BBC chair quits over role in £800k ‘Cash for Boris’ loan

BBC chair quits over role in £800k ‘Cash for Boris’ loan

Richard Sharp has resigned as chair of the BBC after a damning report on the “cash for Boris” row found he had breached strict rules on public appointments.

Mr Sharp, a Conservative Party donor, said he was standing down in the interests of the broadcaster.

But Labour said he should have been sacked “weeks ago” after the revelation of his role in helping to arrange an up to £800,000 loan guarantee for Boris Johnson when the former prime minister was still in Downing Street.

And a former commissioner for public appointments called for Mr Johnson’s role in the saga to be examined further.

Rishi Sunak also came under pressure to ensure that the process to appoint a new BBC chair is more transparent.

It came as:

  • An inquiry found Mr Sharp had failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest during his application to become BBC chair

  • It discovered that an appointment panel was told Mr Sharp was the only candidate “supported by ministers”

  • And that leaks about “preferred candidates” may have deterred other applicants

  • Gary Lineker tweeted: “The BBC chairman should not be selected by the government of the day. Not now, not ever.”

  • A former deputy prime minister said trust in the BBC had been damaged

  • There were calls for the next chair of the corporation to be a woman

Mr Sharp has been under pressure to resign since it emerged that he had been involved in helping to secure the loan guarantee by introducing his friend, Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Mr Johnson who wanted to help the then prime minister with his financial woes, to the Cabinet Office. But Mr Sharp held on, even after a damning report by MPs warned that he was damaging trust in the BBC by remaining in post.

However, in the 24 hours before the results of the inquiry were published, the director general of the corporation, Tim Davie, visited Mr Sharp at his home, the BBC reported. Journalists had been told to expect Adam Heppinstall KC’s findings at around 10am. But just minutes before that came the announcement that Mr Sharp would stand down.

Almost immediately, Mr Sharp appeared on the BBC News channel and read out a prepared statement, with a BBC logo prominently displayed behind him. There were no questions afterwards. The BBC Trust also released a statement, in which it congratulated Mr Sharp for his achievements.

In his resignation statement, Mr Sharp insisted that his breach of the rules had been “inadvertent and not material”. “Nevertheless, I have decided that it is right to prioritise the interests of the BBC,” the former Goldman Sachs banker added.

A former deputy prime minister has said that the Sharp crisis has damaged trust in the BBC. Damian Green, who is now the chair of the Commons culture committee, said: “The undoubted damage Mr Sharp’s failure to disclose perceived conflicts of interest has caused to trust in the BBC, the public appointments process, and to Mr Sharp’s reputation, could all have been avoided had he chosen to be more open with the facts when he appeared before [our] committee more than two years ago.”

He called on ministers to replace Mr Sharp with someone who possessed the “integrity and impartiality” needed for the role.

There were also calls for a more thorough examination of Mr Johnson’s involvement. Sir Peter Riddell, who was commissioner for public appointments when Mr Sharp took the job, said the former prime minister’s role “hasn’t really been discussed enough” because it was outside the remit of the inquiry.

“He himself was conflicted,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme. “... Should he have recused himself from the appointment [process] given he knew about Richard Sharp helping him out on this loan?”

Sir Alistair Graham, a former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, told The Independent it was “pretty clear” that Mr Sharp’s position was untenable.

But he also criticised Mr Johnson’s role in the scandal, saying: “He should have known not to be involved in financial issues with a candidate for a BBC position, knowing that he was going to take the final decision.”

Sir Alistair also called for future appointments to be taken out the hands of the prime minister and instead made by a panel of independent experts. He said: “It would be better if there was an alternative, to genuinely underpin the independence of the BBC.”

Former Tory culture minister Ed Vaizey said Mr Sharp’s resignation was a chance for the BBC to appoint its first female chair. He said he would have “preferred” Mr Sharp to stay, but added: “This is a great opportunity to appoint a first female head of the BBC.”

Lord Vaizey also said there was a “legitimate debate” to be had over whether public roles should be filled with “political friends” and party donors.

Senior SNP MP John Nicolson, who also sits on the culture committee, said the fact that Mr Sharp had been appointed to the job in the first place was “mad”. The next BBC chair must not be a Tory donor, he added, as he called for an end to party political appointments to “plum public service positions”.

The report found that Mr Sharp had failed to disclose two potential conflicts of interest during the application process for the role of BBC chair.

One was in relation to the loan. But the inquiry also found that Mr Sharp’s application was subject to another conflict of interest – he had told the prime minister in advance that he wanted to be chair of the corporation.

Mr Sharp disputed this, however he accepted that he should have explained to the appointment panel that he was making an introduction to help Mr Johnson with his finances. “He says that his failure to disclose was entirely inadvertent,” the report says.

A spokesperson for Mr Johnson declined to comment.