Ministers will next week seek to avoid controversy by appointing a leading figure in the Welsh arts as acting chair of the BBC, following the departure of Richard Sharp.
Dame Elan Closs Stephens is expected to get the nod as interim BBC chair from culture secretary Lucy Frazer, according to people briefed on the matter, and is likely to serve in the role for many months, during what is a crucial time for the public service broadcaster.
Frazer is said by colleagues to be determined to hold a thorough search for a permanent replacement for Sharp, who quit as BBC chair last month after becoming embroiled in a dispute over a loan to former premier Boris Johnson.
Sharp, a Conservative party donor and former Goldman Sachs mentor of Rishi Sunak, became a contentious figure at the helm of the BBC but Closs Stephens is unlikely to follow suit.
Closs Stephens, a non-executive director on the BBC board who acts as member for Wales, is a career academic and champion of the Welsh arts. She helped forge Aberystwyth university’s focus on communications and the creative industries, and has chaired the Welsh language broadcaster S4C.
People close to the appointment process for acting BBC chair said Closs Stephens was regarded as a “safe pair of hands” — with one describing her as “hugely experienced, hugely respected, but also not seen as wanting to take on the role full-time”.
A BBC insider said: “Elan is well liked, highly respected and understands the BBC.”
Closs Stephens’ expected appointment as acting BBC chair comes with the backing of the corporation’s board, according to people close to the decision making process.
The board can recommend a preferred candidate to ministers to consider, but the final decision lies with the culture secretary given the BBC chair is a government appointment.
Frazer was expected to back the nomination of Closs Stephens next week, said one senior government insider.
Closs Stephens is due to serve as BBC chair for some time — as the corporation plots its next steps to compete in the global television market increasingly dominated by large US technology groups — given the process to appoint a permanent successor to Sharp has not even formally begun.
Damon Buffini, deputy BBC chair, is seen as a leading candidate to replace Sharp permanently.
Sharp announced his resignation as BBC chair last month after an investigation found he had breached public appointment rules by failing to declare help provided to Johnson that led to his securing an £800,000 loan.
He will stay on until the end of June and people involved in the search for an acting BBC chair said a permanent replacement might not be in place until the end of the year.
Lord Ed Vaizey, former culture minister, said after Sharp quit that Sunak must ensure that the BBC appointments process was “beyond reproach”. Gary Lineker, the BBC’s high-profile football presenter, said politics should be removed from the process.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that it was appointing an acting BBC chair from within the ranks of existing non-executive members of the corporation’s board. “We will make an announcement in due course,” said a spokesman.
The BBC declined to comment.