Heavyweights line up for the biggest job in broadcasting

Interviews begin this week to find a new chairman of the governors to replace Gavyn Davies. Anthony Barnes reports
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The Independent Online

The next few days will be momentous for the BBC as its future direction begins to take shape after the cataclysmic changes of the Hutton report, which saw the corporation's two figureheads fall on their swords.

Interviews will be held on Tuesday for the vacant post of BBC chairman, with the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, aiming to fill the post by the middle of April.

By coincidence, the same day marks the deadline for applications to the biggest job in broadcasting, that of BBC director general - an appointment which the new chairman of governors will oversee.

Both processes are subject to the utmost secrecy with only a handful of people privy to the names of those shortlisted for the £81,320 post of chairman. But already leaks have begun to emerge.

One name which is causing most anxiety among BBC staff is that of former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert, who conducted a review into BBC News 24. The feeling is that although he has a good grasp of newspapers and News 24, he does not have the overarching knowledge of the BBC which would immediately draw a line under the Hutton fallout.

"There was a period of soul-searching in the wake of Hutton," said one senior BBC figure. "But to have a chairman like Lambert who knows so little about the BBC could mean the soul-searching goes on for ever."

Also shortlisted are the Question Time host David Dimbleby, the former Channel 4 boss Lord Grade, and the ex-Independent Television Commission chief executive Patricia Hodgson.

Baroness Young of Old Scone, a former vice chairman of the BBC and Lord Watson of Richmond, once a presenter for The Money Programme and Panorama, are others to be interviewed, and Lord Burns, the chairman of the Abbey bank, may be added.

The four-days-a-week role of chairman is seen as rather mysterious in terms of day-to-day duties, but the ostensible responsibility is to lead the Board of Governors, planning strategy and acting in the public interest to ensure the BBC is publicly accountable. The successful candidate will also be a key player in negotiations for charter renewal in 2006.

There is also work to be done in convincing viewers of the central plank of BBC funding, the licence fee. A recent report commissioned by the BBC for a Panorama debate found that only a third of the public thought it was the best way to fund the broadcaster.

An editorial in The Times has backed Mr Lambert saying he is "best qualified to steer the BBC through choppy waters". But a view within the BBC is that the Murdoch press "will opt for the candidate who will continue the reassessment process for the longest".

The complexion of the chairman will have a direct bearing on the appointment of the DG - leading candidates for which are expected to include the BBC's director of radio, Jenny Abramsky, its director of television, Jana Bennett, the acting director general, Mark Byford, and the chief executive of Channel 4, Mark Thompson.

There is a view that there must be something of a balancing act to ensure the Chairman and Director General are not cut from the same cloth. If the chairmanship goes to, say, Mr Dimbleby, one of 79 people who have applied, it may count against Ms Abramsky, as both share a news background. In which case Ms Bennett might fare better, thanks to her pedigree in programme-making and commissioning for TV.

Ms Abramsky may have a better chance were Lord Burns, who was appointed last year as a Government advisor on the BBC's charter renewal - to get the chairmanship. The appointment of a chairman will, as it did with Gavyn Davies, raise fears of New Labour cronyism. But rather than worries they are too close to the Government, the reverse appears to be true.

Although the channels of communication with Downing Street are hugely important, there is a feeling that to prove the BBC's independence and distance the new chairman should be a distinctly non-Labour figure.

Patricia Hodge, 57

Chief executive of axed TV regulator the Independent Television Commission, which was replaced by Ofcom. Familiar with broadcasting issues after three decades at the BBC.

A Birt-ist, therefore close to Tony Blair. Odds: 4/1

Richard Lambert, 59

Former editor of The Financial Times, working there for 35 years. No broadcasting experience, but analysed the BBC News 24 for Government review. Friends in high places include Chancellor Gordon Brown and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. Odds: 5/2

Baroness Young, 55

Former vice chairman of the BBC, so knows the ropes. Lack of party alignment could help her. Odds: 5/1

Lord Grade, 61

Known as "pornographer in chief" as head of Channel 4, now executive chairman of film studio Pinewood-Shepperton. Has 25 years in broadcasting, including BBC1 controller.

Flamboyant, and unafraid to ruffle feathers. Odds: 6/1

David Dimbleby

Voice of state occasions and Question Time host knows the BBC inside out after four decades. Politicians know him. Up for the job in 2001. Odds: 8/1

Lord Burns, 60

Chairman of Abbey headed Government review of the BBC charter. Friend of the former DG; now a Downing Street adviser. Odds: 2/1