The New Statesman Interview - Tony Hall

The BBC's head of news is off to Covent Garden. But before then, he'd like to screen Alastair Campbe

Once he was regarded as a "lifer" - a BBC careerist likely to devote all his working decades to the corporation. Twenty-seven years down the line, Tony Hall, currently the BBC's director of news, is off to the Royal Opera House, where chief executives tend to have the lifespan of a fruit fly. Hall, who takes over from Michael Kaiser in April, is the fifth incumbent in five years, and already some in the arts world are predicting nemesis for a besuited apparatchik cast into a febrile world of hissy prima donnas. Hall is unperturbed.

"Everyone's written about it in this poison-chalicey sort of way, but I relish the challenge. I believe it's an organisation that can get it really right. Also, if anyone thinks I lead a quiet, calm existence, they are wrong. I am dealing with difficult people. A lot of very good people are difficult. It comes with the patch, and I am used to it." Hall himself is an amiable figure, pilloried by a few as John Birt's "head prefect" but, in general, a popular proactivist who launched Radio 5 Live and BBC Online.

Not all of his projects were so seamlessly successful. BBC News 24 appeared, for a while, to derive its name from its maximum share of viewers, and Hall's £40m decision to shift Broadcasting House staff to White City, prior to executing a reverse flip and buying a return ticket, seems disastrous: "It wasn't. And it didn't cost that, either. I know what people think about being over here. They don't like White City. But by the time we move back, we'll have had more than a decade here."

Hall himself will be long gone. He will not even be around for the general election, which he - impassioned about politics - says he will miss terribly. His departure seemed preordained when he was passed over for director general in favour of Greg Dyke, a rejection Hall admits was a major blow. "Oh, of course I was disappointed. My children [a daughter of 15 and a son of ten] got the cats out of the way at home, in case they got kicked. And then I went off and had a holiday in Italy, which was bliss. I looked at paintings, listened to music and came back prepared to throw myself back into the news.

"There were rumours that I would leave, but I'm not a go-off-in-a-huff sort of person. That's not me. I love it here." None the less, when a headhunter first sounded him out on the Covent Garden job, Hall took the bait. Next stop, Swan Lake. But first, the swan song. Before he leaves, Hall has unfinished business with Downing Street.

He was obviously incensed when Tony Blair pulled out of the televised pre-election debates. "I was hugely disappointed, because I really felt that the response from the Lib Dems and Michael Ancram meant that we could make it happen. It would have enlivened politics and engaged people. I am certain that more people would have turned out to vote . . . But it was always going to be a difficult judgement for a prime minister and his advisers to take, when the election is his to lose."

Hall, presumably, was still smarting when Alastair Campbell gave his "semi-detached" briefing on Peter Mandelson. Emboldened by a Guardian leader, Hall decided, a few hours before our interview, that a lobby system he sees as arcane and secretive must be abolished. The successful television alliance forged to broadcast the aborted leaders' debate convinced him that a collegiate approach would be the best tactic. "I'm now trying to get Sky and ITN and ourselves to put lobby briefings on camera. The lesson I have learned is that if we, as broadcasters, get together and say 'These are the terms', we stand the best chance. I am really upset that we couldn't get the leaders' debate to happen, and I would love to get lobby briefings televised. Shouldn't you and I, as citizens, be able to hear and see what is going on? The answer is yes." What will Campbell think of Hall's scheme? "I don't know," he says. And how far, exactly, has he got? "I'm trying to fix it with ITN and Sky. When I know more, I'll tell you more."

A few days on, Hall's feelers are out. Lobby officials will be consulted first. If they are in favour, "the pressure on Alastair Campbell will be that much greater", according to a BBC insider. If they are not, then Hall and his allies will press their demand anyway. Downing Street has yet to be informed of a plan which suggests that Hall, in the last weeks of his tenure, is not content to twiddle his thumbs. Not that he ever has. He read PPE at Keble College, Oxford, before joining the BBC, writing books on the coal and nuclear power industries and working through the corporation's great offices of state. But it would be unfair to perceive Hall, now 50, as only a grey-suited manager. He was the mastermind behind Princess Diana's Pano-rama outburst (he didn't mind about offending the Queen, but was terrified that his exclusive would leak), and he also spent several weeks under a supposed fatwa in the wake of Jill Dando's murder.

I expect a routine expression of sorrow over a colleague's killing, but Hall sticks to his own plight. "This sounds a brave thing to say, but the death threat was more aggravating than anything. We were moved into a hotel. We had to go back into the house with police dogs even to get a clean shirt or catch the children's rabbit when it escaped. They rankle, these things. I'm sure it was a hoax, just someone winding up on the back of Jill Dando."

Hall's visibility was due, in part, to the chances offered him by John Birt, whose reforms he declines to criticise. "I think history will judge him more kindly than he was judged at the time - and also Mike Checkland. What the two of them did, and later John on his own, was to reform the BBC and make it more outward-looking." But the unhappiness created by Birtism did disturb Hall. "Issues developed to do with morale and people wondering what their part in the organisation was. Wonderful things have happened in the BBC, but it's hardly surprising that morale has suffered."

And are people happier now? "I think so. It feels like it to me," he says, but he does not sound entirely convinced of a Greg Dyke nirvana. While there is no obvious animosity, Hall seems keen faintly to distance himself from the initial move to put the news back to 10pm. "Greg made the Ten O'Clock central to the strategy of BBC1. As an ex-editor of the Nine O'Clock News, I had to think very hard before saying it was a good idea. I was quizzical. I am absolutely sure now that it was the right thing to do," he adds loyally.

Whatever Hall makes of Dyke's strategy, reports claiming that he had taken a £100,000 pay cut to go to the opera house suggested a man eager to get out. Shortly afterwards, that estimate was revised. After much haggling, he was allegedly offered £250,000 a year - an amount that would slightly exceed his BBC salary and make him the best-paid arts administrator in Britain. So which is it? "Neither is right. I am taking a pay cut." Perhaps a median figure would be accurate? "I shall leave you to work it out. It's a cut in my pay and benefits which is actually quite substantial."

And for what, one wonders? Of Hall's predecessors, Mary Allen and Genista McIntosh left in misery and in months. Michael Kaiser, the last (and acclaimed) incumbent, also departed early to join the Kennedy Center in Washington. The question now is what the chances are for Hall, whose only direct experience of the arts comes from London's Stratford East, where he is chairman of the board of the Theatre Royal. Slim, say the doubters. The opera house remains plunged in gloom. Its Cinderella-and-Nutcracker repertoire looks as stodgy as porridge. Its new musical director, Antonio Pappano, and the incoming director of the Royal Ballet, Ross Stretton, may not take kindly to any artistic interference.

"I'm sure the three of us can make things happen," says Hall, who clearly has no intention of confining himself to paper clips and balance sheets. "When it comes to opera and ballet, I'm an amateur. I'm part of the audience. But I enjoy setting a strategy that enables people to deliver. I'd love people, in three or four or five years' time, to feel immeasurably good about the opera house and the ballet, and feel that it is absolutely the national icon it is."

He will forge no plans until he has talked to his directors, his staff and his chairman. I ask if it is true that Sir Colin Southgate is on his way out. "I don't know," he says. "I'm finding my way around all these things." Recent history suggests that Hall himself is most unlikely to see through his five- year contract. Still, more experienced hands have hardly flourished. He, at least, will bring a unique understanding of tottering institutions that the nation loves to knock.

For now, pending the appointment of a successor (Hall's deputy, Richard Sambrook, is the hot tip), his focus remains on the BBC. Long term, he believes, the future of public service broadcasting is bright. In the short term, there are battles to fight. Newsnight's coverage of Mandelson's downfall was, according to Stephen Glover writing in the Daily Mail, "the most shocking programme" he had ever seen on British television. Naturally, Hall denies that the pro-Labour guests betokened "one-party statism", although "in retrospect, running the gamut of views would have been a good thing, as SIan [Kevill, the programme's editor] has said. Do I think it's a major offence? I certainly don't. I care about people making the right programmes - impartial, fair and brave - and I want them to feel backed up in the decisions they take. We live in a culture where quite a bit of political bullying goes on; and in the coming campaign, you have to make sure that people feel supported."

Hence, perhaps, his particular mention of the good job done by Andrew Marr, the BBC political editor subjected to right-wing squawks of bias. And hence Hall's own, last-stand crusade to get lobby briefings televised, in the name of democracy and transparency. It may be that the denizens of the arts world will make Alastair Campbell seem the soul of sweetness. But for now, I suspect, Tony Hall considers that landing a punch on the Prime Minister's official spokesman would constitute both a solid legacy and a glorious parting shot.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose