Richard Sharp: BBC chair denies facilitating £800K loan for Boris Johnson but regrets ‘causing embarrassment’
Labour MP Kevin Brennan told Richard Sharp he had made a “monumental failure of judgement” in failing to declare links to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s loan arrangement.
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The former banker who was reported to have helped Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan has told MPs that he did not facilitate the agreement and had “no knowledge of the actual loan”.
BBC chairman Richard Sharp has denied facilitating the loan for Johnson before the then-prime minister backed his appointment to lead the broadcaster. He was criticised by MPs on the media select committee yesterday for failing to mention the arrangement during a pre-appointment hearing.
Rishi Sunak has described the process to vet Sharp for the role of BBC chairman was “conducted rigorously and transparently,” but acting committee chair Damian Green said the procedure was “pretty unsatisfactory”.
MPs grill Sharp
In a bruising grilling by MPs, Sharp insisted that he “didn’t arrange the loan” despite admitting that he introduced his friend Sam Blyth, who wanted to help the then-prime minister with his financial troubles, to the Cabinet Office shortly before taking on the BBC role. Blyth is a Canadian businessman and distant cousin of Johnson.
The former Goldman Sachs banker said he regretted causing “embarrassment for the BBC”, but appeared to show no remorse about withholding information about his involvement in the matter from the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee while he was in the running for the BBC post.
Hauled in front of the committee again on Tuesday, Sharp conceded that he acted as a “sort of introduction agency” when arranging a meeting between Blyth and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.
“As a go-between I was not between Mr Blyth and Mr Johnson, but I was actually seeking to ensure that due process was followed by ensuring that Mr Blyth had contact with the Cabinet Office before he would do anything to help his cousin,” he added.
Sharp said he then raised with Case “the fact that I’d submitted my application to be the chair of the BBC and that therefore to avoid a conflict, or perception of conflict, I could have – and we agreed – no further participation in whatever transpired whatsoever, and I didn’t.”
Sharp admitted he went to see Johnson to discuss the BBC chairmanship before he applied but insisted their relationship was “broadly professional”.
Sharp revealed to MPs that he told the then-prime minister in their meeting that Blyth wanted to meet the cabinet secretary to see whether he could assist Johnson with his finances.
But, Sharp said: “I did not provide and have not provided the former prime minister personal financial advice, I know nothing about his (financial) affairs, I never have done.
“I didn’t facilitate a loan… I’ve nothing to do with it whatsoever, I’m not party to anything that then happened or didn’t happen. I’ve no knowledge of a bank, I’ve no knowledge of the actual loan.”
The BBC chairman was accused by MP Kevin Brennan of a “monumental failure of judgement” in failing to tell the DCMS committee about the arrangement at his pre-appointment hearing in January 2021.
Asked whether he regretted not doing so, Mr Sharp said “obviously I regret this situation,” but added that he “took comfort” from having raised his application for the BBC role during his meeting with the cabinet secretary.
He denied seeking to hide his involvement because he thought it would never come to light.
The BBC chairman said: “It’s manifest that this has cause embarrassment for the BBC and I regret that.”
He said that while he wished “we weren’t where we are now”, “I acted in good faith to ensure that the rules were followed and in that sense I have no regret for that”.
He declined to say whether he would resign if an investigation by the public appointments watchdog criticises him for withholding information, telling MPs he would “need to see what the inquiry produces”. He insisted he was “subject to a very rigorous interview process” and was hired “on merit”.
Sharp also accused the press of “mischaracterising” and spreading “significant inaccuracies” about his involvement, including BBC journalists who were “guilty” of “repeating inaccuracies” from other outlets.
Sunak: appointment carried out ‘rigorously and transparently’
Rishi Sunak said Sharp’s appointment appears to have been carried out “rigorously and transparently”.
The Prime Minister said: “This is obviously about an appointment made by a previous prime minister before I took this job so it’s hard for me to comment on the details of it.
“What I do know is that his appointment process was conducted rigorously and transparently; it was approved by a panel of experts and indeed a cross-party select committee in Parliament.
“But it is right that people have confidence in the process and that’s why the independent commissioner on public appointments is relooking at the process to make sure that everything was done correctly.”
But Damian Green, acting chairman of the DCMS Committee, said the procedure to vet the BBC chairman was “pretty unsatisfactory” and that MPs “didn’t know the full facts”.
He told LBC’s Tonight With Andrew Marr programme: “There was a material relationship between him and the PM which we should have known about.”
Public appointments commissioner William Shawcross was set to investigate how Mr Sharp got the job, but recused himself last week, saying the pair had met “on previous occasions”. Lawyer Adam Heppinstall KC has now been appointed to lead the investigation.
The Liberal Democrats said Mr Sharp’s evidence “completely undermines” Mr Johnson’s previous claims.
Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “Johnson is once again true to form in being a liar in chief. We have seen cover-up after cover-up with this Conservative Government and the public deserve complete transparency. It’s clear that Boris Johnson’s premiership will increasingly be remembered as a series of sleazy scandals that dragged Britain down.”