Was Richard Sharp an unlucky BBC chairman?
The investigation into Richard Sharp has highlighted not only how public appointment process should be reformed, but what happens when you get too close to Boris Johnson, writes Raymond Snoddy.
Some managers — or chairmen — are just lucky despite sometimes not having much by way of relevant experience.
Events just swing their way.
Richard Sharp was not a lucky chairman of the BBC. He did not appreciate it at the time but everything was tainted from the outset by the manner of his appointment and it is unlikely that even Boris Johnson can pull off a peerage for him now.
Even after he was rather belatedly persuaded to resign last week following a critical independent review, through no fault of his own, his departure has been further mired by controversy over an antisemitic cartoon.
Because the cartoon appeared in The Guardian the Daily Mail was naturally outraged, if not actually gleeful, that such a cartoon should have appeared in the “Left-wing Guardian newspaper.”
Was it antisemitic? The stock in trade of cartoonists is the portrayal of exaggerated, stereotypes verging on the cruel and the facts of Richard Sharp’s life are he is Jewish and spent most of his life working for Goldman Sachs, the merchant bank.
Martin Rowson, the Guardian cartoonist attended the same school as Sharp and knew he was Jewish, but insisted Sharp’s Jewishness had not crossed his mind as he worked.
Alas there appeared to be a serpent, a squid, a pig eating and gold coins in the cartoon, although the gold coins were disputed. For good measure it was the Gold part of the Goldman Sachs name that was emphasised.
The image of Sharp was small and not nearly so cruel as the portrayal of Boris Johnson atop a pile of filth.
Unfortunately with cartoons, as with almost everything else, context is important — particularly this context and publication came a week after Diane Abbott’s attempt to re-define racism.
There was unanimity in the Jewish community that they had never seen so many classic anti-Jewish motifs squeezed into a single cartoon.
Stephen Pollard, the former editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described the cartoon as “unambiguously antisemitic” and that he was genuinely shocked that noone in The Guardian had warned that such a cartoon should not be run.
The Guardian has apologised to Mr Sharp, the Jewish community and anyone else offended, and the cartoon has been withdrawn from the paper’s website.
The affair of the Sharp cartoon is not quite yet over for The Guardian with the Board of Deputies of British Jews calling for a meeting with Guardian editor Katharine Viner.
Despite everything, a decent BBC chairman?
Perhaps the unluckiest fact of all is that just before his enforced resignation there was evidence that, like many politically appointed BBC chairmen before him, Richard Sharp had risen to the occasion and has been a decent chairman of the Corporation.
It spoke volumes that two of the most senior editorial people on the BBC Board — Deborah Turness, chief executive of BBC News and Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer — both made it clear they wanted him to stay.
Moore in particular said she thought Sharp was doing a really good job.
From outside the BBC John McVay, chief executive of PACT, the association of independent producers, described Sharp as an impressive ally in the battle to persuade then Chancellor Rishi Sunak to set up a £500m film and TV restart programme during the Covid lockdown.
It was always obviously useful to have a BBC chairman who could pick up the phone to his former employee at Goldmans — now the Prime Minister.
It was not to be and Richard Sharp was undone by investigative journalism by the Sunday Times. We all know now that Sharp acted as a go-between in the arrangement of an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson just before he was appointed BBC chairman — by Boris Johnson.
A critical report from barrister Adam Heppinstall found that Sharp did not disclose two potential conflicts of interest.
One was by telling Johnson he intended to apply for the BBC post before doing so and telling Johnson he planned to set up a meeting between Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Johnson’s benefactor and distant cousin Sam Blyth.
MPs on the Commons Media Select Committee had already criticised Sharp for “serious errors of judgement” because he failed to disclose his role in the loan guarantee to Johnson.
The fact that Sharp was able to resign rather than be sacked meant he was able to call the row merely “a distraction from the Corporation’s good work.”
In the end Sharp’s departure was messy but inevitable once the critical report was published.
Changes to public appointment processes
Yet the Heppinstall report suggests that Sharp may inadvertently do some good for the governance and credibility of the BBC by leading to changes in how its chairman is appointed and perhaps for a wider range of public appointments.
Heppinstall called for an overhaul of the rules surrounding public appointments and criticised the leaking of minister’s preferred choices before the process is complete.
Although it is unlikely that any changes of substance will be made before Sharp’s successor can be appointed, more fundamental change could be on the way.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said at the weekend on Sky News that Labour wants to protect the BBC from what he called sleaze and contamination.
Starmer said he believed that the Government should be stripped of the power to appoint the person who chairs the BBC.
At the moment the names of the serious candidates are chosen by an advisory panel, and then the Prime Minister makes the appointment.
Across the 100 years of its existence the BBC has somehow managed to fight its way through periodic political rows with a succession of chairmen appointed by the Conservatives and Labour — mainly Conservative because the Party has been in power for more years.
But it is a far from ideal situation. The maximum effort should be made to ensure that the BBC should not just be politically impartial but perceived to be so, however difficult the definitional issues.
We should take the ideal as the starting point and work as closely towards it as possible in the real world.
The ideal would be not only that an independent body should chose the chairmen, and hopefully soon chairwomen of the BBC, but should also take the setting of the level of the licence fee out of political hands.
The present method should be reformed as soon as possible.
And a small reminder from the larger part of the offending Guardian cartoon — the bloated image of Boris Johnson sitting on top of the pile of filth.
Anyone who gets close to Johnson, whose only interest is himself, always suffers and often faces humiliation, in the end.
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.