U.K. Industry Lauds New BBC Head Tony Hall

ONE TIME USE - Tony Hall - H 2012
Luke Macgregor/Reuters

Observers like the 62-year-old's news and cultural credentials and say he mixes the benefits of an insider and outsider.


LONDON - Tony Hall's surprise appointment Thursday as the new top executive of the BBC came less than two weeks after George Entwistle resigned as director general after only 54 days. And the process, which didn't involve alternative candidates, is likely to draw at least some criticism.

But the decision to bring in the BBC and TV industry veteran was on Thursday widely lauded as a smart hire, with observers citing his news and cultural credentials as key for running the U.K. public broadcaster.

Many also highlighted that Hall, who will turn 62 in early March when he is scheduled to start his role, mixes the benefits of an insider, given his past career at the BBC, and the fresh eyes of an outsider, which will come in handy following the recent scandals that have affected the company's reputation.

Former BBC News top executive and current director of the Center for Journalism at Cardiff University Richard Sambrook called Hall the "perfect choice," highlighting that he is a "very experienced former BBC manager, had success outside the BBC and is editorially strong and "politically sure footed."

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi also lauded the appointment. "The most urgent issue the BBC faces is reviewing the news operations. Hall definitely understands news, although the world has changed quite a bit since he ran them at the BBC, and his tenure at the Royal Opera House is widely recognized as successful," he said. "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, so it looks like a good choice."

Asked if other big TV and media companies could in any way benefit from the return of Hall, he said: "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."

Hall previously worked at the BBC for 28 years, joining as a news trainee in 1973. He served as head of BBC News and Current Affairs from 1996 to 2001. While in that post, he oversaw the launch of BBC News Online, as well as Radio 5 Live, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament. The launches gave him the experience in digital media and the development of new businesses that observers said was key for any candidate for the top job.

In 1999, Hall was believed to have applied for the job of director general, but Greg Dyke ended up getting the job.

He has in recent years focused on such jobs as running the Royal Opera House and serving as chairman of the Cultural, a series of cultural events tied to the London 2012 Summer Olympics. This cultural background is also seen as valuable for the BBC given its focus on cultural programming. 

As CEO of the Royal Opera House since April 2001, he also proved his financial skills. Hall is credited with bringing financial stability to one of Britain’s largest arts institutions and putting its opera and ballet offers into a more global spotlight.

Among his digital initiatives, his team created an iPad app called "The Show Must Go On," which allows opera fans to play an impresario and be rewarded with bouquets of flowers for successful productions. He also set up a department devoted to supporting new artists and developing new audiences. 

He has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2010 and on Thursday earned political praised for his appointment.

Maria Miller, the U.K. culture, media and sports secretary, said: “He has a very strong track record in successfully leading iconic organizations…It is important now that Tony Hall gets to grips quickly – to provide the stability and certainty that the BBC needs and restore public confidence.”

Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman of the opposition Labour Party said: "Tony Hall is an excellent choice as the new director general of the BBC. He is the right person to bring stability to the BBC in these difficult times, and I look forward to working with him."

Some expect Hall to focus on getting the BBC through a tough time and possibly making way for a younger leader in a few years. "Like the U.S. presidency, it tends to go in four year terms with no one doing more than two terms," Sambrook said about the top BBC post. "Developing succession will be a key task along with fresh strategic vision."

Hall wrote books called "King Coal" (1981), a history of the National Union of Mineworkers, and "Nuclear Power" (1984). He is also an honorary doctor of literature at the University of London and an honorary fellow of Keble College Oxford.

It may not be surprising then that observers said that Hall has at times been seen as a dry British establishment figure. "But he actually has a lethal sense of humor," Sambrook said.

Hall seems able to deal with stress and criticism. After reports of audiences booing at Covent Garden earlier this year during the opening night of Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka, The Independent asked Hall about the negative reaction. "There were boos on the opening night," he conceded. "But on the nights I have been, there has been nothing but applause. You want a response from people, and sometimes that's boos. That's all right, it's live theatre."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com
Twitter: @georgszalai