STEPHEN GLOVER: Yes, Lord Hall steadied the ship at the BBC – but he has left it weaker
Tony Hall was having a pleasant time running the Royal Opera House in 2013 when he received the call to rescue the BBC, which had got itself into a mess. The Corporation had made the headlines, rather than reporting them, by refusing to run a programme investigating sex abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile.
A BBC2 Newsnight report had also incorrectly implicated Tory grandee Lord McAlpine in another sex abuse scandal. George Entwistle, director-general for less than two months, fell on his sword.
Now, nearly seven years after stepping into Mr Entwistle’s little-worn shoes, Lord Hall is leaving the Beeb for what seems like an agreeable role chairing the National Gallery. Some will say he deserves this final accolade at the end of a distinguished career.
BBC boss Tony Hall quit two years early yesterday – with commentators suggesting he was forced out to thwart the Government
Unquestionably, he managed to steady the ship after assuming control at the BBC. He is a smooth and clever man, and a seasoned administrator. Simply surviving as director-general has been no mean feat.
He has some achievements to his name. On his watch the BBC has kept pace with technological innovation — for example in developing its generally admirable iPlayer.
But there is a strong argument that the Corporation in 2020 is fundamentally weaker than when he took over. Whoever succeeds him will inherit an in-tray bulging with mind-boggling problems significantly greater than those Lord Hall had to tackle.
These awesome difficulties are largely of Auntie’s — and Lord Hall’s — making. Relations with government are as bad as they have been since the 1980s, and Boris Johnson has been wondering whether the licence fee should be junked. It has also been embroiled in a row over its gender pay gap.
Meanwhile, a revolution is taking place which calls into question the BBC’s long-term survival. The young are barely watching television in its traditional form. New streaming services supplied by Netflix and Amazon are building up vast audiences.
Unquestionably, he managed to steady the ship after assuming control at the BBC. He is a smooth and clever man, and a seasoned administrator. Simply surviving as director-general has been no mean feat
Consider this. When Lord Hall got his feet under the desk, Netflix was tentatively beginning to expand into the UK. Now some 12 million British households subscribe to its streaming service.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Beeb has been fixated by its own self-generated controversies, while an upheaval has been taking place which will transform the way in which television is watched.
The first self-inflicted wound concerns the pay gap between the salaries of male and female ‘stars’. When the Government insisted these salaries be published, Lord Hall said it would be a ‘poacher’s charter’, with commercial channels offering BBC ‘talent’ more money.
That didn’t happen. What was revealed, however, is that the bloated bureaucracy of the BBC was often paying men much more than women for similar or identical jobs.
For example, on Radio 4’s Today programme John Humphrys earned up to £649,999 a year (the BBC released the figures in bands rather than giving precise amounts), which included his role on Mastermind. Nick Robinson received up to £299,999. But the able and experienced Sarah Montague was paid less than £150,000.
Not surprisingly, she went ballistic and, after a long battle, has just been awarded £400,000 in compensation. Presenter Samira Ahmed is in line for £700,000 back pay after recently winning a case against the BBC for being short-changed in comparison to Jeremy Vine for comparable work.
The BBC faces a bill running into millions for claims by other female staff. It is all licence payers’ money, of course. Many will think that the real problem was not that women were paid too little, but that men were paid too much by the standards of public service. It’s perfectly true Lord Hall didn’t create this problem, but he was slow to react when it blew up. One consequence, in which he has colluded, is that almost every plum job that comes up at the BBC now has to go to a woman.
Another black mark is the BBC’s decision to deprive nearly four million pensioners aged over 75 of a free TV licence. Only the poorest will continue to receive support, leaving many elderly people under financial pressure.
Here, the blame should be shared with George Osborne who, in 2015, demanded that the BBC should accept responsibility for the subsidy. But if the then Chancellor was at fault in making the Corporation take on welfare provision, Lord Hall was wrong to have been so accommodating.
At a time when the salaries of senior BBC managers have been soaring much faster than the rate of inflation, Auntie is playing the role of Scrooge. For example, director of content Charlotte Moore, spoken of as a possible successor to Lord Hall, was awarded a 13.8 per cent increase to £370,000.
In terms of public relations, it is surely little short of a disaster for the Beeb to be seen hammering elderly people who form the core of its most loyal audience.
With such problems on his plate, you might think the last thing Lord Hall needs is a bust-up with the new Tory administration. But that is exactly what he has got.
Mr Johnson and his advisers believe the Conservatives were hard done by during the election campaign. Perish the thought! When did they last get a fair crack of the whip? The 1959 election?
One example of anti-Tory bias was Andrew Neil’s three-minute broadcast tirade against Mr Johnson for not turning up to be interviewed by him. The irony is that the usually admirable Mr Neil is virtually Auntie’s only Right-wing interviewer.
Prince William and Kate walk with Tony Hall and Director of BBC Children Alice Webb (far left) outside Broadcasting House in 2018
Perhaps somewhat peevishly, ministers are refusing to go on the Today programme or BBC2’s Newsnight. More worrying for the Beeb are leaks that No 10 may decriminalise the non-payment of the licence fee, which could lead to a collapse in its revenue.
I believe such behaviour would be rather sneaky of the Government. In 2016, an extension of the licence fee was agreed until 2027, which will be reviewed in 2022. Mr Johnson shouldn’t pull the plug on that.
But the next director-general must confront the issue of anti-Tory bias. It’s admittedly difficult because, although nominally editor-in-chief, the director-general can’t easily control thousands of overwhelmingly Left-of-Centre journalists. Lord Hall certainly hasn’t.
On every front, his successor should be less hidebound. Let’s face it: the licence fee is a relic of the analogue age when there was originally only one station, and then a handful.
Lord Hall has clung to the licence fee, as he tended to cling to many familiar things. But it can’t last for ever
In a world of Netflix, Amazon and Sky (much richer now it is American-owned), it’s increasingly hard to justify a funding model that imposes on all owners of televisions, regardless of whether they watch the BBC, the legal obligation to pay an annual charge that now stands at £154.50.
Lord Hall has clung to the licence fee, as he tended to cling to many familiar things. But it can’t last for ever. A subscription service is eminently feasible, as former BBC director-general Mark Thompson conceded over the weekend.
Oh, for a new director-general who is not a BBC apparatchik — someone with vision and commercial nous, who realises that Auntie must take off her blindfold.
And someone, too, who will fight to preserve those things the Beeb does better than anyone else. To paraphrase Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard, the BBC must change if it is to stay largely the same.
Lord Tony Hall quits as BBC Director-General amid rows over equal pay, licence fee and bias to take top job at National Gallery
BBC boss Tony Hall quit two years early yesterday – with commentators suggesting he was forced out to thwart the Government.
The director-general’s surprise departure was also painted as a strategic move so he could prevent Boris Johnson having a say on who replaced him.
Insiders claimed that Lord Hall’s departure now, rather than in 2022 as expected, would allow BBC chairman Sir David Clementi to choose his successor without interference.
If Lord Hall had stayed on, the Government could have appointed a new chairman who would have been more likely to choose as his replacement a director-general less sympathetic to the BBC’s traditional values.
However, Robert Peston, the BBC’s former economics editor, speculated last night that instead of this strategic departure, Lord Hall could have been pushed.
He said: ‘I’m not sure his departure is a pure exercise of free will.’
Peston claimed he was told by ‘a very-well-placed source’ that Lord Hall hoped to stay on for two years, but chairman David Clementi was ‘on manoeuvres’ to replace him.
Writing in The Spectator magazine, he added: ‘Whoever replaces Hall, it is certainly an appointment that will be of more than usual significance to the BBC’s future, with the Prime Minister signalling wholesale long-term change in the way it is funded.
‘In fact, the decision on who replaces Lord Hall is probably as important as who becomes the next Labour leader.
‘Given the size of Boris Johnson’s majority, the task of holding the Government to account will probably fall more on the media than on the Opposition.’
The announcement of Lord Hall’s departure yesterday morning came as:
÷ The broadcaster faced pressure to appoint a woman as the next director-general in the wake of the gender pay row that has engulfed the broadcaster.
÷ His successor was warned they would have to fight to keep the licence fee after the Prime Minister queried its future.
÷ Questions remain over a range of outstanding issues, including: the threat of huge payouts to female staff, failure to compete with the likes of Netflix and fears that many over-75s could be stripped of their free licences.
Insiders said Lord Hall had become increasingly ‘demoralised’ about the gender pay crisis.
But sources close to him insisted it did not cause his departure.
Hours after the announcement, it emerged that he had been appointed chairman of the board at the National Gallery.
Officially, Lord Hall, 68, claimed he decided to go because he felt it was important that the same director-general should see through both the mid-term review of the BBC’s Charter in 2022 and its renewal process in 2027.
But there was a growing belief among senior insiders last night that it was a deliberate ploy to block Mr Johnson from influencing the choice of the next boss.
The director-general is appointed by the BBC board, led by the chairman, who is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of ministers. Sir David’s ‘term of appointment’ as chairman runs until February 2021.
The Government can then choose his replacement.
A BBC insider said: ‘By going now, the next director-general is chosen by the old regime – not by someone handpicked by the Government. Partly, I am sure, they will together have thought ‘How do we stop the BBC being carved up by this Government?’.
‘One way is to put in a new director-general before the Government gets the chance to influence the choice by picking a new chairman – the person who gets to pick the director-general.’
The BBC is going through an tough period in its relationship with the Government amid rows about bias in its coverage and question marks over whether the Tories might axe the licence fee.
As relations have soured, ministers have boycotted flagship shows, and Mr Johnson refused to be challenged by Andrew Neil in the run-up to the election.
Senior insiders admitted Lord Hall had ‘had enough’ and was ‘tired’ following the litany of recent difficulties.
The pay inequality issue for women had been ‘deeply demoralising’. Lord Hall, who took up the post in 2013, revealed his decision in a message to BBC staff, telling them: ‘If I followed my heart I would genuinely never want to leave.’
The BBC will advertise the job in the coming weeks so a successor can be found in time for Lord Hall’s departure in the summer.
Former chairman Lord Grade described him as a ‘steadying influence’, but added: ‘It is an undoable job… like being prime minister, it’s impossible to do.’
Tracy Brabin, Labour’s media spokesman, said: ‘It is vital the BBC can choose its next director-general away from the fear of any political interference.’
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