BBC chairman faces crunch board meeting as Sunak offers support
Rishi Sunak is standing by the BBC’s under-pressure chairman Richard Sharp, as an investigation continues into his acting as a go-between for a loan guarantee for former prime minister Boris Johnson.
Following the release of a highly critical report by MPs on his appointment, in which he was found to have made “significant errors of judgment”, Mr Sharp is facing growing calls to step down.
Downing Street, however, said that Mr Sharp retains the support of the Prime Minister.
A meeting of the BBC board was taking place on Monday, the corporation reported.
In its report, the cross-party committee expressed heavy criticism of Mr Sharp’s failure to declare his role in enabling the arrangement made for Mr Johnson when he was applying for the job of BBC chairman.
MPs said he should “consider the impact his omissions will have” on trust in the broadcaster.
They added that his actions “constitute a breach of the standards expected of individuals” applying for prominent public appointments.
But the Prime Minister on Monday said that he would await the outcome of the inquiry ordered by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, even as Labour and the SNP suggested Mr Sharp’s position was untenable.
Mr Sharp did not arrange the loan but admitted to introducing his friend Sam Blyth — a cousin of Mr Johnson who wanted to help the then-prime minister with his financial troubles — to the Cabinet Office.
A spokesman for Mr Sharp has said he regretted not telling MPs about his involvement with Mr Blyth “and apologises”.
The Prime Minister, on a visit in Oldham, was pressed by broadcasters on whether he had confidence in Mr Sharp.
“This relates to a process that happened before I was Prime Minister, obviously,” he said.
“It is currently being looked at by the independent office of public appointments and that process is ongoing so I can’t speculate or prejudge the outcome of that, but it is an independent process that is going to look at it and make sure that everything was followed correctly and all the rules and procedures were adhered to and obviously we will wait for that report.”
Asked by reporters if Mr Sunak had confidence in the BBC chairman, his official spokesman said that Downing Street was “confident” the appointment process was followed.
“This was a two-stage process, including assessment by an advisory assessment panel, constituted according to the public appointments code,” the spokesman said.
“But there is a review into this process and we will look at that carefully.”
Mr Sharp was named as the preferred candidate for the BBC job in January 2021 and the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee backed his appointment. Crucially, however, they were not aware of his role in enabling the £800,000 loan guarantee.
In a strongly worded report, they suggested Mr Sharp’s failure to come clean could damage the BBC.
“Richard Sharp’s decisions, firstly to become involved in the facilitation of a loan to the then-prime minister while at the same time applying for a job that was in that same person’s gift, and then to fail to disclose this material relationship, were significant errors of judgment, which undermine confidence in the public appointments process and could deter qualified individuals from applying for such posts,” the MPs said.
“Mr Sharp should consider the impact his omissions will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process.”
Mr Blyth’s offer of help for the then-prime minister was made in September 2020 and Mr Sharp said he had stressed the need for things to be done “by the book”.
Following the launch of the recruitment process for the BBC chairman role, Mr Blyth contacted Mr Sharp to request an introduction to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary at the time.
Mr Sharp met Mr Johnson before going to see Mr Case and informed him that he would be telling the cabinet secretary about Mr Blyth’s offer of financial assistance.
Mr Sharp met Mr Case in December 2020, at which point he “agreed no further participation” in relation to the financial support to avoid any conflict of interest or perception of conflict given his application, the report said.
A spokesman for Mr Sharp said at the weekend that the BBC chairman “appreciates that there was information that the committee felt that it should have been made aware of in his pre-appointment hearing”.
“It was in seeking at the time to ensure that the rules were followed, and in the belief that this had been achieved, that Mr Sharp acted in good faith in the way he did,” the spokesman said.
“At that meeting, and subsequently, it was not suggested by the Cabinet Office that the act of connecting Mr Blyth with Mr Case was something that should be declared, and it was explicitly agreed that by not being party to the matter going forward, he would be excluded from any conflict.”
The spokesman said Mr Sharp “would like to apologise again to the BBC’s brilliant staff given the distraction it has caused”.