Front-runner quits race to succeed Grade at Channel 4

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Denise O'Donoghue, head of the highly successful production company Hat Trick, and one of the front-runners to succeed Michael Grade as chief executive of Channel 4, has dropped out of the race because of the publicity the role attracts.

O'Donoghue, whose company produces ratings- winners such as Have I Got News For You for the BBC and Drop The Dead Donkey for Channel 4, is reported to have been at the top of Channel 4's wish list and was twice approached by the broadcaster's head-hunters, Goddard Kay Rogers.

However, it is understood that press attacks on Mr Grade caused her to turn down the job. Mr Grade was famously dubbed "Britain's pornographer in chief" by the Daily Mail's right-wing columnist Paul Johnson, because of the nature of some Channel 4 programmes.

The Mail, which regards itself as the defender of so-called "family values", has repeatedly and loudly objected to Channel 4 programmes such as Dyke TV, The Red Light Zone and The Word.

Ms O'Donoghue is believed to have been concerned that newspapers with an anti-Channel 4 agenda would investigate her private life, as they have done with Mr Grade. Stories about her ex-husband and partner in Hat Trick, comedian Jimmy Mulville, have already appeared in the News of The World.

The race for the Channel 4 job has so far been taking place in the shadows but the board will meet to discuss Mr Grade's replacement on 28 Apri. A decision is expected then or soon after.

Re-entering the race this week is Howard Stringer, former head of the CBS network in the US. Stringer's chances had been dismissed in reports last month because of his inexperience in the UK television industry. He is also being linked to the position of head of Sony in the US. A report yesterday in the Financial Times that he was still in the running for both jobs was being interpreted by Channel 4 insiders as a negotiating tactic.

The two front-runners remain Michael Jackson, the head of BBC Television, and John Willis, Channel 4's programming director and favourite with staff.