Ex-BBC chief calls on Government to ‘overhaul’ public appointments process

A former BBC director-general has called on the Government to “overhaul” its public appointments process after the resignation of BBC chairman Richard Sharp.

Mr Sharp quit after an inquiry by Adam Heppinstall KC found he had breached the rules on public appointments by failing to declare his connection to a £800,000 loan made to Boris Johnson.

The investigation also found that Mr Johnson, while prime minister, had personally approved Mr Sharp’s appointment and that individuals running the recruitment process had been informed that he was the only candidate the Government would support.

Former director-general of the BBC, Lord Birt, told the House of Lords that the report was “shocking” and called on the Government to address the flaws in its process.

The independent crossbench peer said: “This episode will not damage the BBC – it’s been around 100 years, it’s a wonderful institution, it will quickly ride through this sorry affair.

“The damage that has been done is to the Government’s own process for making public appointments and the Heppinstall report is a truly shocking read.

“Will the Government now overhaul the process for making public appointments?”

Lord Vaizey of Didcot, a Tory former minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said he thought Mr Sharp was an “excellent chair of the BBC” who “has been extremely harshly treated”, condemning a now-pulled cartoon in The Guardian, which has been branded antisemitic.

However, the Times Radio presenter agreed that “one of the things that is very clear from this report and something we all knew at the time is who the Government’s favoured candidate was for the position.

“And I think this does a disservice to the Government because it prevents excellent candidates putting themselves forward and giving the Government a genuine choice.

“The minister must know that the Government should have a much more open process with the appointment for the next chair of the BBC.”

BBC chairman post
Richard Sharp (Archive/PA)

Former political adviser at Number 10 Lord McNally told peers that Downing Street trying to interfere with public appointments is nothing new.

The now-Liberal Democrat peer was appointed the head of the prime minister’s political office at Downing Street when James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976.

He said: “Nothing the minister has said so far can give us any confidence that the process is not going to still be influenced by Number 10 Downing street.

“And therefore is it now absolutely imperative that a system of selection is produced that makes it clear that whoever’s the incumbent of Number 10, they will not have improper or undue influence on this appointment.

“I say this as someone who was once head of the political office in Number 10, so I know how, under successive governments, there is a desire to interfere.

“And the Government has an opportunity now to create a really transparent open system, but it’s got to have the will to do it as well.”

DCMS minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay responded that there are “some lessons” to be learned from the report.

He said: “Mr Heppinstall’s report concluded that overall DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process.

“There are some lessons from his report and we will carefully consider the findings and respond in due course.”

He added: “The process for appointing the chair of the BBC is set out in the BBC’s royal charter.

“It requires an appointment to be made by Order in Council following a fair and open competition; by convention, the Secretary State for Culture, Media and Sport recommends the appointment to the Lord President of the Council and the Prime Minister who recommends the appointment to His Majesty the King.

“It is important that the process is followed and all public appointments are set out and followed in accordance with the Government’s code.”

The minister added that he agreed with Lord Vaizey about the “brilliant work” done by Mr Sharp at the BBC, and branded The Guardian’s cartoon “deplorable”.

He then acknowledged: “The Adam Heppinstall report rightly points to the impact that the publication of candidates’ names in the media can have on the public appointments process, we echo the concerns he has raised there.

“The process to appoint a new permanent chairman will be run in a robust and fair and open manner in accordance with the Government’s code.”

Former chancellor of the exchequer Lord Clarke of Nottingham added that the process should be changed to make sure those involved in making recommendations or the eventual choice in BBC chair must make sure potential conflicts of interests are made known to them.

However, Lord Parkinson responded that Mr Heppinstall’s report makes it clear that the governance code puts the obligation to make the disclosure on the candidate.