Snoddy: BBC chairman’s days are numbered
BBC chairman Richard Sharp faces calls to resign following accusations of cronyism, but what does it mean for the broadcaster?
Richard Sharp’s days as chairman of the BBC are over — even though he may not realise it yet.
His authority, his legitimacy and the vital necessity to have a reputation for impartiality are all going down faster than Chinese weather balloons.
Two powerful signs have surely put the matter beyond doubt. Downing Street said that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak still had confidence in his former boss at merchant bank Goldman Sachs.
As we know Sunak always has confidence in figures mired in controversy — until he no longer does.
The Prime Minister’s official line, dusted down on all convenient occasions, is that there is an ongoing process of investigation so “I can’t speculate or pre-judge the outcome of that.”
A review into Sharp’s behaviour during the BBC appointment process has been ordered by William Shawcross, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and is being undertaken by Adam Heppinstall KC.
A further sign indicating just how precarious Sharp’s position now is came when he received full-throated support from The Sun.
Labour’s outrage over BBC chairman Sharp was entirely confected and masked their own flagrant hypocrisy, the paper fumed.
“Left-wing luvvies and party donors were handed key BBC posts under New Labour. Yet they soon waged a campaign to force out Tory Sharp — aided by Auntie’s own output, of course,” The Sun argued.
Actually “the outrage” came from the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select committee chaired by the former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green.
At the same time “Auntie’s own output”, including extensive coverage on Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today programme, has been exemplary in properly examining a matter of considerable public interest at the heart of the BBC.
There is no real disagreement over the facts — merely on what they mean.
Sharp had been involved as a go-between that ultimately led an old Canadian friend Sam Blyth underwriting an £800,000 loan for another old Sharp friend Boris Johnson.
Sharp told the Cabinet Office about the conversations. By then Sharp had applied for the BBC chairmanship and the former merchant banker also told Johnson, according to the Sunday Times, of his intention to apply for the job.
The BBC chairman insists he has done nothing wrong because he told the head of the Cabinet Office, Simon Case, to avoid any conflict of interest and as a result has no intention of quitting.
When he appeared before the DCMS Select Committee which approved his appointment, Sharp did not mention his role in putting two old friends Blyth and Johnson together in the small matter of the £800,000 loan.
In its latest report the Select Committee said Sharp had undermined trust in the BBC and the public appointments system by failing to reveal his role in facilitating the Johnson loan.
The Committee said the failure constituted a “serious breach of standards” of those seeking public office and was “a significant error of judgement.”
The Committee urged Sharp to “consider the impact his omissions will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process”, although its judgement fell short of actually calling on him to resign.
Acting chairman Green expressed frustration that MPs considering Sharp’s suitability for the BBC chairmanship were “ not in full possession of the facts.”
The pressure on Sharp has increased since the publication of the Select Committee’s report, not least from broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby who argued that the chairman represented a great deal of danger to the BBC.
“I have no doubt he is an honourable man, no reason do I have to doubt that,” Dimbleby told Newsnight. ”But what he should do honourably is to fall on his sword and say in the interest of the BBC, which I care about, I don’t want this to go on and on. I shall stand aside.”
Next up was former Tory Peer now a cross-bencher, the former journalist Baroness Patience Wheatcroft.
She told the Today programme: “Even if Mr Sharp behaved absolutely correctly, it doesn’t look right, it doesn’t smell right and it doesn’t feel right to give him the top job at the BBC.”
In particular, Baroness Wheatcroft added it doesn’t feel right “ to have a chairman who is now being questioned about his judgement.”
And so it goes on and as the authority of the BBC chairman drains away, the more his actions rather than his performance becomes the story.
High watermark for cronyism?
In the summer former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis must have had Sharp partly in mind when she talked of “Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC” in her MacTaggart Memorial lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival.
She was speaking before the Sunday Times broke the Blyth-Johnson story last month but Sharp’s £400,000 donations to the Conservative party were well known as well as the fact that Sharp had advised Johnson when he was Mayor of London as well as Sunak when he was Chancellor.
This week there has been a notable shortage of Conservative ministers prepared to speak out publicly in support of the BBC chairman.
And close readers of The Times letters page on Tuesday would have noted an explosive single column contribution from Sir David Normington, Commissioner for Public Appointments from 2011 to 2016.
Sir David noted in 2016 the Government had changed the public appointments rules to give it the power to write its own appointment rules, appoint the advisory panels and intervene at every stage to get their candidates appointed “and appoint their friends and cronies.”
As a result those who want to appoint political donors and allies can do so with impunity.
“This is how we have ended up with a BBC chairman who, whatever his other merits, is a large scale donor to the Conservative Party and we now learn is a go-between in arranging a loan for Boris Johnson,” Sir David wrote.
In a parting shot Sir David asked whether it was any wonder that the public have little confidence in either our politicians or those they appoint to lead our most important public bodies.
If Adam Heppinstall KC comes to similar conclusions to the Commons Select committee — and it is difficult to see how he can do anything else — it will indeed be time for Richard Sharp to fall on his sword in the public interest.
It might also mark a high watermark for cronyism in public office.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.