Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

Why Tony Hall is exactly what the BBC needs: 'Stability' is the word of the hour. Hall should bring it.'

Kevin Marsh is the former editor of Today and the BBC College of Journalism.

So what now for the journalists and journalism at the BBC?

By now, we’re all supposed to know the new Director General, Tony Hall, better than he knows himself.

I wouldn’t claim that, but I’ve worked with him on and off for twenty years. He supported me in many battles with New Labour, Mandelson and Campbell. For those spurious reasons if no other, he’s exactly what the BBC needs right now.

Especially, BBC News.

“Stability’ is the word of the hour. Hall should bring it. He’ll have to.

It’s easy to forget that for the BBC’s 8,000 or so journalists, 2012 was always going to be a time of unprecedented upheaval. Even without cyclones Savile and McAlpine and the demise of the last DG after just 54 days in post.

While everyone outside was watching the cyclones, BBC journalists were watching local radio shrink. In London, they were moving into New Broadcasting House. Merging two huge newsgathering operations, crunching newsrooms, cutting 500 jobs, amputating £90m from budgets and preparing to take on the entire cost of the World Service from 2014.

But the cyclones hit and the outside world started to ask: Is the BBC too big? Should it be split up? Is the DG’s job too big? Should that be split? Can anyone really run a £3.6bn business, employ 22,000 people and still be ‘editor-in-chief’?

Questions not calculated to foster that much needed ‘stability’. But if anyone has the right credentials to answer them, Hall has.

He’s an ‘outsider-insider’. Fifteen years ago, he more or less rebuilt the BBC News portfolio, launching live and continuous news on both TV and radio and on the web. Not everything went his way. He famously had to backtrack on one idea, not entirely his, that meant more or less getting rid of programme editors.

But there was a clear sense that someone was in charge. That someone had a vision, even if it was one largely loaned from John Birt.

The same was true at the Royal Opera House, another national institution that the world thought dysfunctional. That some even thought it shouldn’t exist.

There’s no question Hall will grip the BBC in a way that George Entwistle found he couldn’t. And unlike Entwistle, he’ll be no willing prisoner of BBC ‘processes’. 

For BBC journalists, though, the only question is what will Hall’s ‘grip’ and ‘stability’ mean to them?

More cuts? More centralisation? More homogenisation? Or will he, like Birt, see News as too important to starve. Might he even reverse some of the paring that’s cut reporters from programmes like … errr Newsnight.

Might there be a whiff of Birtism about? Probably. And that might be no bad thing.

What he must avoid, though, is that strand of Birtism BBC editors fear most. Yet more ‘management’, more ‘processes’, ‘mandatory referrals’ and endless ‘liaison’ meetings.

He must avoid if for the simple reason that over-complex crisis management ‘processes’ created the very gaps the Newsnight McAlpine film slipped through.

What he could borrow from Birt is a simple, bold and direct vision of what BBC journalism is for. And he needs to match that with a simple management machine to deliver it.

First up is to shout as loudly as Birt did about publicly funded, publicly accountable journalism and how it’s fundamentally different from the press. Even a post-Leveson press.

And among other things, that means ignoring those voices who find the BBC risk-averse and cautious.

It is. And it should be.

It’s a fact of life that the public expect the BBC journalism to hold to a higher standard of proof. ‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ if you like, rather than ‘on the balance of probability.

That doesn’t mean ‘he says/he says’ journalism. But it does mean more Winterbourne Views, fewer Primarks and no Lord McAlpines. And it means not putting editors on trial for asking the right questions and spiking an investigation that isn’t stacking up – as happened with Newsnight’s Peter Rippon over the Savile investigation.  

Second is to hammer home, inside and outside, the journalistic values that make the BBC different. Accuracy, impartiality, independence, acting in the public interest and, most important of all, accountability.

Third is to cut the defensiveness.

Recently, it’s been easier to work out what BBC journalism isn’t, or isn’t any more, than to see what it is. Yet every BBC journalist knows the corporation’s three defining strengths; accurate, impartial news; unparalleled foreign reporting; holding power to account through face-to-face interrogation.

Hall has already hinted that it’s his priority to gather round him the people who will articulate his vision for BBC journalism continuously. Inside and outside.

He knows he can’t hope to be ‘editor-in-chief’ without a second and third pair of eyes, one looking continuously at all BBC journalism, the other scanning the horizon for incoming.

A Deputy Director General and Director of Communications, in other words, both at board level – not to split the job nor dilute the DG’s role. But to make it a role a human being can fulfil.

Under John Birt at the BBC and at the ROH, Hall proved himself a skilful architect and restorer of respected but flawed institutions.

He’ll need more than architecture skills now.

But by learning from his predecessor’s mis-steps and recalling the strength that Birt’s asceticism brought to BBC News, he might just be able to bring that ‘stability’ and renewed belief in themselves that BBC journalists so desperately need.

Tags: 

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.