Amid scandals, BBC appoints opera chief as director general
Tony Hall, right, the new director general of the BBC, and Chris Patten, the head of the BBC Trust, joke before a news conference Thursday in London.
Share with others:
LONDON -- The British Broadcasting Corp. sought to overcome its worst crisis in years Thursday by appointing a former BBC news executive as its new director general, urging him to rebuild public trust shredded by a scandal over botched reporting of sexual abuse.
The appointee, Tony Hall, 61, who now heads the Royal Opera House, will start in March. He will replace George Entwistle, the most prominent casualty of the scandal, who resigned this month after less than eight weeks in the job.
The appointment won enthusiastic approval from a wide spectrum of politicians, media commentators and current and former BBC staff members.
Mr. Hall, an Oxford graduate, spent 28 years at the organization, starting as a news trainee and rising to lead the BBC's news and current affairs department from 1996 to 2001.
His record of innovation includes overseeing the introduction of the BBC website, the broadcaster's 24-hour news channel and Radio 5 Live, a widely popular news-and-sport radio channel.
He moved to the opera 11 years ago, when it was in artistic and financial disarray. He succeeded in stabilizing, as well as popularizing, what has long been seen as one of the world's top opera houses. He was honored as a life peer in 2010, acquiring the title Baron Hall of Birkenhead. According to Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, he was the only candidate the supervisory BBC Trust approached.
The BBC said his principal task was to restore faith and confidence in the integrity of Britain's public broadcaster, a sprawling bureaucracy financed by a compulsory annual $230 license fee levied on most television-set owners.
Mr. Patten said Mr. Hall was "the right person to lead the BBC out of its current crisis."
The BBC, he said, "is an incredibly important part of what makes the United Kingdom what it is," adding, "And of course it matters not just to people in this country but to tens of millions around the world, too. It's been a difficult few weeks -- but together we'll get through it. I'm committed to ensuring our news services are the best in the world."
Steve Hewlett, a former editor of "Panorama," one of the BBC's leading investigative programs, said Mr. Hall had a reputation among BBC program-makers as "straightforward, honest, a man with no side to him" and "no pushover" in handling contentious issues.
"I think he brings to the BBC what is desperately needed, weight," he said.
Ben Bradshaw, a former culture minister who was previously a BBC reporter, described Mr. Hall as "a very good, calm operator," "a good motivator" and decisive in stressful situations.
"He's a very safe pair of hands, and very decent, fair-minded individual," he said.
As the BBC's news chief, Mr. Hall had sought to become director general in the late 1990s, when Greg Dyke won the contest for the job. Mr. Dyke quit in 2004 amid a scandal related to reporting of the Iraq war.
Mr. Entwistle resigned Nov. 10 over disclosures that a flagship BBC program, "Newsnight," had wrongly implicated a former Conservative politician in accusations of sexual abuse at a children's home in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.
The error followed earlier disclosures that the same program had canceled an investigation a year ago into accusations of sexual abuse of minors by television host Jimmy Savile at a time when other departments at the corporation were planning Christmas tributes to Savile, who died in October 2011 at age 84.
A year later, a rival channel, ITV, broadcast details of the accusations against Savile that has shaken the upper ranks of the BBC. He is now suspected of abusing hundreds of young people over decades on the BBC premises and elsewhere.
Mr. Entwistle's predecessor was Mark Thompson, who became president and chief executive of The New York Times Co. on Nov. 12.
The scandals at "Newsnight" pushed the BBC to begin a series of internal inquiries about its culture and practices in the decades of suspected abuse by Savile and into its specific reasons for canceling the investigation into Savile.
In a statement to the BBC staff, Mr. Patten said: "While there are still very serious questions to be answered by the ongoing inquiries, it is in the interests of license fee-payers that the BBC now starts to refocus on its main purpose -- making great programs that audiences love and trust."
"In doing this, it will need to take a long, hard look at the way it operates and put in place the changes required to ensure it lives up to the standards that the public expects."
After the "Newsnight" program erroneously implicated the former treasurer of the Conservative Party, Alistair McAlpine, the BBC reached an out-of-court settlement with him worth about $295,000. In a separate suit against the ITV channel, which was also accused of libeling Mr. McAlpine, the broadcaster agreed Thursday to pay a settlement of about $200,000 and his legal costs.
One element of Mr. Entwistle's departure has continued to rankle. After he stepped down, the BBC Trust authorized a settlement payment equivalent to one year's salary, about $750,000, the same that will be paid to Mr. Hall.
The BBC justified the payment, double its contractual obligation, by saying that Mr. Entwistle would continue to help in the inquiries into the scandals, and that had he been dismissed he would have been entitled to a full year's compensation.
The dispute continued to rumble Thursday, with a BBC trustee, Anthony Fry, telling a parliamentary committee of his "substantial irritation" at the size of the settlement, which included additional payments of more than $70,000 to cover Mr. Entwistle's private medical care premiums, his legal expenses and $16,000 to employ a public relations firm to deal with reporters who were besieging Mr. Entwistle at his London home.
First Published November 23, 2012 12:00 am