Reposted from The Guardian

Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general, has signalled to senior colleagues that he is ready to step down, with insiders believing he will quit at the end of 2012 or early in 2013, at the end of the broadcaster's Olympic year.

Britain's most powerful television executive has not given an exact timetable for his departure, but friends say he acknowledges that he has entered the final chapter of his eight-year director generalship and is "psychologically ready" to leave a job that paid him £779,000 last year.

Thompson, 54, took over the helm at the BBC in the wake of the resignations of Greg Dyke as director general and Gavyn Davies as chairman after stinging criticism of the corporation in Lord Hutton's report on the death of the government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly.

Knowledge that Thompson's time is drawing to a close will trigger a succession race that could see a woman appointed to run the BBC for the first time: Caroline Thomson, chief operating officer, and Helen Boaden, head of news, are two of the three best placed internal candidates. Their main rival is the low-key but cerebral George Entwistle, recently appointed head of BBC Vision, the corporation's TV channels.

However, with no obvious frontrunner, the job could easily fall to an outsider, with Peter Fincham, ITV's director of television, who resigned from the BBC in the wake of the "Crowngate" editing row, and Channel 4's chief executive, David Abraham, possible contenders.

American TV executives are likely to be deterred by a long-standing pledge that the salary for the job be cut, but Mark Scott, who runs the Australian public broadcaster, ABC, has relevant experience and would be a credible contender.

 

Eager to demolish any speculation that there has been a falling out with the BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten, insiders say Thompson told the Conservative peer at the time of his appointment last year that he intended to step down sometime before the chairman's term ended in 2015.

That process moved forward when the BBC Trust appointed headhunters to draw up a succession plan, and accelerated on Monday when Patten chose an interview with the Times to confirm that the executive search firm Egon Zehnder had started preliminary work so that "when the time comes" the BBC had an "intelligent view" of possible successors.

Thompson was initially piqued that Patten had begun to talk so openly about a BBC without him in charge, and his initial response was to have the BBC issue a statement saying that there was no vacancy for the director generalship, as he hoped to concentrate on preparations for what he describes as the biggest year in the BBC's history, with the diamond jubilee in June and the Olympics in July.

However, as speculation about the purpose of appointing a headhunting firm swirled at a media industry convention on Wednesday, Thompson began to make his intentions clear to demonstrate he was on board with Patten's announcement.

BBC sources said Egon Zehnder – where David Cameron's close friend, the former Conservative special adviser Dom Loenhis, works on behalf of media clients – had been advising the broadcaster since the search that led to the promotion of Entwistle last summer to the job held by Thompson a decade ago.

Thompson has long felt a stay of eight years in the top job was about right, roughly the norm for successful director generals since the 16-year tenure of the broadcaster's esteemed first head, Lord Reith. Leaving in the next year would allow his successor to lead the long negotiations in the runup to the renewal of the BBC's governing royal charter, which expires at the end of 2016. Previous charter renewals have taken as long as three years.

Thompson is unlikely to be short of offers of work after what has largely been seen as a successful tenure in which the BBC has navigated a storm of technological changes to remain the country's most watched broadcaster, with the help of the iPlayer.

Arriving alongside Michael Grade in 2004, Thompson was able to maintain the BBC's reputation for quality and impartiality – although the middle part of his tenure saw the corporation engulfed in rows about fixing phone-in competitions, and the abusive messages left by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross on the voicemail of Andrew Sachs.

A clamour to rein in generous BBC budgets was headed off by the risky decision to agree a flat licence fee with the coalition government in 2010, while the political environment has become benign in the last year as the phone-hacking scandal and ensuing Leveson inquiry have moved the focus on to Fleet Street.

Thompson's time was also punctuated by recurring industrial action and an inability to dampen down unease about executive pay and in particular his own salary – a subject on which he was taken to task by PD James on the Today programme.

It has long been speculated that he is interested in working in the United States, the native country of his wife, the writer Jane Blumberg, where he would be able to command a far higher salary than he earns at the publicly funded broadcaster. But friends say Thompson is remaining coy about his ambitions as he tries to contain the inevitable speculation at a time when the BBC cannot afford to be seen to be putting a foot wrong.

Patten, a former Tory party chairman, Hong Kong governor and EU commissioner, said on Wednesday he had never belonged to an organisation that had done succession planning well and wanted to ensure there was a plan for the BBC.

Concerned that the corporation's history in appointing director generals was flooded with "blood on the carpet" and "briefings", the chairman insisted that Thompson would leave at a time of his own choosing.