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LONDON – TV industry veteran Tony Hall, 62, will land in his role as the new director general of the BBC Tuesday April 2 at a time when the U.K. public broadcaster has finally seen public outcry settle following last fall’s Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal.
His appointment as the broadcaster’s 16th full-time boss had come last fall less than two weeks after George Entwistle abruptly resigned as director general after only 54 days amid the fallout at the broadcaster from the growing scandal.
Hall’s selection process didn’t involve alternative candidates, which drew some criticism, but industry observers say Hall seems to bring key skills to the post.
Many cite his news and cultural credentials – he most recently served as CEO of London’s Royal Opera House.
And they say he is both an insider – since he spent a long time at the BBC where he started out as trainee in 1973 before rising through the ranks to senior roles including director of news and current affairs, television – as well as an outsider who can bring a set of fresh eyes to challenges.
“There are not many people with enough understanding of news and, at the same time, enough detachment to ensure he has no stake in protecting the existing culture as Hall,” said Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi.
Richard Sambrook, a former BBC News top executive who briefly served as Hall’s deputy and currently is director of the Center for Journalism at Cardiff University, called Hall “politically sure-footed” and an executive who is “not radical, but progressive and looking forward and being innovative.”
Added Sambrook: “He balances the core necessities with looking ahead.”
Sambrock told THR that the new boss has three key challenges. One is rebuilding the BBC’s executive team.
“There have been many temporary and acting positions,” Sambrook explains. “He has started to address that by bringing in very senior people. He builds very strong professional relationships with people and works with them closely.”
Hall, after his appointment, moved swifly to re-jig the management, hiring Channel 4 chief operating officer Anne Bulford as its new managing director of finance and operations — a newly created role. Bulford previously worked with Hall at the Royal Opera House.
Hall has also expanded Tim Davie’s role as head of BBC Worldwide; Davie was acting director general in the months between Entwistle’s resignation and Hall’s start date.
Davie’s new role, effective April 2 when Hall starts, will incorporate a more strategic global perspective.
As CEO, BBC Worldwide and director of global, Davie will be responsible for developing the BBC’s international brand and editorial strategy.
Hall also named current BBC News director Helen Boaden as director, BBC Radio, effective April 15, and appointed TV producer James Purnell, a former government minister for film, as director of strategy and digital.
Hall’s second challenge is reorganizing the BBC, according to Sambrook. “A lot of what the Pollard and Savile reviews have shown is poor communication and structural issues,” he said. “Tony Hall will have to simplify the structure of the organization to ensure stronger management and communication.”
From the Pollard review, Hall inherits an organization described by the 185-page report of an independent review carried out by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard into the handling of and fallout from the decision to ax a Newsnight investigation into Savile as “completely incapable.”
Given that Hall ran BBC News for more than 10 years “at a time of great expansion in a very strong and stable period, he understands how to run big and complex organizations,” Sambrook said.
Hall’s final challenge will be topics that will affect the future course of the BBC, particularly the broadcaster’s next charter and its funding arrangement.
“Given criticism [from some quarters] of the license fee [that U.K. taxpayers pay for the BBC], it is about having a strong vision for what the BBC can be in the digital age,” Sambrock explained. “It has to be something positive that all will find appropriate – competitors, politicians and staff.”
Hall earlier this year gave The Guardian an interview, in which he said that while there was a need to take risks, there was no need to take them “willy-nilly or recklessly” and that everything has to be thought through.
“You give people the confidence to be bold and run with what they want to do. If things do go wrong then you have to have the confidence to say okay, we got that wrong, let’s learn from it and move on,” Hall said, giving an early insight into his aims and management style.
He has so far declined to spell out his plans for the broadcaster but did outline what he had learned from his time at the ROH.
“Here it is all about what artists want to do, directors want to do, and audiences. Management is about enabling those things to happen to the very highest level. It is about setting the conditions whereby artists flourish and can do what they do best,” Hall told the Guardian.
Observers expect him to do some press, but otherwise first approach issues internally.
“He will take his time to come out with a big vision,” predicted Sambrock. “He will do a lot of thinking and planning first. He is very big on research, market understanding and insight. He really does these things in-depth. So, I expect him to steady the ship and do a lot of work.”
Industry watchers also describe Hall as friendly and vernacular, but also as someone who recognizes he must be tough at times. “He is friendly, but there is a core of steel inside,” said Sambrock. “Steel with a velvet glove.” At times seen as an establishment person, fans also highlight his sense of humor though.
How will that personality affect Hall’s relationship with journalist unions that have been striking or threatening strikes in recent months? “I’m sure he will want to establish a relationship with them, but [job] cuts will have to continue,” said one former BBC staffer.
This mix of personable approach yet business focus was visible in the fact that Hall had the BBC advertise for new BBC News and BBC Vision bosses. These jobs in the past were hardly ever advertised and instead filled from within, they say.
“There will be staff changes, and some of them may benefit ITV or Sky News, but ultimately I expect the BBC to emerge a stronger organization from all this,” said Aspesi.
Hall became head of BBC News and Current Affairs in 1996 and held that post until 2001. In the role, he oversaw the launch of BBC News Online, Radio 5 Live, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament, which observers say gave him experience in digital media and the launch of new services and businesses.
He also has a strong cultural resume given his role as head of the Royal Opera House since 2001 and the fact that he served as chairman of the Cultural Olympiad, a series of cultural events tied to the London 2012 Summer Olympics.
At the Royal Opera House, Hall showed an ability to balance culture and financials. Observers have lauded him for bringing financial stability to the institution, putting it into a more global spotlight and even creating an iPad app, which allows fans to play an opera impresario.
He has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2010 and has written books called “King Coal” (1981), a history of the National Union of Mineworkers, and “Nuclear Power” (1984).
In a press conference announcing his appointment, Hall said: “I’m committed to making this a place where creative people, the best and the brightest, want to work.”
Come April 2, he will start trying to make that a reality.
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