Leading Article: We need a new way of choosing BBC bosses

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THE HUNT for the new director-general of the BBC has begun in earnest. Not so much in the BBC itself, where the head-hunters are still drawing up lists of possibilities, but in the press, where names are being bandied about as if minds were already made up.

Greg Dyke, chairman of Pearson Television, is presented as the Blair candidate and just as quickly dismissed by the Murdoch press (which has no wish for a competitive BBC in terms of ratings) as being a supporter of Labour and a chum of Peter Mandelson. Alan Yentob, Matthew Bannister and Tony Hall are being busily promoted within the BBC; David Elstein of Channel 5 is suggested from without. Now a new name is being mooted, with knowing looks: Howard Springer, the Welsh wizard who heads Sony in America.

The press interest is understandable. The manner in which the relative merits of the candidates are being discussed is not. It may well be that Greg Dyke is an impossible choice because of his close relations with the Labour Party. But it should also be said that, on many accounts, he is the best of all the candidates mentioned so far. If nothing else, he would restore the corporation to the programme-makers who have been so sorely disregarded by Sir John Birt.

But then, it is impossible to consider possible BBC chiefs without mentioning their politics and their vulnerability to justified concerns about Blair's cronyism. Which is where the whole process is going wrong. Officially, this is a choice that will be made by the 12 governors, without governmental or other outside pressure. In practice, the BBC is a prime example (the Arts Council is another) of the British way of putting decisions at political arm's length while making sure that ministers can continue to pull strings from a distance.

The governors may be independent, but they are themselves appointees of ministers, chosen to keep a political balance and to provide a comfortable grazing-ground for retired Establishment figures. They may be well-suited to choosing the director of a British institute in a former colony. But a public-sector broadcasting company at the centre of the communications revolution?

The next head of the BBC needs what no government has yet been willing to give him or her: a clear definition of where it sees public-sector broadcasting going in the next five to 10 years, and the job definition of the person chosen to get it there. Those needs cannot be satisfied by the secretive current system. They require a selection board made up of people with experience of the industry as well as public life, armed with a governmental mission statement and accountable for the decision that is finally reached. They also need a new set of governors, chosen in the same manner. But then that wouldn't suit ministers from any party, or the present governors, at all.