Is it time for a woman to run the BBC?

85 years, 14 male bosses. Now momentum is growing for a change at Broadcasting House. Ian Burrell reports

Despite a surge in betting on the Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards becoming the next Director-General of the BBC yesterday, the smart money is still on the organisation appointing a woman to the top job for the first time in its 85-year history.

As the race to succeed Mark Thompson gathered pace following the announcement of his departure on Monday, supporters of Caroline Thomson, the BBC's chief operating officer, urged her to stress her editorial credentials as well as her obvious talents as a manager. Ms Thomson is a former commissioning editor at Channel 4 and trained at the BBC as a journalist, skills she drew on while reporting from the scene of the 2007 Cumbria rail crash. Her biggest rival for the position is probably Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News and a former controller of Radio 4.

These two women are in a strong position because of the peculiar problems faced by the BBC at this time in its history. The key priority for the next Director-General will be the renewal of the BBC's charter, which runs out at the end of 2016. Ms Thomson played a key role in the dramatic negotiation of last year's licence-fee settlement.

"The charter renewal process is jaw-droppingly complicated, it's high-stakes stuff," one well-placed BBC source said. "You are going to be negotiating that with the Coalition Government at a time of stagnant growth. You need to know where to draw red lines and where you can make concessions." Don Foster, a Liberal Democrat MP who is a spokesman on media, said the next Director-General will be lobbying for the retention of its funding when the Government is seeking more money for local television services and high-speed broadband. The further fragmentation of media may mean that many are questioning the need for a licence fee. "It's going to be the most crucial charter review that the BBC has ever faced. It will depend on the financial climate the country is in as well," he said.

Ms Boaden's advantage may be that the cuts resulting from the last licence-fee settlement have yet to be fully implemented. With her track record as a programme maker and award-winning journalist, she is in a better position than many of her rivals to carry the support of 20,000 colleagues during a period of intense upheaval. "There's a danger that you lurch from one strike action to the next," one BBC source said. "It requires really strong leadership from someone respected inside the BBC who knows how to get stuff done."

The male internal candidate thought most likely to beat the two women to the post is George Entwistle, the head of BBC Vision, though he is from a similar mould as Mr Thompson and his appointment might be seen outside the organisation as unambitious. Tim Davie, the head of Audio and Music, would also like the post but does not have the programme-making experience of his colleagues.

The importance of negotiating the charter renewal and the need to implement cuts under the BBC's Delivering Quality First savings programme present problems for outside candidates such as Mr Richards and the Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham, who both lack programme-making experience. Mr Richards has at least worked at the BBC before, as has Sophie Turner Laing, whose record in improving BSkyB's content makes her a credible external contender.

Whoever gets the job will also have to deal with technological change. As Jon Mew, director of Mobile and Operations at the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), said, millions of BBC viewers now own smartphones and are "dual screening" by watching television at the same time. Mr Thompson recognised the importance of the internet and will leave the YouView internet television platform as part of his legacy. Mr Foster describes the likely launch of YouView later this year as "a critical moment in the communications sector's history". But the BBC's unique role means it has been handicapped in forming relationships with commercial partners, especially in social media. "A lot of other media companies have been able to innovate extremely fast in terms of integrating social platforms into their own services but the BBC has had to lag behind because it has to be fair to everyone."

Mr Thompson's recent announcement of Project Barcelona, which allows programmes from the BBC archive to be downloaded for money, will present fresh challenges to an organisation that seeks to balance its public-service remit with the need to create additional funds and be a global player. Again the BBC's ambitions put at risk the interests of commercial media companies. All of which amounts to the most delicate of juggling acts. It could be a job for a woman.

Male bastion: Former directors of the BBC

Lord Reith of Stonehaven 1922-1927

Sir Frederick Wolff Ogilvie 1938-1942

Sir Cecil Graves 1942-1943 (joint)

Robert William Foot 1942-1944 (joint)

Sir William Haley 1944-1952

Sir Ian Jacob 1952-1959

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene 1960-69

Sir Charles Curran 1969-1977

Sir Ian Trethowan 1977-1982

Alasdair Milne 1982-1987

Sir Michael Checkland 1987-1992

Lord Birt of Liverpool 1992-2000

Greg Dyke 2000-2004

Mark Thompson 2004-2012

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