Ian Burrell: Starters line up for race to become next director general of the BBC

It was back in March that an insider buzz began in British media circles that Ed Richards was being lined up as the next director general of the BBC. At the time the chief executive of the media regulator Ofcom was not officially a candidate to succeed Mark Thompson in the BBC's top job. Word went round and Richards was suddenly being "backed off the boards" as the next DG. Ladbrokes, which had rated him as a rank outsider, issued a statement to say that Richards "is the subject of a series of bets from new accounts in London and the Home Counties in the last few hours at 12-1 – virtually at the exclusion of all other runners".

It was not until last month that Richards formally applied for the job and in recent days he has become the evens favourite. The prospect of a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown running the BBC has sparked a backlash in the right-wing press led by The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, which has implored the BBC Trust chairman and former Conservative minister Lord Patten to block Richards's accession. "How can Lord Patten, as David Cameron's appointee – and nominally, at least, a Tory himself – so much as consider such a candidate?"

Lord Patten is an admirer of the way Richards, who has previously worked at the BBC in a strategic role, has led the regulator. Other right-wing media figures such as David Elstein, former head of Channel 5, regard Richards as "an excellent candidate", while at the same time being critical of Ofcom's handling of the News Corp bid to take control of BSkyB. But Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has taken such a bruising over the BSkyB deal and his claims to have remained politically neutral, might be less inclined to accept Richards's claims to impartiality.

Steve Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, said the Daily Mail's depiction of Richards as a "Labour stooge" was "a shot across the bows". He said: "They are saying 'Appoint this guy and we declare war' and the rallying cry has been picked up by the Tory blogs."

Many BBC employees would prefer an internal appointment. The leading candidates are the director of BBC Vision George Entwistle, who is seen as a "BBC lifer" and the chief operating officer Caroline Thomson, who some would like to see become the first female director general. Entwistle would be a popular choice with BBC programme-makers and Thomson has been at the forefront of BBC strategic thinking and licence fee negotiation. Neither has attracted much support outside the BBC, which following its widely-criticised coverage of the Diamond Jubilee is facing renewed criticism over its perceived lack of leadership.

Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent, said that internal applicants were "undermined" by the fact that Mark Thompson had failed to anoint his successor, in the way that Michael Checkland paved the way for John Birt to take the top job by making him his deputy.

But he said there were many people within the BBC with comparable skills to Ed Richards. "The last thing the BBC needs is another regulator. There are plenty of people at the BBC who are capable of doing the job of compliance officer and making sure that what the BBC does is ethical and above aboard," he said. "The BBC needs a visionary leader to take it into the next phase of media convergence – it doesn't need a bureaucrat with an eye for detail."

In recent weeks, there has been some speculation that the BBC might turn to an outside candidate with experience of digital media such as Carolyn McCall, the former head of Guardian Media Group and chief executive of easyJet, or Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times. Professor Luckhurst said the BBC should be prepared to consider candidates from America.

It's still possible that Mr Thompson's successor will be someone the pundits haven't even thought of. When Greg Dyke was chosen as director general in 2000, the runner-up in the selection process was Michael Lynton, then the chief executive of Penguin, but never mentioned as a contender to run the BBC. Lynton has since gone on to become head of Sony Pictures America.