Editorial: As the new Director-General, Tony Hall can draw a line under the BBC's dramas

He needs to provide both sound judgement and a real sense of vision

Independent Voices
Sunday 31 March 2013 20:03

Tomorrow morning Tony Hall can put flesh on the bones of his ambitious mission statement to start “building a world-class team to lead a world-class BBC”. At the same time, he can begin to grapple with a host of separate, but interlinked, crises besetting a popular, troubled and irreplaceable institution.

Great things are expected of the new Director General after 12 successful years at the Royal Opera, where he won praise for making a highbrow art form more accessible to the wider public, and for stripping away the air of snobbery and social elitism that had long surrounded opera without resorting to the tactics of dumbing down.

He was also – a not unimportant point in his new job – adept at teasing money out of the Government, a skill that he will need to demonstrate in spades as the next bruising round of negotiations on the BBC licence fee hones into view in 2016.

He starts job at a time when talk is more widespread than ever of the BBC being in the throes of a general crisis. Much of this talk is misplaced and mischievous and we should be aware of the corner from which it comes, that of the same diehard enemies of the corporation who complain endlessly about how left wing it is and who would love to see the whole business dismantled.

We should beware of buying into their Cassandra-like predictions of doom. Most polls show that levels of public confidence in the BBC remain robust, remarkably so given the number of recent scandals that have afflicted the corportation, and at a time when society tends to look on all big institutions with mistrust.

At the same time, it would not do to underestimate the size of the “urgent” section of Lord Hall’s in-tray.

Brush fires crackle away, from two key reports due out this year, by Dame Janet Smith on the Savile case and by Dinah Rose QC on accusations of bullying, to further strike threats and attacks on the corporation’s alleged disinterest in the arts and ratings-chasing mentality.

It is not a good sign when Sir Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre and Melvyn Bragg attack you almost as vigorously as the most right-wing Conservatives, albeit for very different reasons.

Behind many of the separate ailments afflicting the BBC lie common, broad causes: drift at the top, a perception that management is reactive and too often dragged along by events, a growing alienation between journalists and executives; a question mark about what the BBC still stands for.

These are deep-seated problems of corporate culture, which cannot be cured overnight by the stroke of a pen, although a clearer separation of editorial and management functions following the appointments of a director of news and a director of television should help.

Beyond pushing through important administrative changes, wielding the sword to bloated and suffocating layers of management and – we hope – placing a much greater emphasis on promoting women, the BBC looks to Lord Hall to provide it with a renewed sense of being led by someone who combines sound judgement with a real vision of the role of a publicly-funded broadcaster in the modern age.

The BBC must be more than a mirror held up to society, reflecting back what it thinks it sees. Where is the risk and adventure in that? Lord Hall himself has said that the BBC should be something that people find exciting, which at the same time they think of as a friend. A splendid metaphor. Let’s hope that he can pull it off.

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