for financial support.

News Director of News James Harding has not started work and the division that brought down the last DG remains in limbo. Two of Hall’s most senior journalist appointments – Harding and Newsnight editor Ian Katz – must show they can successfully transition from newspapers to broadcasting.

Programming The BBC is overburdened with management layers, hampering the commissioning of original and risky programmes.

Global Can Tony Hall make BBC programmes and services the money spinners that can offset budget shortfalls?

Digital A big unknown. The DG will rely heavily here on his bright Director of Digital & Strategy James Purnell, a former Culture Secretary. John Birt championed the BBC website, Greg Dyke had digital channels and Mark Thompson had iPlayer. What will Hall leave?

Succession Some colleagues don’t expect Lord Hall to stay long after securing Charter Renewal in 2016. He may want to line up a successor.