Dapper and affable, and with sound editorial judgment, Tony Hall was known as the man with the Midas touch among his BBC news colleagues.
Starting his BBC career as a trainee in the Belfast newsroom in 1973, the son of a Merseyside Anglican bank manager rose swiftly to produce Radio 4’s Today and other flagship current affairs programmes. Aged 34, he was editor of BBC One’s Nine O’Clock News.
A proud northerner – he has written a book on the history of the National Union of Mineworkers – Hall was soon crowned editor of television news and current affairs and later made responsible for the entirety of the BBC’s journalism on radio and television. During this stint he launched many corporation staples that endure today, including its online news service.
It is a position that carries great responsibility and the ability to handle the pressure and sniping.
It was during this period that the ill-fated Panorama involving Martin Bashir and Diana, Princess of Wales was made and which, 26 years later, prompted Hall’s resignation yesterday as chair of the National Gallery.
It was a rare fall for the 70-year-old. Even when he was overlooked in 1999 for the director general post – which many had expected was his for the taking – Hall deftly turned defeat into triumph.
Leaving to join the Royal Opera House, a more complex and demanding role than many might imagine, Hall transformed its fortunes in his 10-year tenure, introducing schemes like the low-price ticket initiative.
His triumphant 2013 return to the BBC as director general – accompanied with a conspicuously more suave sartorial look – was celebrated by many of its vast team of journalists. David Dimbleby famously remarked: “I feel like I’m serving in the Royal Navy when the message came in ‘Winston is back’.”
Yet it was a return that coincided with mounting Tory pressure for the corporation to be reined in; demands further emboldened by the Conservatives’ 2019 election victory. Prime minister Boris Johnson even threatened to abolish the licence fee.
Last summer, Hall left the £450,000 position, arguing it was better for a new person (former Conservative councillor Tim Davie) to guide the corporation through its midterm review next year.
Several months after Hall stepped down, fresh reports emerged that Bashir used fake documents to secure his Diana interview.
Hall’s famed news judgment may perhaps have led him to suspect that events under his watch more than a quarter of century ago would resurface to make his successor’s job a whole lot harder.