So, Rishi Sunak has called on his “independent ethics adviser” to look into the tax affairs of Boris Johnson’s former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, almost to the minute that the current prime minister’s former boss and close friend – BBC chairman Richard Sharp, who is also a close friend of Johnson – announces that an internal committee will be looking into a potential conflict of interest in Sharp’s appointment to the top position at the BBC while Johnson was prime minister.
There’s a lot going on in that sentence. But there is a lot going on in the world of sleaze these days.
So, what to make of Sharp, the problems caused to the BBC by his friendships – and by his alleged role in helping Johnson secure a very large loan?
We have had so much experience of scandal rolling into scandal since Johnson entered No 10, with inquiries called to buy time and hope the public get bored, that it is hard to escape the conclusion that these internal committee “inquiries” are called in the same vein.
To be fair to the BBC, they covered the Sharp story almost from the moment it was reported in the Sunday Times. But an exchange I had with Today programme presenter Nick Robinson on Twitter yesterday revealed a mindset inside the BBC that is very defensive whenever its own affairs are in the spotlight.
When I praised them for covering the Sharp story, but urged them to stop downplaying Zahawi, Robinson replied: “Give it a rest, Alastair. Zahawi was prominently and fully covered when his statement came out yesterday. The truth you seem reluctant to acknowledge is that BBC News does its job despite pressure from politicians – whether coming from you at No 10 all those years ago, or now.”
I will come back to his point about “pressure from you at No 10” in a moment, but as for the rest? I felt he was making my point for me by resting his defence on the broadcaster’s coverage of the Zahawi statement.
Journalism is not merely covering what those in power and authority say – it is investigating it and challenging it. My worry now is that BBC News will hide behind the “wait for the inquiry” line (the Sue Gray Partygate strategy) and not bother investigating as they should.
As for my own dealings with the BBC, well there is a certain arrogance in the idea that because they come under pressure from all sides, they must be getting things right.
They do indeed get a lot right and remain a huge asset to the UK. But in recent years, there has been a pattern that the BBC tends to be dragged kicking and screaming to cover properly stories with a whiff of scandal for the Tories: from Russian interference in our democracy; Johnson’s lies and myriad scandals during his premiership; PPE scandals involving Tory donors; now Zahawi.
I am in little doubt that if we had learnt Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling had done a deal with (and been fined by) the HMRC while chancellor, it would have been leading the BBC news from the moment it landed on the front page of a newspaper. I am in little doubt, too, that the presence of Sharp – and former Tory propagandist Robbie Gibb – in senior positions in the building, plus the political pressures coming from Tory MPs, have an influence.
I remain a huge defender of the BBC against the threats to its funding model coming from the right. But they would make it easier to defend them if they operated according to first principles and high journalistic standards, rather than jumping to a “BBC right or wrong” stance whenever they become the story.
My most serious rows with them, over the so-called “sexing up” of the Iraq WMD dossier two decades ago, led to the suicide of the source – then an inquiry which led to the resignation of both chairman and director-general. I am confident none of those unfortunate events would have happened, if – when we complained about the reports accusing us of falsifying intelligence – the BBC top brass had properly investigated the complaint, rather than going into that “BBC right or wrong” stance.
Sharp should remove himself while a thorough inquiry is conducted, and BBC News should assign reporters to probe this story without fear or favour. Their reputation risks further damage unless it is absolutely clear that the BBC can cover its own affairs, operating under high standards and proper news values.
Alastair Campbell is a writer, communicator and strategist who served as Tony Blair’s spokesperson, press secretary and communications director