Tony Hall: The ROH is healthier in every department than when he arrived
When Tony Hall entered Covent Garden in April 2001, he was paid twice as much as the previous chief executiveçand that was still some way short of his BBC package of £240,000 plus pension, or so I was assured by his chairman at the time.
The pay gap was illuminating for, while the arts demanded sacrifice and offered a modest wage, the BBC in the age of John Birt — to whom Hall was a loyal lieutenant as head of news — preached market values and pegged the pay of its executives to the going rate in commercial media. That profound betrayal of its public service ethos lies now at the heart of many of the troubles that are dispatching Tony Hall — ennobled as Lord Hall of Birkenhead — back to the BBC as a last-ditch saviour.
There is much for him to save. When we read, in Nick Pollard's report on the Jimmy Savile calamity, that Roly Keating, a former BBC2 boss demoted to backroom duties, was waved off to his next job at the British Library with a £375,000 BBC parting gift; when we see Lord Hall hiring a former Labour Culture Secretary, James Purnell, to return to the BBC at twice his ministerial emolument, the gorge rises at the oligarch-like money-grabbing that has been going on for two decades in the boardroom of a corporation that is paid for by householders who struggle to meet their mortgages.
Meanwhile, down in the creative galleys, thousands work selflessly day and night for pitiful pay to maintain a miraculous Reithian standard of public broadcasting. Lord Hall's last published earnings at the Royal Opera House amounted to £390,000, roughly ten times the salary of a BBC radio producer. The gulf between top and toil is almost beyond comprehension. The BBC needs above all to speak peace unto itself.
However, at Covent Garden Tony Hall was worth every penny of his wage. Five chief executives had come and gone through the revolving doors in as many years before his arrival and, although the American Michael Kaiser brought a veneer of stability, the cracks showed through at the slightest stress test — of which, in an opera house, there are many every day. Hall, with no prior experience in arts management and no practice in dealing with combustible artists, turned out to have perfect pitch for opera.