Senior BBC figures believe that its chairman, Richard Sharp, seriously undermined the impartiality of the corporation after a scathing parliamentary report accused him of failing to publicly disclose his role in facilitating a loan for Boris Johnson.
In findings that cast further doubt on Sharp’s future at the BBC, the multi-party committee said the president “should consider the impact his oversights will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process”.
Sharp, a Conservative donor and former boss of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has been accused of making “significant errors of judgement” and undermining the selection process for the BBC presidency. Commons’ digital, cultural, media and sports committee said he had withheld details about his involvement in the Cabinet’s connection to a businessman interested in offering financial assistance to Johnson. He said the omissions “constitute a violation of the standards expected of individuals” who run for prominent public office.
His findings come after Sharp admitted introducing a friend and distant cousin of Johnson, Sam Blyth, to the Cabinet. Blyth later provided Johnson with a loan guarantee facility of up to £800,000, although he has since said the full amount has not been withdrawn. It is still unknown who provided the loan itself. Sharp’s role was not publicized during the selection process for the BBC presidency or during a pre-nomination hearing held by the House of Commons committee.
There are already calls for the former prime minister to face an independent inquiry into the case, which is still the subject of two more investigations. An investigation, overseen by Adam Heppinstall KC, is looking into the BBC chairmanship selection process, while a corporate investigation is looking into any conflicts of interest.
The case caused a lot of anger in the BBC. There are claims that, with repeated criticism of the corporation’s impartiality by conservative government figures, it is the same government that has done the most to undermine it. “This government has rightly emphasized the importance of maintaining trust in public service broadcasting now,” said a senior BBC news executive. “The BBC, the Conservatives said, must avoid any appearance of bias. So how does it help? How this report undermines the government’s previous defense of the robust appointment procedure that Sharp went through is the most damaging finding.”
Lucy Powell, the Shadow Culture Secretary, said: “This is a damning report that makes the BBC President’s position all the more untenable because it casts serious doubt on the impartiality and independence that are so fundamental to trust in the BBC. Conservative clientelism is dragging the BBC down when we should be building it as the cornerstone of our creative economy.”
On Saturday night, a spokesperson for Sharp said the BBC chairman “appreciates that there was information that the committee felt it should have been told at its pre-nomination hearing. He repents and apologizes.” There was also an attempt to calm the heightened feelings within the BBC.
A spokesman said: “Mr. Sharp would like to apologize again to the brilliant team at the BBC, given the distraction this has caused. He is proud of the work the board has done to bring about positive change at the BBC over the past two years and looks forward to continuing this work. Furthermore, he looks forward to the conclusions of the independent report chaired by Adam Heppinstall KC.”
However, Sharp and his team remain defiant about his actions, saying he acted in “good faith” at all times. A spokesman said Sharp had been assured by Cabinet that, having introduced Blyth to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, he was not involved in any talks about a loan and that there was no conflict of interest.
“It has not been suggested by the Cabinet Office that the act of connecting Mr. Blyth with Mr. any conflict,” said a Sharp spokesman.
Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the report raised questions for Johnson. “Boris Johnson must now also face the music and answer questions from an independent investigation,” she said. “The ministerial ethics counselor should initiate an investigation.”