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The first thing I learn from Tony Hall as he slides into the banquette adjacent to me is that he doesn’t really do lunch. “I am more of a breakfast person,” announces the director-general of the BBC briskly. “Life tends to carry on through lunchtime. There’s too much on, so it is normally just a sandwich or something.”
He squints through the window. “There’s actually a very good sandwich place over there; Italian guy who makes fantastic prosciutto sandwiches. Or there’s a place where you get nice salads and stuff.”
For one alarming moment, I think Hall is about to yank me out of my seat and hustle me across the road to his preferred greasy spoon and I instinctively clutch at my napkin. But, no, today he seems to have resigned himself to the FT’s rules of engagement.
Instead of some snack bar, we are meeting at the Riding House Café, a modish restaurant in central London a mere clapperboard’s toss from New Broadcasting House, the shining recently completed £1bn headquarters of Britain’s national broadcaster.
It is a bit of a BBC canteen. Many of the neighbouring tables are freighted with Apple gadgets, their occupants looking as if they are pitching ideas for new television series or some reality TV humiliation-fest. Sporting a standard issue media man black suit, Hall, 64, blends seamlessly into the surroundings. He knows the menu already (“I come here for breakfast sometimes”) and barely glances at it before ordering the kedgeree. I plump for salmon with crispy noodles and red curry sauce and, as we sip at a brace of Virgin Marys, he starts to tell me about his week.
Two years into his second coming at the BBC, where he sits atop a vast media organisation employing more than 18,000 people and deploying an annual budget of £5bn, Hall wears the cares of office lightly. His in-tray may be groaning with the most colossal to-do list, from the repurposing of the corporation for the digital age to the looming renegotiation of its licence fee (a fraught political discussion that will determine whether the BBC has a future in its current form at all).
But Hall wants to talk about the day he has just spent in Liverpool at a BBC sales convention peddling the corporation’s output to 700 international broadcasters. “It’s a place where you can sell the creativity of the BBC and we hope we can make money on the back of that through Worldwide [the foreign sales arm],” he says.
Several more stories follow about that week’s peregrinations, including a visit to BBC Merseyside. Hall has a soft spot for Liverpool; he spent his first years in neighbouring Birkenhead although there’s little trace of Scouse in his RP vowels. Then, he is on to Salford near Manchester, billed as the corporation’s northern hub but sometimes seen as a provincial media gulag filled with reluctant London exiles. The director-general likes to spend a day a week up there, rallying the troops.
It is a busy schedule. More than that, it is also a political statement. Behind it lies not just an explanation of why Hall has so little time for lunch but a powerful reminder of the unique, sprawling and weird position the BBC holds in the life of the nation: part export powerhouse, part department of state and supplier of regional stimulus, part social service and part creative impresario.
Hall has been running this bewildering behemoth since 2013. He wasn’t supposed to get the job. Having joined the broadcaster straight from Oxford university, graduating with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1973, he rose through the ranks to become head of news but missed out on being DG when it came up in 1999. An acolyte of John Birt, a hard-nosed reforming DG in the 1990s, he was one of the enforcers who implemented that regime’s management-consultant inspired restructuring of operations. While regarded as super competent, BBC insiders say he wasn’t wildly popular. “He was a bit like the extermination whisk on the Birtian Dalek,” says one who knew him then.
Hall left the BBC to run the Royal Opera House shortly afterwards, getting his first experience of turning round a national institution in crisis. “People forget now that the whole place was in uproar,” he says, referring to the painful aftermath of the house’s bungled two-year long closure at the end of the 1990s as it rebuilt its Covent Garden home. Hall stabilised things, brought in a respected musical director, Sir Antonio Pappano, and restored the finances. By the end he was having “a ball”, he says.
Indeed, that might have been that for Hall as far as the BBC was concerned but for the scandals that detonated suddenly around the late and now reviled BBC presenter, Jimmy Savile, in late 2012. Hall was lured back to his alma mater by the then chairman Lord Patten in a blaze of publicity to save an organisation reeling from the affair and associated questions about its editorial judgment, as well as management infighting and pay-off scandals.
Hall suddenly notices that I have stopped eating and inquires anxiously if I don’t like the food. “I am afraid I am not a big fan of fennel,” I say, poking listlessly with my fork at what turns out to have been a surprisingly substantial and rooty component of my salmon dish. “My wife absolutely loves fennel,” replies Hall absently. We both pause. “I don’t know why I said that,” says the DG.
As he polishes off his kedgeree we return to the story. Two years on from his return there is a sense that he has gripped the BBC. In part that is a reflection of the enormous power he wields. According to those in the know, Patten virtually went down on his knees to persuade Hall to come back after the gaffe-strewn 54-day reign of George Entwistle, Hall’s predecessor. “Tony must be the most powerful DG since Lord Reith,” says an insider, referring to the BBC’s autocratic founder.
One of Hall’s first acts was to appoint a tight cadre of senior managers beneath him. It includes former Labour minister James Purnell as head of strategy and digital, and former Times editor James Harding as head of news. He also brought in Anne Bulford, who had been his finance chief at the Opera House. Some insiders regard this as a slightly claustrophobic clique but Hall is unapologetic. “I am a profound believer in teams and it goes back to where I started off working in news — in Radio Belfast and Newsnight. Get the right mixture of people and brilliant things get done — you see it in opera and you see it in ballet.”
One of the inner circle’s key jobs is to suppress the gaffe count. There’s never a shortage of these in an organisation as luvvie-infested as the BBC, and while Hall is keen to nurture the corporation’s stars, he has come in on a ticket of taking a firmer line with the top talent. “The pay bill for the big names has gone down by more than 10 per cent,” he says. He adds that stars such as Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, who appeared in the recent Wolf Hall, a critically acclaimed costume drama based on two Hilary Mantel novels, are willing to work for less “because they believe in the project and the BBC”.
Tensions continue to simmer, however. A few days after we meet, the BBC is wrestling with the fallout from a talent-driven tantrum. Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the wildly popular and laddish motoring programme, Top Gear, has been suspended for reportedly punching a producer and may leave. Petitions are flying back and forth and the prime minister David Cameron has weighed in, saying he would be “heartbroken” were Clarkson taken off air.
That leads on to the other key task for Hall’s acolytes, which is to keep the often hostile political class at bay. Among Hall’s engagements that week has been to attend a select committee meeting in the House of Commons to discuss the BBC’s property holdings. It is one of an increasing number of parliamentary appearances BBC bosses have been forced to make, defending everything from pay to the handling of Savile.
Hall acknowledges parliament’s right to inquire how public money is spent, especially when the BBC’s recent record has been so poor. Under the previous DG but one, Mark Thompson, it became notorious for splurging on staff, IT systems that didn’t work and the gleaming new building round the corner. But Hall worries about the effect all this scrutiny is having — on both independence and morale. “The editorial independence of the BBC is really fantastically important,” he says. “And [parliamentary oversight] is a bit like a warm bath that is getting hotter and hotter. You have to make sure that suddenly it is not boiling.”
No less a concern is the impact on the corporation’s confidence, which Hall argues is crucial in any creative organisation. “You can’t just hang people every time things go wrong,” he says passionately. “People have to feel confident to own up when there are mistakes, and you need a culture where management learns from them. I remember my dad used to say to me it was a nonsense to hold people to be 100 per cent right. My God, if you make things that are two-thirds right, you are doing really well.”
The problem for Hall is that ministers and MPs with their impertinent questions cannot ultimately be dodged. With a highly contested general election around the corner, politics seem to pop up everywhere. In recent days Hall, along with other broadcasters, has been locked in a heated war of words with the Conservatives about the party leader TV debates they want to put on before the election.
Westminster holds the key to the BBC’s future. Indeed, the biggest challenge of his tenure is to spearhead the BBC’s negotiations with the government over the renewal of its Royal Charter as well as the corporation’s public funding, currently £3.7bn a year, for the next 10 years.
It is a task that requires him first to persuade an increasingly sceptical political audience that a publicly funded BBC still has a place in a multichannel world. Hall is cheered by a recent media select committee report in which MPs said the licence fee — an annual charge currently set at £145.50 on all households with TVs — should be kept for the next 10-year charter period.
But hang on, I say, as we forgo pudding (mournfully in my case) and order coffee, they also talked about the need to look at subscription systems. The House of Commons has also called for non-payment of the licence fee to be decriminalised — a move that most observers think would cut compliance significantly, putting the whole model at risk. There is also the nagging problem of technology eating away at the simple mechanism for tolling in an analogue world: TV aerials. Hall has a simple solution: require viewers to pay the licence fee to access iPlayer, the BBC’s digital platform. But, in today’s febrile climate, I find myself wondering how easy a sell that would be.
Of course, these debates are only part of the argument. More important still is to persuade parliament and the public of the BBC’s continued relevance in a world where viewers have so many options — everything from the You Tube clips beloved of teenagers to the view-on-demand cornucopia offered by services such as Netflix. “We have to respond to the big new phenomenon, which is binge-watching.”
That said, he has no doubt about the corporation’s value to the UK: “We are such an important part of the creative economy that, if the BBC didn’t exist, you would have to invent us.”
The child of an itinerant bank manager (“my dad worked for Martin’s, Captain Mainwaring’s old bank”) who moved from town to town across the Midlands and the northwest, Hall’s own access to high culture depended largely on the small screen.
“I turned to the BBC to [watch] histories of the second world war and Churchill, and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation fired my interest in the arts,” he says, referring to the famous 1960s series. “So the BBC has been in that sense an educator and inspirer for me. And, because of that upbringing, I believe that people should have access to the best.”
We turn to the vexed topic of the BBC’s unique selling proposition. To my surprise, Hall doesn’t attempt to stonewall when asked to name a programme that the BBC makes that no one else would do. “Well,” he says carefully, “Peter Kosminsky, who directed Wolf Hall, has gone on record and said this would not have happened without the BBC.”
But does Hall believe that? Does he think that, say, Sky, despite its big drama budget, would never make Wolf Hall? The DG wriggles slightly. “No, I don’t think they would,” he says before adding: “There, now I have said it, Sky will say, ‘Of course we would have made it.’ ”
Hall has a bigger point, though. He strongly believes that what he calls Britain’s broadcasting “ecology” provides a far better service to the nation’s viewers in general because of its diversity.
“We’ve got a system in this country that works and it’s really important that you don’t just screw around with it,” he says. “So you’ve got the BBC funded by a licence fee, you’ve got ITV and Channel 4 funded by ads and Sky, who are doing good things funded by subscription. It gives us better choice and a better system of broadcasting than almost anywhere else in the world. Remove one bit of it and I think you’re destroying something that is really important.”
In an age of austerity, it is not clear that these arguments will win the day. Hall admits that further cuts are possible — if highly unwelcome.
Despite plans to cut BBC 3 — the first time it has axed one of its main channels (although it will stay online) — he doesn’t think the BBC should shrink further. He points out that Mark Thompson tried and failed to cut music station Radio 6 in 2010. “It was the best marketing job he ever did for 6,” Hall crows. “He couldn’t cut it. The public said, ‘You can’t!’ ”
As we finish our coffee, the discussion turns to where Hall himself might take the BBC. He has all this power; what’s less clear is how he wants to use it, apart from safeguarding his inheritance. How does he want to leave his mark?
Hall says he wants to project the BBC’s voice in the world, create great programmes and foster a national conversation. “You can’t imagine a Britain without the BBC,” he concludes. “And what I hope in my time is that I can deliver a BBC confident and strong and doing the things that people want it to do.” All worthy enough. But it feels curiously flat, more of a bureaucratic goal than a shining vision.
On that note we part. Hall casts one last glance towards his beloved sandwich shop and then steps through the door, melting effortlessly back into media land whence he came.
Some have suggested the BBC should become like Netflix and fund itself through viewer subscriptions. If you were in charge, what TV channels and radio stations would you offer?
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer
Illustration by James Ferguson