After the fall of Richard Sharp, the next BBC chair must not be another political crony | Andrew Rawnsley
That’s a blow for the theory of nominative determinism. Richard Sharp was terribly dim when it came to realising that he could not possibly continue as chair of the BBC. A magician he may have been at making money at Goldman Sachs, and a wizard operator at forging political connections, and some at the broadcaster thought him a capable chair, but he was a fool to think that he could somehow ride out the storm. When he finally announced his resignation on Friday, departing with some chaff about not wanting to be a “distraction”, this was long after it was obvious that he was fatally compromised. “It was inevitable,” says a former Conservative cabinet minister. “Everyone could see how this was going to end,” comments a senior Labour frontbencher. Not just one, but two, damning investigations found against him.
The first finding, produced some weeks ago by the Commons select committee which covers the media, concluded that he made “significant errors of judgment” when he failed to reveal that he had helped to facilitate a secret personal loan for Boris Johnson when he was still at Number 10. That made a mockery of the appointments process because it denied vital information to those scrutinising it. The second report, by Adam Heppinstall KC for the public appointments commissioner, was unequivocal that he unambiguously breached the governance code.
Some may make an argument that we can relax because this is a validating demonstration of the safeguards designed to ensure probity in public life. The rules on declaring conflicts of interests were broken and this was found out. Mr Johnson has already been dispatched from Number 10. Now Mr Sharp will leave the BBC. Nothing more to see here, let’s move on, some may say. I’m not so sanguine. Mr Sharp’s involvement in the rackety personal finances of the former prime minister only came to light as the result of investigatory journalism. Absent that, it might very well have remained concealed that he was a go-between in the arrangement of an £800,000 loan guarantee to the prime minister who promoted him for the key post at the BBC. Neither of the inquiries into this affair were instigated by the government. To the contrary, Number 10 rather gave the impression that it was content for Mr Sharp to remain in the role, even when it was poisoning trust in both the appointments process and the BBC. The investigation that finished him off was triggered by an initiative taken by the shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell. She deserves kudos from her colleagues.
The result is a humiliating failure for Mr Sharp at the end of a career otherwise characterised by a lot of success. He joins the very long list of people who wandered recklessly close to the ethical black hole that is Mr Johnson and became consumed by it. I can’t say that it has done reputational damage to Mr Johnson himself because the disgraced former prime minister had no respect left to lose. Rishi Sunak does not emerge smelling sweet. This episode tarnishes his attempt to present himself as a clean break with the trashy regime of his predecessor. It is hard to beat this as a case study of the incestuous back-scratching circles of the Tory establishment. Over their many years of knowing each other, Mr Sharp has been Mr Sunak’s boss at a bank, a mentor and an adviser at the Treasury. The foot-dragging about his departure has exposed the prime minister to the charge that he was more interested in trying to shield his chum than he was in protecting the integrity of the appointments process and the standing of the BBC.
That matters hugely because our most important broadcaster plays such a crucial role in the ecology of our media, the quality of our national conversation and the fabric of our society. We live in an environment in which a lot of political discourse in traditional media and the social variety is characterised by relentless and venomous propagandising that is often unanchored from facts. The volume of this partisanship is going to get even more shrieky the closer we get to the general election. There will also be a ramping up of the pressure on the BBC from political tribalists of all kinds to warp its reporting to suit their prejudices and interests.
So it is critical that we have a robust BBC enjoying public confidence as an impeccably independent broadcaster that can be relied on to cover events and referee debates without fear or favour towards any politician. The choice of Mr Sharp to chair the BBC had a cronyistic smell even before we knew about his entanglement with the personal finances of Mr Johnson. It was in the public domain at the time he got the job that he was a card-carrying Conservative and a champion of Brexit who had donated more than £400,000 to the Tories. His long, intimate and explicit connections to the Conservative party should not have been a recommendation for occupying the top seat on the BBC board. It should have been a disqualification.
Tories will retort that Labour has always been fine with having political partisans in senior positions at the Beeb when they are Labour’s friends. During Tony Blair’s time at Number 10, Greg Dyke became director general of the corporation, having previously given money to Labour. The chairman Gavyn Davies was also a Labour donor and he was married to Sue Nye, a senior aide to Gordon Brown. That generated a fierce furore, not least from Tories, about “Tony’s cronies”. As things turned out, both men ended up losing their jobs as a result of the massive battle over the Iraq dossier between the BBC and Mr Blair’s government. Things have a habit of going bad when people with close ties to the government of the day are put in senior positions at the Beeb.
We don’t just need a new chair for the BBC, we need cleaner thinking about its relationship with government. On Labour’s part, Ms Powell has set up a comprehensive review of the governance of the broadcaster. Her stated purpose is to find ways in which to strengthen the corporation. I am going to suggest a step that some in her party will be reluctant to take, because it is not just Tories who like to exploit the patronage powers of office. It would be to his credit, and possibly also to his advantage, if Sir Keir Starmer were to demonstrate his commitment to BBC independence by pledging that a government led by him will not seek to install any Labour partisans at the broadcaster. We don’t want to be talking about “Keir’s cronies”.
As for the Conservatives, many of them are BBC-bashers, but not all of them hate Auntie and some do grasp how much its reputation matters. Damian Green, the former cabinet minister and acting chair of the culture select committee, has urged the government to ensure that whoever it recruits to be the next BBC chair “can demonstrate the integrity and impartiality needed for this role”.
Number 10 says that it intends to fill the post through the existing procedures. That is meant to sound reassuring, but isn’t. This affair is accompanied by wider concerns about how public appointments are being made. “Is he one of us?” Margaret Thatcher liked to ask. All prime ministers have the urge to put people they think will be friendly into influential positions on public bodies. Those urges need to be restrained. This is why there are supposed to be safeguards to prevent Downing Street from stuffing public bodies with sympathisers and sycophants. These guardrails are clearly not strong enough. The Heppinstall report casts illumination on one of the tricks that Number 10 employs to fix competitions for public posts. To ensure that Mr Sharp got the BBC job, Downing Street leaked to the media that he was favoured by Mr Johnson. This had the intended effect of deterring applications from alternative candidates who might have been better qualified because they thought there was no point applying. The investigation also found that the people running the supposedly independent recruitment process were told that Mr Sharp was the only candidate whom Number 10 would approve.
The independence of the BBC chair will always look compromised so long as the job is essentially in the gift of the prime minister. The public interest requires a completely open and scrupulously fair competition to find the person who is best suited to perform an important role in our national life. What we absolutely don’t need is the BBC’s empty chair to be stuffed with another of the prime minister’s mates.