Richard Sharp has said he does not believe there was any conflict of interest over his appointment as BBC Chairman, after the public appointments watchdog said it will investigate his selection amid concerns over his role in helping Boris Johnson secure a loan of up to £800,000.
Mr Sharp said he believed his selection process was conducted “by the book” and denied he had misled the advisory panel or MPs on the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee when he appeared before them. Asked if he should stand down while the investigation is carried out, he said: “No, I’m confident that he will determine that I was appointed on merit. That’s obviously for him to conduct that investigation and process.”
He added that he was “comfortable” with the way the process had been carried out, stating that the appointment was a “highly rigorous process” with “very tough interviews”.
On Monday (23 January), William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, said that he will review the way competition for the role was run to ensure it was in compliance with the government’s rules and code of conduct. He confirmed this in a letter to Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell, who raised the issue with him.
In response to the news, Powell said: “The BBC Chair, Number 10 and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport clearly have questions to answer. This probe is welcome news and should shine a light on this appointments process and provide reassurance to the public.”
Earlier, Mr Sharp also announced that he was referring his appointment to the BBC board’s own nominations committee. It followed claims that he had helped secure a loan of up to £800,000 for the then-Prime Minister, something which reportedly came just weeks before he was recommended for the job of chairman by Johnson.
The Sunday Times reported that Mr Sharp was involved in talks about financing Johnson when he found himself in financial difficulty in late 2020. The newspaper then indentified Canadian businessman and multimillionaire Sam Blyth as the source of the loan given to Johnson. Mr Sharp has since confirmed that he introduced Johnson to Mr Blyth, who he described as an “old friend” and who also happened to be a distant cousin of the then-PM.
According to The Sunday Times, Johnson, Sharp and Blyth then had dinner at Chequers in late 2020 before the loan was finalised - although they have denied the PM’s finances were discussed. Mr Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, was announced as the government’s choice for the BBC role in January 2021.
Announcing the review on Monday (23 January), Mr Sharp said he had not been involved in a loan, a guarantee or arranging any financing. He claimed he wanted to ensure “all the appropriate guidelines have been followed”, and called the row “a distraction for the organisation, which I regret”. He also added that he had never hidden his longstanding relationship with the former PM.
Labour called for an investigation, while the Liberal Democrats said the £115,000 allowance for Johnson to run his office as ex-prime minister should be withdrawn until he answers questions about his financial arrangements.
What has Richard Sharp said?
In an interview with BBC News, Mr Sharp said: “Having had a discussion with the Cabinet Secretary about avoiding conflict, and the perception of conflict, I felt comfortable and I still feel there was no conflict because at that stage what I was seeking to do was ensure that the process was followed exactly by the book, and that the process hadn’t started, of any kind, in terms of any support that Sam [Blyth] was going to provide to the prime minister.
“I had clarified and agreed with the Cabinet Secretary, both of us had the judgment that I’d avoided a conflict or a perception of conflict.”
His interview follows a statement on Monday (23 January), in which he insisted he was “not involved in making a loan or arranging a guarantee” for Mr Johnson. He also said he “didn’t know anything about Boris Johnson’s finances” as that was “between him and his family”.
Has Boris Johnson responded to the claims?
A spokesperson for Johnson dismissed the report as “rubbish” and insisted his financial arrangements “have been properly declared”. “Richard Sharp has never given any financial advice to Boris Johnson, nor has Mr Johnson sought any financial advice from him,” the spokesman said.
Of Johnson’s private dinner with Sharp, an old friend, and Blyth, who is a distant relative, the spokesman said: “So what? Big deal.” Sharp 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.”
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC plays no role in the recruitment of the chair and any questions are a matter for the Government.”
Labour call for “urgent investigation”
In the letter to Greenberg, Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds called for an “urgent investigation” as she cited the MPs’ code of conduct that “holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties”.
She told the standards commissioner she was concerned that Johnson “may have breached this section by asking for an individual to facilitate a guarantee on a loan whom he would later appoint to a senior public role”. “The lack of transparency around it, like that of the issue raised around Blyth, may give the impression that this was a quid pro quo arrangement,” she added.
It comes after Labour demanded a probe earlier this week into reports that Johnson used Blyth, reportedly worth 50 million dollars, to act as a guarantor for an £800,000 credit facility. Dodds raised concerns that neither alleged arrangement was properly declared.
She said: “The financial affairs of this disgraced former Prime Minister just keep getting murkier, dragging the Conservative Party deeper into yet another quagmire of sleaze. Serious questions need to be asked of Johnson: why has this money never been declared, and what exactly did he promise these very generous friends in return for such lavish loans?”
Foreign Secretary defends appointment of BBC Chairman
Making an appearance on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme, Cleverly said Sharp was appointed on “merit” and that “there is nothing wrong” with someone who is politically active then being appointed to the BBC. He said: “I know that he (Richard Sharp) is an incredibly accomplished, incredibly successful individual who brings a wealth of experience with him.
“That is why he was appointed to the chairmanship of the BBC, but I’ve not had the chance to discuss any of the issues that were brought up today. But I have absolutely no doubt he was appointed on merit, and the point that I would just remind people of is, it is not unusual, and indeed there is nothing wrong, for someone to be politically active prior to their appointment to senior BBC positions.
“That’s something that has happened pretty regularly in the past.” Asked whether the connection should have been declared in full on principle, he said: “Richard is an incredibly accomplished individual, had he not had a very, very successful career, giving him a wealth of experience before putting himself forward for BBC chairman, he wouldn’t have even been in the looking.”
Rachel Johnson denies knowledge of her brother’s financial affairs
Rachel Johnson denied any knowledge of her brother’s financial affairs, telling Kuenssberg: “All the parties involved have given statements to The Sunday Times, which suggest they did everything above board and everything was transparent. I suggest you ask Simon Case, who seems to be the linchpin in both these stories, to come on and say what happened.”
Shadow Treasury minister Pat McFadden described the report of Johnson and the BBC chairman as “pretty extraordinary”. On Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, he did not say whether he thought the BBC was impartial, but added: “I do think it’s pretty extraordinary if someone who is running to be the chairman ends up acting as a broker to help the prime minister of the day of whatever financial difficulties he was in.
“At the very least, that should all have been declared and brought into the open. There’s nothing in Boris Johnson’s declaration of interest as an MP about this. It’s been brought into the open by journalism, not by people being transparent, and that’s why I do think this does need to be looked at.”