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BBC Chair fends off ‘jobs for chums’ jibe

February 7, 2023

Richard Sharp, the BBC chair, has told MPs his only role in providing a loan to Boris Johnson shortly before he got the job was to “ensure due process was followed”.

Sharp said he had personally told Johnson as well as Rishi Sunak, the then chancellor, that he was going for the BBC job before submitting his application. He was accused by one MP of exemplifying a “pals appointing pals” establishment culture.

Appearing before the culture, media and sport committee, Sharp declined several times to express regret for not telling a pre-appointment hearing of the same committee about his role in facilitating a reported £800,000 (€0.89m) loan facility for Johnson, who was ultimately chose him as chair.

Sharp said only that he regretted “the situation”, and “the distraction”, and that he did not wish it to overshadow the work of the BBC.

The former banker was summoned by the committee after it emerged that shortly before applying for the BBC role he had assisted his friend Sam Blyth, a Canadian businessman and a distant relation of Johnson, who wanted to financially bail out the prime minister.

Sharp explained that Blyth was at a private dinner at his house in September 2020 when the Canadian said he had read reports that Johnson was in “some difficulties” and that he wanted to help. Sharp said he warned his friend about the ethical complexities of this. Sharp was at the time working in Downing Street on Covid projects, and told both Johnson and Sunak of his aim to be BBC chair before applying for the job in November. Since he was working in the same office building as Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, Sharp said, he raised this suggestion with Case, also mentioning that he was in the running to be BBC chair.

Sharp insisted that he believed this conversation with Case, at which no one else was present, cleared him of any perceived conflict of interest over the BBC application, which is why he never mentioned it at the hearing.

“I’d raised the issue of my BBC application specifically with [Case]. He had agreed that to avoid a conflict, or any appearance of a conflict, I should have nothing further to do with the matter. At that stage any support that Mr Blyth was going to support was entirely hypothetical. I took comfort from that discussion,” said Sharp.

One committee member, the SNP’s John Nicolson, told Sharp the overall impression was “all a bit banana republic”. Nicolson said: “I think it leaves the impression that so much of this is deeply establishment. It’s pals appointing pals, donating money to pals.”

Asked if he understood how angry BBC staff were, Sharp said: “I regret the distraction this has caused, there’s no doubt about that. And certainly, I’m disturbed by the fact that all the tremendous things the BBC does should in some way overshadowed by this.”

William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, was tasked with examining how Sharp became BBC chair. However, he has since had to recuse himself from the process, said the pair had met several times.

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