B is for back-stabbing; B is for bungling; C is for conspiracy; D is for dithering; G is for good grief! Why on earth can't the BBC find a new Director General?

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When Hugh Carleton Greene was interviewed by the BBC governors for the job of director general in 1960 it is claimed he was asked one question: "Is it true you're a Catholic?" When Carleton Greene answered in the negative, he was told: "Fine, you've got the job."

If only life at the top of the British establishment was still so simple. The battle to succeed Sir John Birt as the 13th director general has become the bloodiest in the corporation's history. Yesterday the BBC delivered its annual report to Parliament only to discover that Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the Media, Sport and Culture Select Committee, has decided to initiate an investigation into a selection process that has turned into a long-running farce indeed.

But it is unlikely that even the pugnacious Mr Kaufman will get to the bottom of a debacle that makes the inner machinations of the Chinese Communist Party look transparent. The levels of gossip, spin-doctoring, in-fighting and rancour which the contest has generated are worthy of Madame Mao herself.

The appointment of a successor to Sir John Birt is complicated by a series of different battles: party politics; BBC fiefdoms fighting for their future; personal alliances going back years; and good, old-fashioned ambition.

"Apparently he has to have a drink every morning when he gets into the office," one senior BBC press officer declared about one of the rumoured DG candidates a number of weeks ago. "It's been going on for years, but now it's getting out of hand." The fact that the press officer works for one of the other candidates may have something to do with such an unusual level of candour about a senior industry figure. Many of the candidates have their own campaign managers, some working on BBC salaries. Another tale doing the rounds had it that one of the candidates was being investigated by the News of the World for a drugs habit. That tale stopped when the candidate seemed to have dropped off the shortlist.

"It is becoming nutty here," says one BBC insider. "I just want to get back to normal. Every time one of the candidates makes an announcement in the press, the rest of the candidates' press officers are accusing them of running a propaganda campaign."

From even before the process started, the most likely contenders have been vying to produce policy initiatives, or make statements that might appeal to the corporation's governors. Alan Yentob, the BBC's director of television, said the corporation needed to forget ratings as a measure of success. Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein, who for years has questioned the future of the licence fee in the digital age, publicly softened his stance. Birt protege Matthew Bannister, now chief executive of BBC Production, announced a new "creatively led" board at his division, which was seen as an attempt to distance himself from the cult of Birtist management.

So far, it all seemed like run-of-the-mill jockeying for position. But the propaganda war stepped up several notches on 17 April when The Times unearthed an old story about the front-runner Greg Dyke making a pounds 50,000 donation to the Labour Party. The paper decided this should bar him from the job and began a campaign against him.

At first it was thought the campaign was inspired by The Times's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. In fact, it now seems that editor Peter Stothard had simply spotted a "Tony's Cronies" story that could run and run. He also knew how strongly Sir Christopher Bland, the BBC's notoriously authoritarian chairman, was pushing for Dyke, and wanted to counter that pressure with some of his own.

Stothard was assisted in his campaign by certain parts of the BBC. Some believe that Dyke - the estuary-accented man who brought Roland Rat to TV-am and is the current chairman of Pearson Television - is not quite the right class to run the BBC, and to be trusted as guardian of the nation's broadcasting soul. Others in the fat and well-funded policy and planning department of the corporation are worried that he is likely to rip out the Birt-created management machine they run.

After other newspapers had also come out against Dyke's candidacy, William Hague entered the fray, writing to Sir Christopher Bland to declare his objection to the appointment of Dyke. Sir Christopher, however, was undeterred, and signalled his intention to battle on for Dyke regardless by issuing a strongly worded statement saying the board of governors would ignore political pressure from all quarters.

The political battle over Dyke's candidacy has added to the complications of what was already the largest and longest-running appointment process ever undertaken by the BBC. The governors want to be seen to be making a decision in the open. These are no longer the days of Carleton Greene's Catholicism. Or even the days when previous chairman Marmaduke Hussey could decide he wanted John Birt and simply railroad him through the governors after a day of quick interviews and dinner with the governors in a smoke- filled room.

Instead the BBC appointed a firm of head-hunters, Heidrick & Struggles, which at the beginning of April invited candidates for a series of informal meetings, held variously at their offices at 100 Piccadilly, at hotels around London or at Sir Christopher Bland's office in Broadcasting House. According to those who took part, these interviews largely amounted to asking questions that could have been answered by a quick trawl through the candidate's cuttings file.

This expensive exercise - rumoured to have cost the BBC more than pounds 100,000 - eventually came up with exactly the same names that everyone in television and the press had been tipping for the past six months: 13 people to be seen by a selection panel of four governors.

Each of the 13 - who included Will Hutton, editor-in-chief of The Observer; Andrew Neil, publisher of The Scotsman and Sunday Business; Richard Eyre, chief executive of ITV; and Howard Davies, executive chairman of the Financial Services Authority, as well as a number of internal candidates - had to provide an extended CV and write a three-page paper answering the $64,000 question: "The BBC faces a number of challenges and opportunities in the next decade. What are the most important of these and how would you manage them?"

Then, in the first and second week of May, the governors' panel, made up of chairman Sir Christopher Bland, Baroness Young of Old Scone, the new deputy chairman, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, formerly of the Foreign Office, and Roger Jones, the Welsh governor, summoned each candidate to Broadcasting House.

"Procedure seemed to have taken over from common sense," says one of the 13 who reached this stage. "I was clearly an unwanted candidate and the questions they asked me were just so obvious it seemed they were going through the motions. They asked about the future of funding and its future strategy and what to do with the BBC's commercial arm. But none of what they asked meant they could learn anything."

Other candidates had even worse experiences. Howard Stringer, the Welsh- born chief executive of the giant Sony Corporation of America and one- time head of CBS, was asked if he had experience of running a large organisation. One governor also asked the 57-year-old if he wasn't a bit old for the job. "I'm a week older than when the head-hunters asked me to come here," he replied with understandable irritation.

The eight who made it no further than the first interview, including Andrew Neil and David Elstein, have still not been formally notified of their fate. The five who made the cut, however, were called to meet the full board of governors for two hours under the gaze of DGs past in the portrait-lined boardroom at Broadcasting House: Greg Dyke, Alan Yentob, Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, Mark Byford, head of the BBC World Service, and Richard Eyre, chief executive of ITV.

As the five await a decision with varying degrees of good humour, the feuds between their supporters have shown no signs of abating. The policy and planning department at the BBC is fighting the corner of Mark Byford, and Tony Hall has the backing of those in News and Current affairs who are terrified that Alan Yentob as director general would destroy the pre- eminent position news has enjoyed under Sir John Birt.

Claim followed counter-claim followed leak: Yentob, it was said, was too disorganised to remember meetings let alone run the BBC; Byford was a "faceless bureaucrat"; and Hall's greatest achievement was to have spent two years and millions of pounds deciding to make the new Six O'Clock News beige. Even Richard Eyre, who it is said cannot lie because he is a born-again Christian, has had questions asked about his experience in television and the suitability of a Christian "fundamentalist" presiding over programmes like Gaytime TV.

And now the battle has moved from BBC executives to the governors themselves, at least five of whom are believed to be strongly opposed to Dyke, whose political neutrality would surely be questioned every time the BBC was called to battle the Government in future. Some governors may even have threatened to resign. As a result of all this confusion and in-fighting, the decision on whom to appoint has been delayed at least until next week, and perhaps the week after. From the outside it all looks very bad indeed.

"Strangely enough this may be exactly what Bland had planned all along," says one rejected candidate who has stayed close to the selection process. "He has been playing the long game. First he made sure the process was massive and unfocused, so that he seems the only one in control of it. Now he is progressively whittling away all the rivals to Dyke. Yentob two weeks ago was supposed to be a shoo-in, now we're told he's gone. Bland's plan must be to get the governors to the point where he says, `Right, what's the alternative? If you don't want Greg, where is the excellent alternative?' And by then Bland may have made sure there isn't one."

If this is a Machiavellian endgame worthy of the Peking politburo, it may be worth remembering that Madame Mao ended up in the dock. And if, as many believe he will, Sir Christopher Bland succeeds in manoeuvring Greg Dyke into the job of DG by splitting the board seven to five in his favour, he looks likely to find himself in a show trial administered by Gerald Kaufman.