Senior figures within the BBC believe its chairman, Richard Sharp, has seriously undermined the corporation’s impartiality after a damning parliamentary report accused him of failing to publicly divulge his role in facilitating a loan for Boris Johnson.
In findings that cast further doubt on Sharp’s future at the BBC, the cross-party committee said the chairman “should consider the impact his omissions will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process”.
Sharp, a Tory donor and former boss of the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was accused of making “significant errors of judgment” and undermining the selection process for the BBC chairmanship. The Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee said that he had omitted details about his involvement in connecting the Cabinet Office with a businessman interested in offering Johnson financial assistance. It said the omissions “constitute a breach of the standards expected of individuals” applying for prominent public appointments.
Its findings come after Sharp admitted introducing a friend and distant cousin of Johnson, Sam Blyth, to the Cabinet Office. Blyth later provided a loan guarantee facility to Johnson for up to £800,000, though has since said the full amount was not drawn upon. It is still not known who provided the loan itself. Sharp’s role was not disclosed during the selection process for the BBC chairmanship or during a pre-appointment hearing held by the Commons committee.
There are already calls for the former prime minister to face an independent inquiry over the affair, which is still the subject of two further investigations. One inquiry, overseen by Adam Heppinstall KC, is looking at the BBC chairmanship selection process, while an investigation by the corporation is examining any conflicts of interest.
The affair has caused serious anger within the BBC. There are complaints that with repeated criticisms 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 emphasised the importance of maintaining trust in public service broadcasting now,” said a senior BBC news executive. “The BBC, the Tories have said, must avoid any appearance of bias. So how does this help? The way this report undermines the government’s previous defence of the robust appointment procedure Sharp went through is the most damaging finding.”
Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, said: “This is a damning report which makes the BBC chair’s position increasingly untenable because it throws into serious doubt the impartiality and independence that is so fundamental to trust in the BBC. The Conservatives’ cronyism is dragging down the BBC when we should be building it up as a cornerstone of our creative economy.”
On Saturday night, a spokesperson for Sharp said 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. He regrets this and apologises.” There was also an attempt to soothe the heightened feelings within the BBC.
A spokesperson said: “Mr Sharp would like to apologise again to the BBC’s brilliant staff, given the distraction it has caused. He is proud of the work the board has done driving positive change at the BBC over the last two years and very much looks forward to continuing that work. In addition, he looks forward to the conclusions of the independent report chaired by Adam Heppinstall KC.”
However, Sharp and his team remain defiant over his actions, saying he had acted in “good faith” throughout. A spokesperson said Sharp had been reassured by the Cabinet Office that, having introduced Blyth to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, he was not involved in any talks about a loan and that there was no conflict of interest.
“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 [in the future], he would be excluded from any conflict,” Sharp’s spokesperson said.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, said the report raised questions for Johnson. “Boris Johnson must now also face the music and answer questions from an independent inquiry,” she said. “The ministerial ethics adviser must start an investigation.”