DG’s surefooted start was encouraging - now the hard work begins says Jake Kanter.
Culture select committees hearings have not been a diary date for the BBC to look forward to in recent months.
During the Jimmy Savile scandal, the past two sessions were an opportunity for grandstanding MPs to highlight the corporation’s failings and, as George Entwistle learnt, get them wrong and things can unravel pretty quickly.
But there was a sense yesterday that the BBC has turned a corner. As chairman John Whittingdale crisply noted, Tony Hall is the fourth director general to appear before his committee in a year - and he was arguably the most impressive.
Wearing his favourite grey and maroon striped tie, the former Royal Opera House chief executive made a savvy start, announcing the BBC’s intention to cap senior management payoffs at £150,000.
The news almost certainly drew venom out of questions on executive pay and gave Hall a platform to be surefooted throughout. He answered questions with the skill of a politician, neatly sidestepping thorny issues or playing the useful “I’ve only been here for three weeks” card.
That’s not to say he wasn’t direct. On calls for an independent inquiry into Panorama’s North Korea documentary he gave an unequivocal “no”, while attacks on Helen Boaden and her move to radio were deflected. “I took the judgment that she would make a very good director of radio,” Hall said unambiguously.
The committee’s head of steam was dissipating and there was a considerable shuffling of papers as the MPs racked their brains for further questions. “I think we’ve reached our final destination,” Whittingdale said, before offering his colleagues one last stab. No one was forthcoming.
The director general barely glanced at his notes during the grilling, which was quite a contrast to his often fidgety predecessor.
It was also striking that Lord Patten played second fiddle for most of the two-and-a-half hours. The sometimes irritable BBC Trust chairman said he was “on his best behaviour” and remained good to his word, only really interjecting when necessary.
This was the Hall show – and rightly so. Although he clearly has a rich television news pedigree, he is not an altogether familiar quantity having spent more than a decade in the world of opera. Yesterday shed a little light on his leadership style and early vision for the BBC.
Hall made much of his involvement in decisions over Ding Dong the Witch is Dead and the North Korea investigation. He also talked disparagingly of the rigid management structures that led to accusations that Entwistle was incurious during the Savile scandal.
Couple this with his new “red flag” editorial referral system and the message was clear: here is a director general that is going to get his hands dirty.
In terms of a wider vision, Hall paid lip service to cutting bureaucracy and carving out the right conditions for creatives to thrive, but there was no talk of embracing the digital future or preparing the BBC for charter renewal.
That, Hall said, was for another day and there was little to learn about how he will shape the corporation or deal with the long-term challenges that will really determine his legacy. For now, being the surefooted face of a BBC emerging from crisis is probably enough.
Jake Kanter is Broadcast’s BBC reporter