Tony Hall is to step down from as BBC director-general in a move orchestrated to steal a march on Boris Johnson and minimise his influence over who will lead the corporation through a defining series of negotiations on its role and funding.
In an email to staff on Monday morning, Lord Hall said he would leave in the summer, a step that allows the existing BBC board to pick his successor before the prime minister can put his mark on the process by appointing a new chair in 2021.
The National Gallery in London subsequently announced that he had been appointed chair of its board of trustees.
The unexpected move cuts short the tenure of Lord Hall, who has served as director-general for seven years but had told friends in recent months that he hoped to stay for the corporation’s centenary in 2022.
Senior figures at the BBC said the board and Lord Hall’s calculus changed because of the strained relations with Mr Johnson’s majority government and the looming negotiations over the licence fee, which provides the majority of the corporation’s funding.
Lord Hall said it had been “such a hard decision” to step down but that he thought it was in the best interests of the organisation.
“The BBC has an eleven-year charter — our mission is secure until 2027. But we also have a midterm review process for the spring of 2022,” he wrote to staff. “As I said last week, we have to develop our ideas for both. And it must be right that the BBC has one person to lead it through both stages.”
The timing means that David Clementi will oversee the succession process before he steps down as chair of the BBC board next year. He paid tribute to Lord Hall as an “inspirational creative leader”.
Claire Enders, of media research group Enders Analysis, said: “He’s getting out for someone to have a fresh and constructive and forward-thinking dialogue about the next three years, which are going to be hell.”
The new director-general will take over at a critical time for the BBC, which has been squeezed by the rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime and the growing power of large production companies including Disney, AT&T — which owns HBO — and Sky, now part of Comcast.
Internal candidates for the role include Charlotte Moore, director of content, Tim Davie, head of BBC Studios, according to BBC insiders.
Lord Hall was appointed as director-general in 2012 after his predecessor George Entwistle quit the role after only 54 days — the shortest reign of any head of the broadcaster. The BBC was in crisis at the time amid three inquiries into its journalism and past culture, stemming from claims linking the late television presenter Jimmy Savile to child abuse.
He navigated the BBC through one charter renewal in 2015, when an additional £700m of cost was loaded on to the corporation’s budget as it took on the burden of funding free licence fees for people over 75.
The broadcaster has come under pressure, however, after Mr Johnson said in December he would consider scrapping the licence fee.
It was also criticised by figures on both the left and the right during the general election campaign for not abiding by its guidelines on impartiality, and it has come under fire for its record on gender pay.
Additional reporting: Sarah Provan