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Updated Friday, November 23, 2012 at 12:16 AM

Opera official to head troubled BBC

The New York Times

LONDON — The British Broadcasting Corp. sought to overcome its worst crisis in years Thursday by appointing a former BBC news executive who heads the Royal Opera House 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, will start in March. He replaces the most prominent casualty of the scandal, George Entwistle, who resigned this month.

The appointment won approval from a wide spectrum of politicians, media commentators and current and former BBC staff members.

Hall spent 28 years at the BBC, 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 launch 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 at a time of artistic and financial disarray and succeeded in stabilizing — and popularizing — what has long been seen as one of the world's top opera houses.

The BBC said Hall's principal task is to restore faith and confidence in the integrity of Britain's public broadcaster, a sprawling bureaucracy financed by a compulsory license fee levied on most television-set owners.

Chris Patten, head of the BBC Trust, said Hall was "the right person to lead the BBC out of its current crisis."

"And of course it matters not just to people in this country — but to tens of millions around the world, too," he said.

Steve Hewlett, a former editor of "Panorama," one of the BBC's leading investigative programs, said of Hall: "I think he brings to the BBC what is desperately needed, weight."

Hall had sought to become director general in the late 1990s, when Greg Dyke won the job. Dyke quit in 2004 because of a scandal related to reporting of the Iraq war.

Entwistle resigned Nov. 10, after less than two months in the office, over disclosures that a flagship BBC current-affairs program, "Newsnight," had wrongly implicated a former Conservative politician in accusations of sexual abuse at a children's home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

The error compounded 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 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 have shaken the upper ranks of the BBC. Savile is now suspected of having abused hundreds of young people over decades on the BBC premises and elsewhere.

Entwistle's predecessor was Mark Thompson, who became president and chief executive of The New York Times Co. on Nov. 12.

One element of Entwistle's departure has continued to rankle. After he stepped down, the BBC Trust authorized a settlement payment equivalent to one year's salary of about $750,000 — the same that Hall will receive.

The BBC justified the payment, double its contractual obligation, by saying that Entwistle would continue to assist in the various 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 Entwistle's private medical-care premiums, his legal expenses and $16,000 to employ a public-relations firm to deal with reporters besieging Entwistle at his home.

Tony Hall, right, the BBC's newly named director general, and BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten in London on Thursday.


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