Such was the adulation that greeted the appointment of Tony Hall as the new Director General of the BBC today that one could not help by wonder why the Royal Opera House chief had not been appointed before.
The BBC Trust, which selected Hall just 12 days after the resignation of his ill-fated predecessor George Entwistle and without advertising the position, said that its decision had been “unanimous” and that no other candidates had been approached.
Given the rapidity of the process Lord Patten, the chairman of the Trust, faced questions as to why Mr Hall, a highly-regarded former BBC news chief, had not been selected earlier this year rather than Mr Entwistle, who held the post for just 54 days before stepping down this month following the furore over the Lord McAlpine and Jimmy Savile scandals.
Lord Patten said Mr Hall, 61, who was also overseeing the Cultural Olympiad as part of London 2012, had considered that his age was against him. “He said he’d loved his time at the BBC but maybe a younger person should do the job,” said the BBC Trust chairman. “Clearly by this November things had changed substantially.”
The BBC had previously missed a chance to give Mr Hall the top job in 2000 when it chose Greg Dyke, who was brought down by the Hutton inquiry four years later. Instead, Mr Hall headed to the Royal Opera House where he has greatly improved its standing and increased annual revenues from £45m to £106m.
BBC sources said that when the organisation was plunged into its latest leadership crisis, the Opera House chief “saw the moment and understood that he is needed”.
His appointment was applauded by senior BBC figures who remember him as the man who launched key services such as Radio 5 Live, 24-hour television news and BBC News Online. BBC grandee David Dimbleby commented: “I feel like I’m serving in the Royal Navy when the message came in: ‘Winston is back.’”
Alan Yentob, the BBC Creative Director, told The Independent: “He is very thoughtful and has got good judgement – this is a great day for the BBC.”
Hall has a strong journalistic track record as a former chief executive of BBC News and editor of the Nine O’Clock News. The BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, currently based in Gaza, tweeted to welcome him back. “Excellent appointment,” he said.
Arriving at New Broadcasting House in London yesterday, Mr Hall admitted it “takes a lot” to lure him away from a job where he spends his working hours in the company of the Royal Ballet’s prima ballerinas, masterful set designers and globally-famous opera singers.
But as he spoke to staff he quickly began to use the inclusive language that will be needed to rebuild the organisation’s shattered confidence. “I am absolutely committed to our news room as a world-beater,” he said.
The new DG will actually take up his post in March as he turns 62. Entwistle was 50 when he began the job two months ago and the previous incumbent, Mark Thompson, was 46.
Tim Davie, who will remain acting Director General until the Spring, is only 45.
But Hall, who will be the 16th DG and will receive a salary of £450,000 (slightly more than the £390,000 he received at the Royal Opera House) is a hands-on leader who patrols the corridors of his Covent Garden empire with a vigour that suggests he has energy for the task ahead. He is a technology enthusiast who has promoted opera through 3D cinema screenings and the development of an iPad app which takes users behind the scenes at the Opera House by allowing them to play at being “stage manager”.
He is a fully-paid up member of the Arts establishment who works closely with the likes of Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate and Sir Nicholas Kenyon of the Barbican in raising Britain’s cultural profile. But he also talks incessantly of “engaging new audiences” and has tried to make opera prices more affordable.
Since becoming a peer in March 2010 he has sat firmly on the cross benches.
Lord McAlpine today confirmed that he had received £125,000 and legal costs from ITV following an on-air stunt by Phillip Schofield, in which the peer was wrongly smeared on a list of “Tory paedophiles” handed to David Cameron by the presenter.
Tony Hall: Career highlights
1985 Becomes editor of the Nine O’Clock News at the age of 34, having joined the BBC as a trainee 12 years earlier
1994 Launches Radio 5 Live, a network that will go on to become a BBC institution
1999 As chief executive of BBC News, Hall, at the age of 48, applies to become Director-General but is passed over in favour of Greg Dyke
2001 Appointed chief executive of the Royal Opera House. He inherits a struggling organisation with annual turnover of £45m. He turns that into £106m
2012 The sudden resignation of George Entwistle gives him an unexpected opportunity to take the BBC’s top job at the age of 61