Controversy is swelling around the appointment of BBC Chair Richard Sharp following a report by The Sunday Times of London that the senior television exec helped “arrange” a loan for Boris Johnson when Johnson was still Prime Minister.
Under the BBC’s Royal Charter, which governs the broadcaster, the position of BBC Chair is appointed by British monarch on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Sharp, a banker and former chair of the Royal Academy of Arts, was appointed in Jan. 2021 on the recommendation of Oliver Dowden, then DCMS secretary, and Boris Johnson, who was still Prime Minister at the time.
A new report in The Sunday Times alleges that Johnson put forward the recommendation just weeks after Sharp “helped to arrange a guarantee on a loan of up to £800,000 [$990,000 ]” for Johnson.
Johnson’s financial woes have been widely reported in the U.K. press, dating back to his time as Prime Minister. According to one Guardian report, he “is said to regularly complain to friends that he is hard up, citing his second divorce, several children and his reduced income since entering No 10.”
The U.K. Prime Ministerial salary currently stands at £164,080 ($203,000) per annum.
According to The Sunday Times, Sharp was drawn into Johnson’s finances while dining with the Prime Minister and businessman Sam Blyth, a friend and “distant cousin” of Johnson’s. The report states that Blyth had agreed to act as a guarantor for the loan and wanted Sharp’s “advice on the best way forward.”
The dinner took place just two months before Sharp was publicly unveiled as the government’s “preferred candidate” for the role of BBC Chair.
The Sunday Times said that in Dec. 2020 the government’s propriety and ethics team sent Johnson a letter instructing him to stop “seeking Sharp’s advice about his personal finances, given the forthcoming BBC appointment.”
The newspaper also claims that Sharp did not disclose to the BBC or the House of Commons his involvement in the loan during the application process.
In a statement, Sharp reportedly told The Sunday Times: “There is not a conflict when I simply connected, at his request, Mr Blyth with the cabinet secretary and had no further involvement whatsoever.”
On Monday, however, BBC News reported that Sharp would defer to the BBC’s board to “review any potential conflicts of interest he may have.” A source stressed to Variety that the BBC board can only review current conflicts of interest.
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC plays no role in the recruitment of the Chair and any questions are a matter for the Government.”
In a memo addressed to BBC staff following publication of the report, Sharp wrote: “I was not involved in making a loan, or arranging a guarantee, and I did not arrange any financing. What I did do was to seek an introduction of Sam Blythe to the relevant official in Government.”
“I believe firmly that I was appointed on merit, which the Cabinet Office have also confirmed,” he added.
Read Sharp’s full memo below:
You may have seen reporting over the weekend about the nature of my appointment as Chairman of the BBC.
As Chairman of the BBC I have a responsibility to you, and to our audiences, to make sure that the BBC is always held in high regard, and I don’t want this episode to distract from the important work that you are doing. I wanted to write to you directly to set out the facts.
Prior to my appointment, I introduced an old friend of mine – and distant cousin of the then Prime Minister – Sam Blythe, to the Cabinet Secretary, as Sam wanted to support Boris Johnson.
I was not involved in making a loan, or arranging a guarantee, and I did not arrange any financing. What I did do was to seek an introduction of Sam Blythe to the relevant official in Government.
Sam Blythe, who I have known for more than forty years, lives in London and having become aware of the financial pressures on the then Prime Minister, and being a successful entrepreneur, he told me he wanted to explore whether he could assist.
He spoke to me because he trusts me and wanted to check with me what the right way to go about this could be. I told him that this was a sensitive area in any event, particularly so as Sam is a Canadian, and that he should seek to have the Cabinet Office involved and have the Cabinet Secretary advise on appropriateness and indeed whether any financial support Sam might wish to provide was possible. Accordingly Sam asked me whether I would connect him with the Cabinet Secretary.
At the time I was working in Downing Street as a special economic adviser to the Treasury during the pandemic, and I had submitted my application to be Chairman of the BBC. I went to see the Cabinet Secretary and explained who Sam was, and that as a cousin of the then Prime Minister he wanted to help him if possible. I also reminded the Cabinet Secretary that I had submitted my application for the position of BBC Chairman. We both agreed that to avoid any conflict that I should have nothing further to do with the matter. At that point there was no detail on the proposed arrangements and I had no knowledge of whether any assistance was possible, or could be agreed.
Since that meeting I have had no involvement whatsoever with any process. Even now, I don’t know any more than is reported in the media about a loan or reported guarantee.
I am now aware that the Cabinet Office have a note of this meeting, and that this included advice to the Prime Minister that I should not be involved, to avoid any conflict or appearance of conflict with my BBC application.
The Cabinet Office have confirmed that the recruitment process was followed appropriately and that I was appointed on merit, in a process which was independently monitored. Moreover they have confirmed that they gave advice at the time that I should have no involvement whatsoever in any process which might or might not take place, precisely to avoid a conflict or perception of a conflict of interest.
This matter, although it took place before I joined the BBC, is a distraction for the organisation, which I regret. I’m really sorry about it all.
I am proud and honoured to have been appointed as the Chairman of the BBC. I have never hidden my longstanding relationship with the former Prime Minister, however I believe firmly that I was appointed on merit, which the Cabinet Office have also confirmed.
We have many challenges at the BBC, and I know that distractions such as this are not welcomed.
Our work at the BBC is rooted in trust. Although the appointment of the BBC Chairman is solely a matter for the Government, I want to ensure that all the appropriate guidelines have been followed within the BBC since I have joined. The Nominations Committee of the BBC Board has responsibility for regularly reviewing Board members conflicts of interest and I have agreed with the Board’s Senior Independent Director, Sir Nicholas Serota, that the Committee shall assess this when it next meets, reporting to the Board, and in the interests of transparency publish the conclusions.
I look forward to continuing our work together.