The head of a committee of MPs that will vet the next chair of the BBC Trust has warned David Cameron not to try to push through a female candidate for the post.
Responding to a report that said the prime minister was “determined” to appoint a woman in the role, John Whittingdale, chair of the culture select committee, said the tough nature of the job meant that the widest field of candidates should be canvassed and Lord Patten’s successor chosen purely on merit.
“It is a very, very tough job, it is difficult to find someone with all the requisite skills whoever is the best person,” Whittingdale said. “It doesn’t matter if that person is male or female. I think we should choose the person who is best to do the job. That is all that matters, and all that should matter.”
He said he had not heard of any top-level government machinations to drive a female candidate into the role, following a report in the Sunday Times claiming Cameron was “determined” the successor should be a woman.
Whittingdale’s committee will grill the candidate selected by the newly appointed culture secretary, Sajid Javid, following a recruitment process that will start when the role is advertised in the coming weeks.
Dame Marjorie Scardino, the former chief executive of Financial Times-owner Pearson, has been touted as a potential candidate. Scardino, a non-executive director of Twitter, has so far refused to rule herself out of the race. She was quick to do so in the hunt that ultimately resulted in the appointment of the previous incumbent of the role, Lord Patten.
Patten announced this month that he would be standing down immediately following major heart surgery.
Lady Wheatcroft, the Conservative peer and former editor of the European edition of the Wall Street Journal, has also been touted as a contender, as has Lady Hogg, a crossbencher who is married to the former Tory cabinet minister Douglas Hogg and was once John Major’s Downing Street policy chief.
Whittingdale said that while the BBC chairman should not be a political appointment, candidates with a political background should not be ruled out.
“[The successor] shouldn’t be active in politics today, but candidates should not be ruled out if they have some activity, Patten wasn’t,” he said.
The government may not have the luxury of angling towards a female chair of the BBC Trust, with Patten entering the frame to succeed Sir Michael Lyons at a late stage after a recruitment process that struggled to attract a strong field of candidates.
A source close to Cameron said the desire was to attract a strong field of candidates and that “the best person should be appointed for the job”.
Patten’s tenure was blighted by criticism about the BBC Trust’s handling of issues at corporation including the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals, and the furore over executive pay.
The frontrunner for the chair is considered to be Sir Howard Stringer, the former Sony and CBS boss who is a non-executive director at the BBC. Heis understood to be reserving his decision on running until more is known about the process.
“The role was much tougher than Patten expected,” said an ally. “It was meant to be the capping of a successful career and look what happened. He could not have foreseen the difficulty of what can engulf the BBC, candidates will be well aware of that risk”.
Some observers believe the government might look to a temporary solution by seeking to offer a two-year role, until the future of the BBC Trust is determined after the royal charter renewal.
BBC Trust vice-chair, Diane Coyle, who has yet to say whether she will run for the top job, has solid Treasury experience and could be seen to be a safe pair of hands in negotiations to renew the licence fee and to caretake the BBC Trust for until the end of charter renewal.
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