BBC hopefuls face their first interrogation

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A secretive panel of figures from business, politics, the media and academia will begin an exhaustive interrogation this week of the six candidates for the sensitive position of BBC chairman, who will preside over some of the most revolutionary changes in the corporation's history.

Nicholas Kroll, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will chair a group believed to comprise Sir Christopher Hogg, the chairman of Reuters; Liz Forgan, the former head of BBC Radio; and Sir Brian Follett, an academic. Although the BBC is publicly funded and in spite of promises of open government, a Whitehall spokesman refused to confirm the names on the panel.

Yet the quartet has just as much importance as the Media and Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, in the selection. It will whittle down the names from six to probably two or possibly even one, who will then be interviewed by Ms Jowell. She will forward her choice to the Prime Minister, finally to be rubber-stamped by Buckingham Palace.

The interviews are scheduled to take place on Thursday and Friday when most of those who run the British television industry are ensconced in Cambridge at the Royal Television Society conference.

The first big job for the new chairman will become clear at that conference – to oversee the establishment of the two controversial new BBC digital channels, BBC3 and BBC4. Ms Jowell is expected to approve the new channels, one specialising in children's and youth programming, and the other in culture. Despite protests from commercial broadcasters, the Government has been convinced by the BBC's argument that, without an expansion of children's programming by the corporation, the country would be swamped by American shows from the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon and Fox.

The new channels will be in the vanguard of the corporation's attempts to be ready for the huge upheaval surrounding the planned turn-off of the analogue signal later in the decade.

The six on the shortlist for the chairmanship are understood to be the broadcaster David Dimbleby; the current BBC vice-chairman, Gavyn Davies; the former leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay of Paddington; the ex-chief executive of Channel 4, Michael Grade; the former chairman of the British Library, John Ashworth; and the former diplomat Dame Pauline Neville-Jones.

The hot favourite remains Gavyn Davies. The only whispers against him have been on account of his closeness to the New Labour élite. Some feel there should be more of a political balance at the top of the BBC. The director general, Greg Dyke, is a Labour supporter. The outgoing chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, was appointed by the Conservatives.

The process has been delayed to give the new leader of the Tories a say in the selection.

Heather Rabatts, a former chief executive of Lambeth council in London, who was rumoured to be a serious contender for the post, does not appear to be on the shortlist.

In the running: The candidates for chairing the corporation

Gavyn Davies

The Goldman Sachs economist is the hot favourite. Having chaired a government review on the financing of the BBC, he is an expert on the subject. New Labour smiles upon him and his wife works for the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Baroness Jay Of Paddington

As with all the current candidates, she would be a hands-on chairwoman. But with sensitivities about political leanings at the top of the BBC, someone who was so recently serving in the Government is unlikely to be appointed to the post.

Michael Grade

Personable cigar-chomper who now runs Pinewood Studios. A brilliant scheduler at Channel 4, he also imported Friends and ER. Keen to return to television.

David Dimbleby

Likely clashes with Greg Dyke would be interesting. Expect to see Panorama promoted from its graveyard slot if the BBC current affairs supremo gets the job.

John Ashworth

A surprise candidate, this biochemist is believed to be a champion of public service broadcasting and would ensure close scrutiny of the BBC's output.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones

Supported by Conservative lobby, she chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee and was managing director of NatWest Markets.

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