Sharp resigns as BBC chairman after report finds conflicts of interest

Cronyism? Richard Sharp (left) and Boris Johnson.

We all knew this was going to happen; it was just a matter of time.

Richard Sharp has resigned as BBC Chairman after an investigation found he did not mention “potential perceived” conflicts of interest before his appointment to the role.

These include telling then-prime minister Boris Johnson that he wanted to apply for the role before doing so, and arranging a meeting between Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Simon Blyth, a distant cousin of Johnson’s who wanted to provide financial support to the then-prime minister (the sum of £800,000 has been mentioned in the past). It seems that meeting did not take place.

The investigation did not pass judgement on whether Sharp had any intention to influence the former PM. This would be impossible to gauge unless Sharp actually admitted it.

The report by barrister Adam Heppinstall found “there is a risk of a perception that Mr Sharp was recommended for appointment” because he sought to assist the PM in a private financial matter “and/or that he influenced the former prime minister to recommend him by informing him of his application before he submitted it”.

It is likely that the conclusion is phrased in this way because it is impossible to say for certain whether either act influenced Johnson without Johnson admitting it, and that was never likely to happen.

The report notes that Sharp did not accept the first finding but has apologised for the second. He has called the breach of public appointment rules “inadvertent and not material”.

The problem is, he did not mention either matter to the appointments panel during the scrutiny process that took place before he took up the role as BBC Chairman, so its members did not have an opportunity to consider for themselves whether these matters were inadvertent and immaterial.

And he should have mentioned them, because it is specifically demanded in the Cabinet Office’s Governance Code: “If you have any interests that might be relevant to the work of the BBC, and which could lead to a real or perceived conflict of interest if you were to be appointed, please provide details in your application.”

Instead, the potential conflicts of interest were revealed by The Sunday Times in January, triggering a wave of speculation and condemnation.

No other applicant was able to indicate an interest in the job to Boris Johnson in advance, remember. And it seems a pre-briefing in October 2020 sought to influence other potential candidates not to apply for the role because Johnson had Sharp in mind for it.

Sharp’s claim that he knew nothing of Boris Johnson’s financial affairs when arranging the meeting between Mr Case and Mr Blyth rings false; how would he have known Johnson might want a loan otherwise?

And it seems unrealistic that a man with years of experience in the business world would not realise there would be a perceived conflict of interest because of his having been involved in facilitating a possible loan to the then-prime minister.

Sharp was questioned strongly about the matter by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee – one of whose members, SNP MP John Nicolson, said afterwards: “It leaves the impression so much of this is deeply ‘Establishment’; it’s pals appointing pals, donating money to pals.

“It rather leaves the impression that it is all a bit… ‘banana republic’ and cosy.”

The committee’s conclusion was that Sharp’s conduct showed serious errors of judgement.

In that case, it is right that he should go. He might commit similar errors as BBC boss.

The question is: what happens next?

The Sharp affair has raised serious questions about cronyism in public appointments.

Until the public can be reassured that no such ‘Establishment’ or ‘banana republic’ behaviour is taking place, it seems unlikely that we will ever trust the terms on which any other such public appointment takes place.

Who’s going to be the next BBC chair – Owen Paterson?

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