HoC 85mm(Green).tif

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Oral evidence: The work of the BBC, HC 382

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 7 February 2023.

Watch the meeting

Members present: Kevin Brennan; Steve Brine; Clive Efford; Julie Elliott; Damian Green; Dr Rupa Huq; Simon Jupp; John Nicolson; Giles Watling.

In the absence of the Chair, Damian Green took the Chair.

Questions 235-380


I: Richard Sharp, Chair, BBC.

Examination of witness

Witness: Richard Sharp.

Q235       Chair: This is a meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, as long as we are still called that—if the Department is still called that—to examine the process of the appointment of the BBC Chair a year ago and, in particular, to examine whether this Committee, which approved the appointment, was not given relevant information that it could and should have known about.

We will start with declarations of interest, particularly as transparency is very important this morning. In the ’70s and ’80s, I was a BBC journalist, and in the ’90s, I was a policy adviser to John Birt. Are there any other declarations of interest?

John Nicolson: I am a former BBC reporter, and news presenter and news anchor.

Simon Jupp: I am a former BBC presenter and manager.

Giles Watling: I worked for the BBC for some years and am occasionally in receipt of royalties.

Dr Huq: I was a very junior person at Yalding House in the ’90s.

Kevin Brennan: I have attended events and received hospitality from the BBC in the past.

Julie Elliott: I have attended events and received hospitality, although not in the last year, I don’t think.

Chair: Thank you all, and welcome to Richard Sharp, the Chair of the BBC; thank you for agreeing to come before us this morning. I want to start by trying to establish the facts about the loan arrangement with the then Prime Minister, which was being set up at the same time as he was making the appointment of the BBC Chair. Essentially, from what I have read, there were three people involved: Sam Blyth, Boris Johnson and you, Mr Sharp. Who started the whole procedure? Who approached who first?

Richard Sharp: First of all, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to clarify these issues, because, as you say, there is some confusion. I should point out that I believe it was actually two years ago that I was subject to the scrutiny for the appointment—it was not a year ago. I also want to make it clear that I have never given financial advice to the former Prime Minister. He has never asked for it. He never received it from me, and I will get into the details of our relationship.

The starting point, in the way you have described it, is my long-standing relationship and friendship with Mr Blyth. He is somebody I met after he had left university and after I had left university some 40 years ago. So Mr Blyth is a personal friend of mine who I have known for some time.

As a result of press reports that he had read in September, he raised with me, at that time, his concern that his cousin, the Prime Minister, was reported in these press reports to have some difficulties. Mr Blyth raised with me the fact that he was interested in feeling out whether he should do something to help—he raised that with me at a private dinner at his house. I said to him at that time, “You may be a family member, but you need to be very careful. Things need to be done by the book. There are rules in this country, and these rules exist for a good reason. You’re a foreigner and, therefore, before you contemplate doing anything or providing any assistance to the Prime Minister, you should involve the Cabinet Office.” He raised that issue with me and that was the end of it at that point in time.

Q236       Chair: That was in September.

Richard Sharp: Yes, correct.

Q237       Chair: So what was the position then with your seeking the BBC chairmanship?

Richard Sharp: I should explain—when the pandemic arose, there was clearly a national economic crisis. The then Chancellor asked me whether I would come and work for him as a special economic adviser to the Treasury, supporting industries and, particularly, large companies, as they needed capital to survive during the pandemic. I focused on industries such as steel etc.—we can go into more detail.

At that time, because of the pandemic, the operations were run out of No. 11 Downing Street which, as you know, is an office connected with No. 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office as a sort of related thing. I was working there and then, during that period of time—around about, I think, October—the existing speculated frontrunner for the chairmanship, Charles Moore, withdrew.

I should also say that I had at that time been working on special film insurance to keep the film industry going, which, uniquely in this country, we achieved, with 50,000 to 100,000 jobs at stake, and also on putting in place the culture recovery fund to support cultural institutions throughout the country. That put me in contact with a lot of people from the media world. Albeit that, as we have discussed before, in my prior working experience I had worked with media companies, this was a new experience for me. Some of my friends at that time suggested to me that I should consider applying for the job.

So I was working, in effect, at home and in Downing Street. It was during the pandemic and, if I can remind you, was before the first vaccine—it may have just been discovered, but it had not been provided. It was pretty clear to me that I had done a lot of the bulk of the work that I had had to do, and I was very interested in the prospect of submitting my application to be the Chair of the BBC, and I did so.

Q238       Chair: So this was happening at pretty much the same time. You had been told by Sam Blyth in September that he had taken your advice as to whether he should help the Prime Minister—

Richard Sharp: Yes.

Chair: And in the following weeks you thought, “Okay, I’m up for this job.”

Richard Sharp: Yes.

Q239       Chair: In a sense, that is what is relevant. Given that you say that in September you realised that there were propriety issues involved, did it not occur to you at that point that, because you were applying for a job that the Prime Minister of the day would appoint, you should say to him, “Look, whatever you want to do, that’s fine—that’s a matter for you—but I cannot be involved because I’m applying to be Chair of the BBC”?

Richard Sharp: It is almost hard to recall the time then, but actually what happened at that point, if you recall, was that there was another lockdown when you worked from home, or worked in the office if you needed to. I was working and to me that was an after dinner party comment and that was no more than that. That was the last I had heard, at that point, from Mr Blyth on the matter. I didn’t see him after that.

Q240       Chair: So you never discussed it with him after September.

Richard Sharp: No. The next moment I had any contact from Mr Blyth on that matter was when he called me. I had basically communicated to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that I wished to apply, and I submitted my application in November. Following that, towards the end of November, I received a call from Mr Blyth saying that he was interested in exploring with the Cabinet Office what possibly he could do to help his cousin, and he asked me if I would put him in touch with the Cabinet Secretary. That was a phone call I received from him at that time.

Q241       Chair: And so you put him in touch with the Cabinet Secretary.

Richard Sharp: Yes. Subsequently—we can go through the sequence—I then met the Cabinet Secretary and got his agreement that I could pass on his number, and following that I passed his number to Sam Blyth to get in contact with the Cabinet Office.

Q242       Chair: So your meeting with Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, was purely to discuss whether he would speak to Sam Blyth.

Richard Sharp: Yes. It was to tell him that I had spoken to Mr Blyth, and that Mr Blyth wanted to explore ways that he could help the Prime Minister, and therefore he asked to be introduced to the Cabinet Secretary. At that meeting, I raised with Mr. Blyth the fact that I had submitted my application to be the Chair of the BBC and that therefore, to avoid a conflict, or a perception of conflict, I could have—and we agreed—no further participation in whatever transpired whatsoever, and I didn’t.

Q243       Chair: So you acted as a sort of introduction agency?

Richard Sharp: Exactly what I did was ensure that due process and propriety was followed. What Sam—Mr. Blyth—had learned from me was that that was an entirely appropriate thing to do in the context, despite the fact that he was a family member, and I should also say that I had mentioned to him that he was a foreigner. Therefore, there are a lot of issues that needed to be addressed that could prevent him from providing any support whatsoever, and the best people to address that with would be the Cabinet Office—hence he rang me up asking me to put him in touch with Mr Case.

Q244       Chair: All of that seems fine, but I am still not clear why you needed to go and have a meeting with Simon Case to say, “There’s this guy who wants to help the Prime Minister, and there may be propriety issues, so you ought to talk to him,” because that seems overblown.

Richard Sharp: I was working in the same office operation. Clearly, Mr Case did not know Mr Blyth at all, and Mr Blyth wanted to have contact with the Cabinet Office in the way I described.

Q245       Chair: The Sunday Times reported a dinner party attended by you and Mr Blyth in November 2020. Did that happen?

Richard Sharp: No, that is a factual inaccuracy.

Q246       Chair: Did they just get it wrong?

Richard Sharp: Yes, they got it wrong, and they have acknowledged that subsequently.

Chair: Okay. But one other thing—

Richard Sharp: Sorry, dinner did take place, but it took place in May. That was after I was the Chair of the BBC, and that was the dinner where I took the opportunity, as I subsequently discussed with the Director-General, to promote the interests of the BBC, to try and get an effective licence fee settlement.

Q247       Chair: You have said this morning that you never provided financial advice, and yet there is a Cabinet Office note from Simon Case to Boris Johnson saying, “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair, it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters”. That seems to contradict what you have just said.

Richard Sharp: Well, I haven’t seen that memo.

Q248       Chair: It was in The Sunday Times two weeks ago.

Richard Sharp: No, I understand. I have not seen the memo itself; I have seen the report of the memo, obviously—in fact, I discussed that with the Cabinet Office. What Mr. Case undertook to me at the meeting—and I was very grateful for that—was that he said, “I will ensure you have no further part in this,” and I had no further part in it.

So that memo—in fact, I discussed this with a Cabinet official, because I only learned about this over the weekend, as you did, when a journalist put that to me—as I learned from the Cabinet Office, did refer to the meeting that I had had with Mr Johnson, which was alerting him to the fact that I was going to go and see Mr Case. At that meeting, I did not provide Mr Johnson with advice.

I think it was an ambiguous construction, that obviously is open to misinterpretation. I have never given the Prime Minister advice. He has never sought it. I know nothing about his personal financial affairs. So I take it that that phrasing—and I had that confirmed to me unofficially by the Cabinet Office before the article was written—referred to the fact that their efforts were to prevent me from receiving any calls from the Prime Minister, to protect my position, and to protect his for that matter.

Q249       Chair: That is an interesting reading of the phrase, “it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters”. That clearly implies that he had asked your advice.

Richard Sharp: He had not asked for my advice.

Chair: So Simon Case is wrong.

Richard Sharp: Well, that phrasing is wrong—I didn’t. I don’t know who wrote that memo. I don’t know if Mr Case wrote it—I heard that somebody else might have written that memo, rather than Mr Case himself—but I did not provide, and have not provided, the former Prime Minister with personal financial advice. I know nothing about his financial affairs—I never have done—and I would not provide him with financial advice.

Q250       Chair: When you say “nothing”, presumably you knew because—

Richard Sharp: All I knew was press reports.

Chair: Press reports that he had financial issues, and you were facilitating—

Richard Sharp: Yes, I had no interest in providing him with financial advice—

Chair: Somebody who would help him.

Richard Sharp: My interest was to introduce Mr Blyth to Mr Case, because Mr Blyth wanted to help the Prime Minister, and I wanted to ensure, at his request, that there was a process by which all the rules could be followed appropriately.

Q251       Chair: Did you ever give informal advice, as a friend of Boris Johnson, about—

Richard Sharp: No.

Chair: No?

Richard Sharp: No, no. Our relationship is broadly professional, and it has been broadly professional, rather than personal.

Q252       Chair: That is interesting as well. One of the other things is that, as you know, there has been a huge amount of newspaper coverage of this. I read that you’re one of the people who actually calls him Al. Is that false?

Richard Sharp: It is Mr Blyth who calls him Al. I called him Boris and I called him Prime Minister.

Chair: So what we learn, then, is that this memo—

Richard Sharp: It is a family term, I gather.

Q253       Chair: Indeed, I have heard Jo call him that, but few others.

What we have learned is that the Simon Case, or Cabinet Office, memo is just inaccurate. A piece of advice for the Prime Minister about the propriety of his actions was pretty glaringly inaccurate and, indeed, potentially damaging to you, because you had said, and are continuing to say, “I have never given him financial advice,” but there is a Cabinet Office memo suggesting that you did give him financial advice. That memo itself seems to me, from your point of view, something unbelievable shoddy to come out under the Cabinet Secretary’s name.

Richard Sharp: Look, I did not write that memo. I believe it was written by somebody who wasn’t at the meeting I had with Mr Case—

Chair: There was nobody at that meeting, I understand.

Richard Sharp: Beg your pardon?

Q254       Chair: There were not minutes taken at that meeting. Does that mean it was just you and him in the room?

Richard Sharp: I think he took notes. He told me he took some notes. For example, he noted, and he reminded me, that I had raised with him specifically and proactively the fact that I was being considered for the BBC chairmanship. I raised that with him at that meeting.

Q255       Chair: After that meeting, did you ever discuss with him, or Mr Blyth or Boris Johnson, anything about Boris Johnson’s financial affairs?

Richard Sharp: No. Frankly, I hadn’t thought about it at all until a couple of weeks ago, when I got called by a journalist. I had nothing to do with it whatsoever. I am not party to anything that then happened or didn’t happen. I have no knowledge of a bank. I have no knowledge of the actual loan. I have no knowledge of that. I had no interest in it, candidly, until I got a call from the journalist.

Q256       John Nicolson: Good morning, Mr Sharp. Why didn’t you tell this Committee that you helped facilitate an £800,000 loan for the man who then gave you the plum appointment that you now hold?

Richard Sharp: I didn’t facilitate a loan.

Q257       John Nicolson: You introduced the person who gave the loan to him. The person who gave the loan told you that he was going to help the Prime Minister with what you call his “difficulties”. You facilitated it because you made an introduction knowing that it was about money.

Richard Sharp: I introduced Mr Blyth to Mr Case. I did not introduce Mr Blyth to Mr Johnson.

Q258       John Nicolson: None the less, you knew what the score was, and you didn’t tell us about it. Let me remind you of what you signed up to on your BBC application. It says: “You cannot be considered if you fail to declare any conflict of interest”—clearly this was a conflict of interest. It continues: “Any issues on your personal or professional history that could, if you were appointed, cause embarrassment or public confidence to be jeopardised must be disclosed.” This clearly causes the BBC embarrassment; why didn’t you disclose it?

Richard Sharp: Just to be clear, I did not arrange the loan. I did, at the meeting—

John Nicolson: You helped with the loan.

Richard Sharp: No.

Q259       John Nicolson: The loan would not have happened, presumably, if you had not played the role that you did.

Richard Sharp: As I said, I was ensuring due process was followed. I cannot speculate on what would have happened or not happened had I not had the meeting with Mr Case.

Q260       John Nicolson: Tell us why you didn’t disclose it.

Richard Sharp: The meeting I had with Mr Case was to explicitly address the issue of my candidature for the BBC. In talking to Mr Case, I am talking to the most senior civil servant in the land, and within that area is propriety and ethics, as you know.

Q261       John Nicolson: But you didn’t disclose it to this Committee when you clearly should have done.

Let us continue and have a little look at the timetable—[Interruption.] There will be plenty of time; let us try to go through this relatively snappily. The applications for your job closed on 11 November. Did you have a meeting about your application with Boris Johnson before you submitted your application—a meeting where he said, “Let’s make the BBC great”?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q262       John Nicolson: You did not discuss your job application with the Prime Minister before you submitted it?

Richard Sharp: I would like to answer the question, if I may.

John Nicolson: Please do.

Richard Sharp: I did go to Mr Johnson to tell him that I wished to apply to be the Chair of the BBC. That was not the meeting where he told me, “Let’s make the BBC great.” He asked me why I wanted to do it, and I told him at that time why I wanted to do it—because I care about the BBC and I thought I could make a significant contribution. I had made a contribution to the Treasury. I had supported the industries.

Q263       John Nicolson: I can understand why you wanted the job, Mr Sharp; I am just trying to get through some of the details.

You had a meeting with the Prime Minister before you submitted the application. It is important to remember who the board was. It included a Tory party donor plus the wife of Boris Johnson’s former Spectator chair—not exactly a hostile board. You were such a shoo-in for this that, according to Robert Peston, Ministers told other applicants not to waste time submitting their applications.

Let’s look at Boris Johnson’s loan. As we have heard, his cousin approached you at a dinner party and said he wanted to give Boris Johnson a lot of money because, again to use your phrase, he was in some difficulties.

Richard Sharp: He did not say that.

Q264       John Nicolson: He did not say he wanted to give him money.

Richard Sharp: No, he didn’t. He said he wanted to help him.

Q265       John Nicolson: What does that mean?

Richard Sharp: Of course it implies that it could be money or anything else. He did not say “a lot of money”.

Q266       John Nicolson: Let’s not dance on the head of a pin. He wanted to help him out of his difficulties because the Prime Minister could not manage on his £164,000 salary. I am still quite not clear why, since he was a cousin, he did not just ask Boris Johnson directly—“Do you want some cash, cuz?”

Richard Sharp: Again, it is probably worth recalling what was going on at the time. We had no vaccine. We faced a national crisis. We had an economy that was collapsing—potentially. We had no vaccine and he was concerned that his cousin should focus on the job.

Q267       John Nicolson: Quite, so the cousin would have taken the phone call, clearly, if he had phoned up, and he would have said, “I want to help you out financially.” Now originally—

Richard Sharp: May I come back to answer that?

Q268       John Nicolson: Perhaps in the next answer. You told journalists that the dinner was in November 2020. You have said that the journalists have said they got that wrong. The Sunday Times journalists said that they think you had got that wrong in the initial briefing that your representative gave them, but we can leave that to one side because of course it would have been illegal to have had a dinner in November because the covid lockdown was on.

You now say that the conversation with Mr Blyth was in September—in other words, before you applied for the BBC Chairman’s post. So Boris Johnson knew you were helping him effectively with the £800,000 loan when you applied for the post.

Richard Sharp: No, he didn’t. First of all, I did not help with any loan, just to be clear.

John Nicolson: Facilitated.

Richard Sharp: I think the detail—

Q269       John Nicolson: Boris Johnson knew that you had made an introduction between him and his cousin, who apparently needed to be introduced to him even though he was his cousin. You made that introduction, £800,000 was the figure—a huge amount of money—and Boris Johnson knew that this was happening and was in the pipeline before you applied for the BBC Chair post.

Richard Sharp: With respect, Mr Nicolson, a lot of things you just said are incorrect. If I may, I would like to answer them in detail.

The dinner that I had with Mr Blyth was in September. At that time, there was no figure mentioned at all. There was no mention of its being a loan. It was clearly financial, but there was no specific figure, and I do not believe that there has been any knowledge of what financing has been provided. All I have seen is Mr Blyth commenting publicly and saying that the amount speculated is wrong.

Q270       John Nicolson: That does not mean much. It could be £750,000 or £950,000. We knew the scale of the Prime Minister’s difficulties was sufficient that his multimillionaire cousin needed to step in and help him, so let’s not dwell on the exact amount. It was a lot of money.

Richard Sharp: May I address some of the other issues you raised that I think are incorrect? As I said, when I went to meet the Prime Minister and told him that I wanted to apply to be the Chair of the BBC, at that point I had not heard from Mr Blyth asking me to put him in touch with Mr Case. So as far as I was concerned, at that time, there was something that had happened in a dinner party conversation in September, and when I had the conversation with the Prime Minister about wanting to apply to be the Chair of the BBC, I had no knowledge at that point that Mr Blyth was doing anything to take anything further forward.

Q271       John Nicolson: So you did not say to the Prime Minister, “Prime Minister, your cousin is looking to help you out.”

Richard Sharp: No, I did not.

Q272       John Nicolson: Okay. So although you discussed the loan with Mr Blyth, Boris Johnson’s cousin, in September 2020, you did not actually go to see the Cabinet Secretary until December—so quite a long time afterwards. At that discussion with the Cabinet Secretary, did anyone else attend? Were any minutes taken?

Richard Sharp: This comes back to answering one of your earlier questions. At that meeting, I raised with the Cabinet Secretary that I was in the application process for the BBC chairmanship, and therefore at that time we discussed precisely that to avoid a conflict or the appearance of conflict, I should have nothing further to do with it. At that meeting, there were two people: I was there, and Mr Case was there.

Q273       John Nicolson: So nobody was taking notes.

Richard Sharp: Mr Case, I believe, was taking notes.

Q274       John Nicolson: But you would have expected a civil servant to be there, rather than the Cabinet Secretary taking his own notes. Now, you told “The Media Show” that you told Boris Johnson you were going to see the Cabinet Secretary about the loan, so when Boris Johnson says that you knew nothing about his financial affairs—to quote him, he was “ding dang sure” about that—that is obviously untrue.

Richard Sharp: What he knows is that the only information I have about his financial affairs is the same that you have.

Q275       John Nicolson: So you knew that he was in dire straits financially, despite his huge salary, and you had been involved in a discussion with his cousin about that. Did you tell anyone apart from the Cabinet Secretary about this conversation with his cousin?

Richard Sharp: No, I did not.

Q276       John Nicolson: So you did not tell your interview panel at the BBC; you did not tell the DCMS permanent secretary, because she has told the Public Accounts Committee that she had been left completely in the dark; and as we have established, you did not tell us.

But we know that the Cabinet Secretary was uncomfortable, because he sent a letter telling Boris Johnson to stop seeking financial advice from you—you have already covered that, so I think we can leave that—but the nail-biting application process was over. You had the job, and you went off to celebrate at Chequers.

Now, I understand that it was Sam Blyth who invited you to Chequers, and he said, “Do you want to come to Chequers? I’m going down to have dinner with Al”—in other words, Boris Johnson—so you were effectively his plus one. Is that correct?

Richard Sharp: Can I come back to something you said earlier? Having had a conversation with Mr Case where I had specifically and proactively raised the issue of my BBC application, he had agreed that to avoid a conflict or the perception of conflict, the issue was resolved by my not being in any way further involved in any process or any discussion about what would then transpire. That is why at that point, as far as I was concerned, the matter had been resolved with respect to the need for disclosure.

Q277       John Nicolson: Yes, but the Cabinet Secretary was alarmed about this. I want to pursue the Chequers dinner for a second, because it strikes me that his cousin, Sam Blyth, and Boris Johnson had become very pally at this stage. That is surprising, because only a short time previously you had had to introduce them, effectively, although they were cousins. You had had to act as a go-between, to the extent that you have described.

Richard Sharp: May I address those points? Mr Blyth first met Mr Johnson when Mr Johnson was a little boy. I did not introduce him to Mr Johnson.

Q278       John Nicolson: You reintroduced him.

Richard Sharp: I did not introduce Mr Blyth to the Johnson family in any way. He was known to them. You correctly characterised me as a go-between. As a go-between, I was not between Mr Blyth and Mr Johnson; I was actually seeking to ensure that due process was followed, by ensuring that Mr Blyth had contacted the Cabinet Office before he would do anything to help his cousin.

Q279       John Nicolson: At the Chequers dinner, did you talk about the loan?

Richard Sharp: No. I didn’t talk about anything about the financing or anything that transpired as a result of any contact that Mr Blyth would have had with the Cabinet Office.

Q280       John Nicolson: I have heard you say that you talked about the licence fee at that dinner. You lobbied about the licence fee in front of Mr Blyth, the cousin.

Richard Sharp: Yes.

Q281       John Nicolson: That seems strange. Were civil servants present?

Richard Sharp: No. It was a dinner.

Q282       John Nicolson: So nobody was taking notes at this Chequers dinner.

Richard Sharp: Correct.

Q283       John Nicolson: When all this blew up, of course, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, William Shawcross, was due to investigate, and you welcomed that. But after a week, he recused himself because he said he had met you. You have clearly met a lot of people. I’m guessing it must be more than that. What is your relationship with Mr Shawcross?

Richard Sharp: In the last 15 years, I have maybe met him two or three times. I think the last time I was at a dinner with him may be over a decade ago. I know of him and I know some of his relatives by marriage.

Q284       John Nicolson: Have you ever been in business with him?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q285       John Nicolson: Have you ever discussed business with him?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q286       John Nicolson: His daughter is a senior No. 10 aide, and his son-in-law, Simon Wolfson, like you, is a Tory donor. Do you think that is the reason he has recused himself? Have you spoken to him about why he recused himself?

Richard Sharp: No, I haven’t.

Q287       John Nicolson: Okay. Will you resign if the inquiry criticises you for withholding information?

Richard Sharp: I will need to see what the inquiry produces.

Q288       John Nicolson: Well, if the inquiry says you should have told the members of the interview panel about the loan that you helped facilitate, and the introductions that you made—if it says that you should have told this Committee, that will be pretty clear. Will you resign?

Richard Sharp: Just to be clear, I was subject to a very rigorous interview process; I needed to be considered appointable and recommendable, if you like. As you know from Lord Dacre’s experience, any preferences do not necessarily guarantee that independent committees form that view. I am confident, in that sense, that not only was I appointed on my merits, but I am also confident that my subsequent performance at the BBC—

Q289       John Nicolson: You previously applied for a job at the BBC Board. Am I right?

Richard Sharp: They had a different structure at that time, and I applied to be a non-executive on the management board, not the governance board.

Q290       John Nicolson: And you didn’t get the job.

Richard Sharp: I did not get an interview at that time.

Q291       John Nicolson: What do you think the difference was between your failed application then and your application now, following the huge facility that you helped the Prime Minister with?

Richard Sharp: I did not help the Prime Minister with a huge facility.

Q292       John Nicolson: Have you any idea how angry BBC staff are with you?

Richard Sharp: Look, I regret the distraction this has caused. There is no doubt about that. I am certainly disturbed by the fact that all the tremendous things that the BBC is doing should in any way be overshadowed by this. I am sure, like most of the rest of you—

Q293       John Nicolson: They are absolutely furious. I have had a huge mailbag from BBC staff about it. A recurring question, and one of the many things they are angry with you about, is the fact that you are not a journalist, but inexplicably chose to sit on the selection panel for the head of news position.

Richard Sharp: Would you like me to address that issue? Is there a question there?

Q294       John Nicolson: Yes. Do you understand why they are angry about that?

Richard Sharp: If they are angry about that, they don’t actually understand, and we need to do a better job of explaining the governance of the BBC as it currently is. May I go on?

John Nicolson: Yes.

Richard Sharp: Okay. We have a unitary board, and I am the non-executive chairman. The detail matters. For example, if you look at Netflix, it has an executive chairman. The non-executive often gets overlooked, in terms of the meaning, in corporate governance, but really it is to draw a bright line between the executive and how they execute, and the board, in terms of owning the strategy and the issues it deals with.

A unitary board—this detail is very important, in terms of governance—has certain critical functions to do. Critically, it owns the strategy, it owns the creative remit for the BBC, it owns the budget, and it ensures value for money. It has to have—this goes to our purposes—a framework for assessing the BBC’s UK public services, including the World Service. It has to have a policy on the distribution of the public services—

Q295       John Nicolson: I’m sorry, but I am going to interject. Otherwise, you will read out a big, long list. You were on the board—

Richard Sharp: Mr Nicolson, may I come in—

Q296       John Nicolson: No, I want to pursue that point. You were on the board for the director of news. That is a journalistic appointment. I do not think, and BBC staff do not think, that it was appropriate for you to be on the board for a journalistic appointment. Although it had board implications, it was fundamentally a journalistic appointment. If I can summarise in closing—

Richard Sharp: Mr Nicolson, may I correct you—

Q297       John Nicolson: I will let you come back after this.

What appals so many BBC staff is that you got this job with no BBC experience. They knew about the vast donations that you had given to the Tory party, but they didn’t know about the £800,000, which you withheld from the interview panel, the DCMS permanent secretary and this Committee. It leaves the impression that so much of this is deeply establishment: it is pals appointing pals and donating money to pals. As I said in the Chamber, it rather leaves the impression that it is all a bit banana republic and cosy.

Richard Sharp: May I come back to the question of the appointment of the head of news, which is quite critical? The reason I was outlining the board responsibilities is that the board is composed of a majority of non-executives, and there are also executive directors on the board. The executive directors—there are four of them, including the head of news—have a function to deliver as members of the board and directors. They perform that function. It is absolutely in the Charter that the nominations committee of the board gets involved in the appointment of board positions.

First of all, Deborah Turness reports, as the director of news, directly to the chief executive, who is the Director-General. There was a management board that went through the process of determining candidates. The meeting that I attended, in terms of the selection of Deborah Turness as a member of the BBC, was, quite properly, for her to be a member of that board to fulfil those functions on the board.

It is a requirement of the nominations committee—it is in the charter of the nominations committee—that it should interview and be part of the process of appointments to the board, and that includes the executive directors. My involvement in the appointment of Deborah Turness was precisely what I should do as Chair of the board with other members of the nominations committee, who sat in that session, to determine her capabilities to contribute to the board, as director of the board with that list of functions that I outlined, which are critically important. With respect to her position as director of news, she reports to the Director-General.

John Nicolson: Thank you.

Q298       Kevin Brennan: Good morning, Mr Sharp. I just want to clarify something you were saying earlier. Before you went to see Simon Case about this matter, am I right that you went to see the Prime Minister to tell him that you were going to see Simon Case?

Richard Sharp: Yes, I had a meeting with the Prime Minister and I told him I was going to meet Simon Case.

Q299       Kevin Brennan: What did you tell the Prime Minister you were going to meet Simon Case about?

Richard Sharp: I told him that Mr Blyth wanted to support him. I told him that I had informed Mr Blyth that there are rules in this country, and that therefore as a result of that he should be in touch with the Cabinet Office, and as a result of that I was going to do so.

Q300       Kevin Brennan: But you did in effect inform the Prime Minister—

Richard Sharp: I definitely informed the Prime Minister, absolutely.

Q301       Kevin Brennan: —that somebody had approached you who wanted to lend him money to support his lifestyle.

Richard Sharp: Yes, I informed the Prime Minister that Mr Blyth wanted to meet the Cabinet Secretary to see whether he could help the Prime Minister.

Q302       Kevin Brennan: And the implication of that was whether he could help him financially.

Richard Sharp: Definitely.

Q303       Kevin Brennan: So although you did not offer direct financial advice to the Prime Minister—the point you were making earlier on—you did inform the Prime Minister before you met the Cabinet Secretary that there was someone who had approached you, who was a member of his family and who wanted to help him financially. So, in effect, without giving him financial advice, you had discussed his finances, or rather the fact that somebody wanted to help him with his finances, with the Prime Minister. That is correct, isn’t it?

Richard Sharp: Correct.

Q304       Kevin Brennan: Is there anything else you have not told us or that has not been reported that might be perceived as a potential conflict of interest in relation to your appointment to the BBC?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q305       Kevin Brennan: You know why I am asking that, don’t you? You did not tell us about this before, so just to clear the air on that. There is absolutely nothing that you can recall, anything that might be perceived as a potential conflict of interest in relation to your appointment, which you have not told us, the appointments panel or anyone you might be expected to tell.

Richard Sharp: Look, I think, in the circumstances, that that is absolutely a fair question. The answer is that, having had the meeting with Mr Case on this particular issue and having discussed the BBC application and that Mr Case put in place issues to ensure there was no conflict or perception of conflict, I did not raise it with this Committee when you were questioning me.

Q306       Kevin Brennan: I am going to come back to that in a minute. Just to be clear as well: have you discussed with anybody else or did anybody else approach you, or did you discuss with them ways that you might assist Boris Johnson with his finances, beyond Sam Blyth? Is there anyone else at any time who you discussed this with?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q307       Kevin Brennan: So it was only Mr Blyth. That was the sole occasion where you had been involved in facilitating—

Richard Sharp: Correct. Mr Blyth is a friend of mine and he happened to be a cousin of the Prime Minister. He raised the issue of wanting to help the Prime Minister and I told him he should talk to the Cabinet Office.

Q308       Kevin Brennan: I will come back to that.

Richard Sharp: I had no discussions like that with anybody else.

Q309       Kevin Brennan: Despite your previous answer, I am still not clear why you did not tell this Committee about your role in facilitating an introduction to someone who wanted to loan money to the Prime Minister. I am not clear why you did not tell us.

Richard Sharp: Because I had had a meeting with the Cabinet Office—I had a meeting with Mr Case—I had raised the issue of my BBC application specifically with him and he had agreed that to avoid a conflict or any appearance of conflict, I should have nothing further to do with the matter. At that stage, any support that Mr Blyth was going to provide was entirely hypothetical and I took comfort from that discussion I had with Mr Case.

Q310       Kevin Brennan: I have heard your answer, Mr Sharp, as you said earlier on, and quite frankly, I do not think it is good enough, to be honest with you, in relation to what was expected of you as a candidate. I know you said you have been scrupulous in the way you went about this appointment, but if you actually read the questionnaire that you filled in before you appeared before the Select Committee, if you actually read the rules in relation to what you should declare in front of an appointments panel and so on—let me put it to you this way. You are asking us to empathise a little bit with the process you went through. How about trying to empathise with somebody who is a member of this Select Committee whose constitutional duty it is to examine somebody who is being appointed as chair of the BBC for two reasons: first, as to their competence to do the job, and secondly, as to their ability to do that job independently with full disclosure of any information that might call that into question?

You were probed quite deeply at the time about your previous political connections and donations. The Committee, despite that, was able to recommend that you were above the line and were appointable to this particular position. But you had not disclosed to us, in full, the potential conflict of interest that you were required to disclose by the rules, and which you knew very well you were required to disclose, which might have called into question and at least should have been available to the Committee to consider in relation to your potential independence as BBC chair. Is that not an absolutely fair observation?

Richard Sharp: I had raised the issue of my candidature with Mr Case specifically, and I raised it—

Q311       Kevin Brennan: I know that. I am asking you to put yourself in our shoes for a moment. If you were sitting on this Committee, wouldn’t you be just a little bit disgruntled—shall I put it that way?—about the fact that when you appeared before the Committee, you chose not to tell us about this?

Richard Sharp: Well, look, I think one of the reasons why I am welcoming this opportunity is because there have been a lot of assertions about things that had taken place—

Kevin Brennan: I am not making any assertions of that kind.

Richard Sharp: Which have mischaracterised, as far as I am concerned, my involvement. My involvement was to ensure due process was followed. I was not party to any subsequent events that took place. I gave no financial advice to the Prime Minister. I gave no financial advice to Mr Blyth.

Q312       Kevin Brennan: Okay. Well, look, we are going over old ground, but I am not asking you that, am I? I am asking you to put yourself in our position, for a moment, and our role in this matter, as if you were sat in the House of Commons while Ministers prayed in aid this Committee’s report, from when it interviewed you in the pre-appointment hearing, to say, “Nothing to see here,” and while they appeared all over the media, saying, “Well, the DCMS Committee said it was fine, so there is not a problem”, and you were a member of this Committee and found out that, in fact, you did not disclose, to this Committee, the fact that you were involved in making introductions that would result in a very large soft loan facility being made available to the very person responsible for appointing you to the job that was under consideration. How on earth did you think that was not a relevant matter to disclose to this Committee?

Richard Sharp: Well, as I have described to you—

Kevin Brennan: Do you regret it?

Richard Sharp: I will come back to that particular—as I have described to you, I acted in good faith to ensure that due process was followed, including an open declaration to the Cabinet Secretary about the issue occurring at the same time that I was applying to be the BBC chair.

With respect—

Q313       Kevin Brennan: I mean, you might as well just say, “I refer you to the answer that I gave previously,” in true House of Commons style. Do you not see why we might be unhappy about that?

Richard Sharp: With respect to regret, obviously I regret the situation, and I particularly regret the situation for the BBC.

Kevin Brennan: That’s a non-regret regret though, isn’t it—“I regret the situation”?

Richard Sharp: No, it is not; it is not at all.

Q314       Kevin Brennan: Do you regret your actions in not telling the Committee that you had been involved in this caper?

Richard Sharp: I took, at the time—as I have told you—comfort from the conversation that I had had with Mr Case that the issue resolved a conflict and a perception of conflict, and—

Q315       Kevin Brennan: I don’t want to—that is on the record, so we can read that back in the record. When Mr Blyth approached you about helping the Prime Minister, given the position, and the fact that you were considering and then actively pursuing the position of chair of the BBC—did you actually, at any point, consider saying, simply, “Sorry, I can’t help you”?

Richard Sharp: Knowing that I had had the conversation with him in September—when he called me up, asking for the introduction to Mr Case—clearly, I could have, at that time, said no.

Kevin Brennan: Yes. Why didn’t you?

Richard Sharp: Because I was—I felt that I could help ensure that due process was followed.

Q316       Kevin Brennan: Did you not think of saying, “I can’t help because I am in the middle of an appointments process for a very high-profile public appointment, the chair of the BBC, which, by the way, the Prime Minister will have the final say over—the very person we are talking about. What kind of an idiot do you think I am, that, in the midst of that process, I would think it was appropriate to get involved in an affair of this kind”?

Richard Sharp: Well, I could understand why—knowing, as he did, that I worked in the same complex as the Cabinet Office and that he wanted me to make Mr Case aware of both his existence and his desire to talk to Mr Case. And I felt that, actually, my participation was to ensure that due process was followed, and that rules were followed.

Q317       Kevin Brennan: I will tell you what I would have said to him. I would have said, firstly, “It’s not my job to have anything to do with bailing out the Prime Minister and his personal finances and his unaffordable lifestyle.” And, I would have said, “More importantly, I’m a candidate for this key public appointment.” And I would have said, “I’m sorry, Mr Blyth; you’re going to have to ask somebody else.” Why didn’t you say that?

Richard Sharp: Well, that is why I proactively raised it with the Cabinet Secretary when we met. 

Q318       Kevin Brennan: Why did you not say, “You’re a member of his family. Why don’t you ask his brother, Jo Johnson, who chairs the board of the company for which you sit on that very same board”? Why did you not say that to him?

Richard Sharp: I do not know Jo Johnson particularly well. What I do know is that Mr Blyth is a friend of mine, and Mr Blyth—

Kevin Brennan: Jo Johnson chairs the board of a company that Mr Blyth is a board member of.

Richard Sharp: This was during a very difficult time in terms of people meeting other people, as you can remember.

Q319       Kevin Brennan: It is reported that he is very close friends with the ex-Prime Minister’s father and brother as well as being a family member. Did you not think to say, “Why didn’t you go and ask Stanley or Rachel Johnson instead of asking me?”?

Richard Sharp: He knew that I had been on the Financial Policy Committee at the Bank of England, he knew that I care about following the rules carefully, he turned to me for advice on what would be a sensitive matter and he acted on the conversation we had had at the dinner in which I told him that he needed to be in touch with the Cabinet Office. He knew that I was in the same physical operations as the Cabinet Office and he asked me if I would put him in touch with the Cabinet Secretary, and I did.

Q320       Kevin Brennan: Here is what I think. If I had been approached in this way about helping out financially the person considering me for and responsible for appointing me to a big, controversial public appointment, as you have already pointed out, I would not have said, “Sure, no problem.” I would have heard clanging alarm bells and the dive claxon of a submarine going on in my head at that point, knowing full well the process I was about to embark on in relation to this public appointment. Was it not a monumental failure of judgment on your part to go ahead with this?

Richard Sharp: I did not believe that ensuring that due process was followed was in itself a problem.

Q321       Kevin Brennan: That is how you dress it up, but really you were helping out somebody who wanted to lend money to the Prime Minister when it was not your job to do that.

Richard Sharp: No, I was ensuring that Mr Case was in a position to get the advice before he would contemplate doing anything involving the Prime Minister.

Q322       Kevin Brennan: Going back to the Committee, to me, it is inconceivable that in good faith you thought it appropriate not to reveal your involvement in Mr Johnson’s finances, albeit, as you have pointed out, at one remove, to the appointment panel when you were going for this job, and then to this Committee. I think that any reasonable and fair person would come to that conclusion. Would you agree with that?

Richard Sharp: I am seeking to lay out the facts here, and the facts are that a fair and reasonable person would see that what I was trying to do was to ensure that due process was followed, that in fact in seeking to introduce Mr Blyth to the Cabinet Secretary I was ensuring that somebody who wanted to support his cousin was going to go about it in the right way, and that my involvement was to ensure that due process was followed, and that was what I was seeking to achieve.

Kevin Brennan: I may be wrong, but on reflection I would have thought that a thoughtful person like yourself would have realised deep down inside that it was the wrong course of action to take and that you should have told this Committee about it. I will leave it at that.

Q323       Julie Elliott: Mr Sharp, you have just said that any fair and reasonable person would think x, y and z, and that you want to put the facts on the record. That is not a fact, it is your opinion.

Richard Sharp: I was responding to a question.

Julie Elliott: Yes, but it is not a fact, it is your opinion.

Richard Sharp: Yes, correct.

Q324       Julie Elliott: I would disagree that any fair and reasonable person would come to the same conclusion as yourself. In fact, I do not know anybody I have spoken to about this who would come to that conclusion. I do not know everybody in the country, but I know a lot of people. Even if what you did was not technically breaking any rules, at any point during this process when you were coming before this Committee, did it not cross your mind that you should perhaps mention this?

Richard Sharp: Candidly, no. What happened—I am sure that you have all reread the transcript of the hearing—

Q325       Julie Elliott: Many times. And I remember not just the words, but the inference that you were very blasé about it being 10 years since you had donated anything to the Tory party, as if this was some sort of distant, long-gone connection and that you had donated only a relatively small amount of money in political terms to one person. But the whole manner in which you answered those questions, which is as important as what you said, implied that this was a distant, long-gone “I don’t do this any more” kind of thing.

Richard Sharp: It was quite clear to me at the meeting that we had that you were aware that I had a long-standing professional relationship with Mr Johnson, that I had been invited back into the Treasury to work during the pandemic, and that I knew Mr Johnson professionally.

Q326       Julie Elliott: But you didn’t think it appropriate to mention that, as you said, you rang the Prime Minister and Chancellor to tell them that you wanted to apply, and that there had been this transaction going on, which you had played a part in? You didn’t think it appropriate to mention any of that?

Richard Sharp: That is why I had raised the issue with the Cabinet Secretary, and before I met with you—

Q327       Julie Elliott: No, no, Mr Sharp. You really have to answer the questions. It reflects badly on you, not on us, when you don’t answer the questions.

Richard Sharp: I am seeking to answer the questions.

Q328       Julie Elliott: I asked you: did it not cross your mind to mention this to this Committee?

Richard Sharp: I am seeking to explain that, if I may. Before I met you, which I think was in mid-January, I had a meeting at the beginning of December, as I said, with Mr Case. The details of that meeting are very important, in terms of how it influenced me in respect of this particular issue. The fact that I had raised the issue with him—he is the Cabinet Secretary, and within the Cabinet Office is responsible for propriety and ethics—gave me significant comfort in my mind. When we discussed that the process of me being excluded would resolve any conflict or perception of conflict, it gave me significant comfort in my mind that the issue had been resolved. That is why, when I met you, as far as I was concerned, I was no party to anything, I had no part in anything, and the issue was not in my mind with respect to a conflict. You are asking what was in my mind.

Q329       Julie Elliott: But can you not see how this could be seen as a perceived conflict?

Richard Sharp: I can see with the benefit of hindsight, particularly with some of the assertions that have been made, that that is a perfectly legitimate issue for you to raise.

Q330       Julie Elliott: The chair of the interview panel, Sarah Healey, who is at DCMS, told the Public Accounts Committee that the public appointment panels typically ask “whether there is anything else that we ought to be aware of which, if it came to light, might embarrass either the Government or the organisation responsible.” Do you remember being asked that question?

Richard Sharp: The interview was two and a half years ago. I do not remember all the details, but I think I do remember that question being asked, and I said no.

Q331       Julie Elliott: And you think that was a fair answer?

Richard Sharp: I have explained to you precisely why, as far as my mind was concerned—and I believe now—I felt comfortable, having had an explicit conversation with Mr Case on this issue, that my introduction of Mr Blyth to Mr Case was not in itself that particular issue. That is why, as far as I was concerned, the issue had been resolved.

Q332       Julie Elliott: It might have been resolved, but you are very well aware of the high scrutiny that the position that you now hold has and has historically had. Anything connected to the BBC is under huge public scrutiny. It is a bit like when you declare pre-existing medical conditions on an insurance form. You might break your leg and you might have a breathing condition, but they will not pay out on you breaking your leg if you have not declared your breathing condition. Did that kind of thing not cross your mind? Even if you think you did not do anything wrong—you might not have done anything wrong—did you not think, “Even though it’s sorted, it’s happened and it’s done, I should just mention this. People might be interested in this”?

Richard Sharp: Like you, the Chair and Mr Nicolson said, it is manifest that this has caused embarrassment at the BBC, and I regret that. I explained to you at the time why I did not think so. It is very clear, particularly as my involvement can be and has been mischaracterised, that my activities in seeking to ensure that Mr Blyth met Mr Case, or that the Cabinet Office were involved, clearly the activity that I undertook before that interview—

Q333       Julie Elliott: Mr Sharp, it is almost irrelevant what exactly happened, who said what and who met which person. It is the fact that you were involved in any way, shape or form in this loan arrangement, even if it was simply directing them to the Cabinet Office, and telling the Prime Minister that you were going to see the Cabinet Secretary. Even if that was the level of the involvement, which is what you say it is and we have no reason to understand that it was any different, what I cannot understand sitting here is how you did not think that, when applying for this job and coming before us at the pre-appointment hearing when you had the interview, “Even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, I need to be open and transparent about all of my actions.” What was your thought process that you did not feel fit to mention it? It just does not add up.

Richard Sharp: I appreciate the question. At that time, as far as I was concerned when I met with you, some four to six weeks after I had met Mr Case, I knew nothing of any arrangements that were going to transpire. I have explained to you why, as far as I was concerned—

Q334       Julie Elliott: But the arrangements are not really relevant. It is the fact that you are sitting there freely saying, “I had this conversation, I spoke to the Prime Minister and I went and had a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary.” That is the bit that should have been told to this Committee, in my opinion. I do not understand why you did not do that.

Richard Sharp: I am explaining. It was because I had had a conversation with Mr Case concerning the specific issue and we had agreed that I would be excluded in a way that ensured that it was not an issue that needed to be raised or a conflict or a potential conflict. I was not advised that that was something that needed to be raised at that time, and I appreciate your opinion now. At that time, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter.

Q335       Julie Elliott: It sounds, sitting here, as though you were hiding it. That is how it comes across. That might not be what you were doing, but that is how it comes across and that is what your answers sound like to me. You just thought, “This is never going to come out, I don’t need to mention it.” Is that not what you were thinking?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q336       Giles Watling: We have gone over an enormous amount of ground about who met whom, where, when, why. I would like to move on slightly. You called for an investigation at the BBC. Why did you do that?

Richard Sharp: The issue that was raised was one of conflict and the perception of conflict. One of my regrets on this issue is that it affects the BBC and therefore I felt it appropriate in the circumstances to reassure the people of the BBC that there would also be an independent investigation by the nominations committee—

Q337       Giles Watling: Which you chair?

Richard Sharp: No, I will not be chairing that particular committee. I recused myself from that. The investigation is to investigate that our declarations are in order.

Q338       Giles Watling: Is that what you expect the investigation to find? That all is in order.

Richard Sharp: Yes, but it is being independently reviewed.

Q339       Giles Watling: And that is since your appointment—the investigation will cover that.

Richard Sharp: Yes.

Q340       Giles Watling: And the investigation by William Shawcross, who also recuses himself as Commissioner of Public Appointments, what do you expect that to find?

Richard Sharp: I believe that I was appointed on merit. I believe that all due processes were followed, and I believe he will find that out.

Q341       Giles Watling: You said that this whole matter is a distraction and that you are really sorry about it all. Having said that, and in view of your comments earlier about perception, do you think that your position as chairman is now perhaps untenable, or do you think you can weather this particular storm?

Richard Sharp: Look, I believe I have made a significant contribution to the BBC. I have laid out the facts here and I think it is important to separate those from the things that are not true, because some of the press has contained significant inaccuracies. On the basis of those inaccuracies, there is no doubt that that has had an effect on some of the people from the BBC. I am grateful, actually, to be accountable to you and to subject myself to this particular scrutiny, because I want to set the record straight. I appreciate, for example, the questioning from Ms Elliott.

But it is very important to come back to the point that I have never provided financial advice to the Prime Minister, that I am not party to any situation that arose—and it is speculative to know what actually happened; I have no knowledge of what happened—and that my involvement in this was precisely to ensure that due process was followed and that everything was done correctly. Subsequently, I have had informal confirmation from the Cabinet Office that that is their view of my participation in this process.

I recognise the difficulty that I put this Committee under and I regret that, but at the same time this is important because I wanted to create some clarity, because there has been a lot of noise and mischaracterisation, and a lot of erroneous facts have been put out there.

Q342       Giles Watling: Sort of in your defence, I will say that just a quick glance at your CV shows that you have been in charge of governance at non-profit organisations—the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Marsden and the Institute of Cancer Research—and you worked for 23 years as a partner at Goldman Sachs, and it may well be that you are absolutely the right man for the job. But despite that, the very fact is that you are here answering these questions today in public; don’t you think that might have made it impossible for you to continue?

Richard Sharp: Fortunately, I have been in situ for almost two years and have had the chance to meet, for example, all the employee networks. In that sense, I have communicated directly with at least half to two thirds of people at the BBC. I believe they are in no doubt about my commitment and ability to make a contribution to the success of the BBC. In addition, I think they understand my belief in public service and its importance. I think, for example, you will look back a few weeks and see my aggressive support in championing the World Service, which the people of the BBC expect from the Chair.

Although I regret that this has happened, of course, I do believe that the people of the BBC know that I am striving to protect the BBC, to preserve it and to make it successful, and that I can contribute. Therefore, of course this has had an effect on the people of the BBC, but at the same time, notwithstanding some of the messages that Mr Nicolson has had, I have had a lot of messages of support from people within the BBC, which I welcome. I would say to anyone who has expressed their disquiet in text to Mr Nicolson that my door is open to them and I am happy to discuss this particular issue with them directly.

Giles Watling: I think you have answered my next question.

Q343       Simon Jupp: Good morning, Mr Sharp. Throughout this entire session, you have mentioned press inaccuracies in reporting. Is the BBC guilty of that?

Richard Sharp: You mean in general, or specifically in relation to this?

Simon Jupp: In relation to this case.

Richard Sharp: When they have repeated inaccuracies, attributing them to other journalists, they have been guilty of that, and they have subsequently made corrections if they have found themselves to be in possession of inaccurate information.

Q344       Simon Jupp: Does that concern you, as the chair of the BBC—that the organisation that you chair, and were tasked with sorting out with regards to impartiality, bias and all that kind of stuff, has in itself failed that editorial process in your view?

Richard Sharp: No; it has certainly made me personally more conscious of the value of the BBC in striving for impartiality and accuracy above and beyond other organisations. It has also made me aware of the consequences of inaccuracy in a very personal way. So, yes, at the same time as I am proud of the BBC in the way that we report, we will and do get things wrong, and have done from time to time, and the issue in relation to that is how we address something when we get it wrong. We should correct and acknowledge our mistakes. We will make mistakes as an institution, but in my judgment, both presently and in the future, we define ourselves as the most impartial and accurate news organisation.

Q345       Simon Jupp: Now you have had this experience at the sharp end of the BBC’s editorial decision making, how does that impact on your role as chairman? Is that a potential conflict, when discussing this in the future with members of your board?

Richard Sharp: No.

Q346       Simon Jupp: If I may, I will move us on to conversations you have had with other politicians, particularly the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, for as long as that Department exists. What discussions have you had with the Secretary of State regarding the future funding arrangements of the BBC?

Richard Sharp: I have had a series of meetings where I have sought to outline the beginnings of our approach to our strategy and what our needs are, because I think that funding should follow strategy and needs; it should not precede them. Obviously, one of the issues that we face is significant global competition. We also have a requirement to provide a universal service, and we are operating in a highly inflationary environment. Before the current Ukrainian issue caused unusual inflation issues, when the CPI was 2%, the media industry was already facing 9% inflation. We face a budget that in some ways does not add up. We therefore face very difficult choices. I felt that the Secretary of State, in considering issues associated with the licence fee, needs to understand—I need to get across—the detail of what we are seeking to achieve and the budgetary implications. That is the process that we are undertaking—

Simon Jupp: That is the premise of the conversation.

Richard Sharp: Yes.

Q347       Simon Jupp: How do you think that conversation was received? The setting out of your—

Richard Sharp: I think with great interest.

Q348       Simon Jupp: With sympathy?

Richard Sharp: Yes, with great interest. We are operating in a nominal flat licence fee environment, and that will only change in about a year and a half. We are really talking about prospective financing issues, rather than current ones.

I beg your pardon, but there is one thing that I should add, which is what I highlighted in my speech a few weeks ago: as a result of the budget, we face considerable issues with whether we can justify to domestic licence fee payers the World Service, with which we address both a global audience and to do so in foreign languages, and for which licence holders do not directly receive a benefit. You would remember that, before the discussions with George Osborne when he was Chancellor, it was separately funded, away from the BBC. I have certainly made the Secretary of State aware that I believe that we will need additional funding in order for the World Service to achieve its remit successfully.

Q349       Simon Jupp: Forgive me, but my colleague Rupa is keen to ask the questions on the World Service, so she will do so after I have finished my session.

You previously described, in the pre-appointment hearing which we have discussed a couple of times this morning, the licence fee as the “least worst” option. Do you still subscribe to that view?

Richard Sharp: There are issues with the licence fee: it is regressive; in some ways, it is considered anachronistic; other countries have adopted other mechanisms; and there are a number of issues with how it falls on individuals, in terms of how we collect the licence fee—for example, pensioners—and of the issues arising from people’s failure to pay the licence fee, including how that falls with respect to gender issues, for example. So, it is imperfect. Other countries are adopting household taxes, there are some broadband taxes and there are different ways to ensure that a public service broadcaster is separately funded.

Q350       Simon Jupp: Do you have a preferred option to replace it?

Richard Sharp: No, I do not have a preferred option. I also think the BBC should contribute to that discussion when it arises. But that has a lot of policy implications for you, as representatives of the people, in making that judgment.

Q351       Simon Jupp: Understood. Previously on the Committee we held a session with members of BBC management regarding BBC local radio. We have just been touching on the licence fee, which is paid for by communities, and now the BBC is looking to cut back on the services closest to those communities. When was the last time that you listened to your local BBC radio station?

Richard Sharp: I do listen to the local radio stations. In fact, I use the Sounds flywheel to listen to other local radio stations. One of the reasons I do listen is the issue that in London, to my concern, with all the competition, we only have 1.5% of the market. I do believe a defining advantage of the BBC is localism. One of the things I am doing in thinking through the strategy for the BBC, is asking how we achieve that. When I look at the market share that we have, as we think about the strategy to deliver localism, I have to ask myself how we can do that and also maintain an effective local radio station.

Q352       Simon Jupp: London, if I may, is an isolated case. There have been historically low audiences through several relaunches, none of which have worked. More widely, services such as the one in my county of Devon are very popular with audiences. Do you regret the course the BBC is taking, which will completely wipe out local programming outside of sport, every weekend, on most local radio stations?

Richard Sharp: The conundrum we have is where is the audience, and where are they going? How do we reach the local audience to deliver the local information?

Q353       Simon Jupp: I understand the conundrum, having worked in local radio myself. I understand that. But we are talking about audiences that are not served by any other service, because local commercial radio barely exists in this country any more. Community radio has popped up across the country, but that is limited and specific to certain areas. BBC local radio, whether the BBC likes it or not, targets and has a loyal audience of people over 60, who listen to its services.

Richard Sharp: I think that one of the things that defines us as a public service broadcaster has to be effective localism—there is no question about that. It is an issue of how we accomplish that that is a real challenge, because of where audiences are migrating to and where they are choosing to spend their time. The data is incredibly important in terms of how the community will participate with BBC output in whatever form. I certainly hope we get it right, with a combination of local radio offering a defining local advantage, but also with our websites, so that people do believe that the BBC is delivering to them precisely what you talked about, which is a sense of community and engagement.

Q354       Simon Jupp: It has been mentioned to me several times by editors of local newspapers in my patch that those websites will impact on their ability to maintain their local paper. Local papers have diminished or demised across the country, much like commercial independent radio. Are you at all concerned about the competition that will create, and the impact that it will have on the printed press that still exists in communities like mine?

Richard Sharp: I have had meetings with representatives from local newspapers, and it is also clear that the BBC can act as a channel—our website can act as a channel—to provide them with a larger audience on their own websites. In addition, what the BBC can do is provide some financial assistance to local newspaper reporting, and we do that.

I think there is a synergistic relationship that we can provide with more dedicated local news entities, such as local newspapers and their websites, by collaborating with them rather than purely competing with them. For example, if there is a fire in a particular warehouse, we can put the links to that.

Q355       Simon Jupp: Before I hand over to the Chair, the original local radio proposals were vast and cut swathes of local programming. The revised proposals tinkered at the edges. Is that the final situation for local radio? Is it the end of any discussion or movement on how those local services will be portrayed in the next couple of months and what will happen to the staff who are currently facing the sack and the programmes that will no longer exist that are loved by audiences? Is that it?

Richard Sharp: Broadly, I have explained that we face a real budget crisis at the BBC, in terms of—

Simon Jupp: I get all that. The answer is quite direct.

Richard Sharp: The answer is no. If you take, for example, the controversial restructuring that is taking place at the moment in Radio Foyle, we have put that out to consultation, and we are in discussions with the unions. We will as a result of that make adjustments. We are listening and seeking to ensure that we continue to deliver and employ where possible to deliver that service.

Q356       Simon Jupp: You haven’t got much time. This process is ongoing. Clearly staff are under notice of redundancy and people are preparing to lose their programmes with an uncertain future. When will this be finalised? When will we see yet another tweak from the BBC in relation to local radio?

Richard Sharp: This is a consequence of having a very difficult budget. We have to try to achieve the same output in a more efficient way. Unfortunately, that is accompanied often by seeking productivity increases, which amounts to fewer people doing the same or more.

Q357       Simon Jupp: You have not answered my question. That process is ongoing and staff are currently facing the sack, being moved around or doing jobs they do not want to do in different parts of the country, and there is uncertainty over whose programme will be done by which presenter and so on. When do we expect the final line-up and plan for local radio, given that we have had two iterations already?

Richard Sharp: Like any corporation, we are having to constantly change and create productivity efficiencies. We have had to take 13% out of our budget.

Simon Jupp: I get that.

Richard Sharp: So in that sense it is never-ending. What I am getting at is that we are constantly going to have to adapt to the marketplace—the needs of the consumers. Our obligation to deliver local public services is a constant management challenge.

Q358       Dr Huq: Hello again, Mr Sharp. I am not going to rake over this murky, undisclosed loan-gate, because I was not there in 2021. But can you see how objectively to someone like me or an alien from another planet it looks like there was a distinct lack of transparency when you came to this Committee and your application was in, and when the “Are there any skeletons in your cupboard” question came up this was not revealed?

Richard Sharp: I can see now, certainly with the benefit of hindsight, that there are facts I have shared with you about my seeking an introduction to Mr Blyth that you were not aware of, and I have heard loud and clear that the Committee wishes it had been aware of it.

Q359       Dr Huq: Are you grateful for the role of investigative journalism in exposing this? Without it we would not know about this at all. We would all still be in the dark.

Richard Sharp: As much as I am at the cutting edge of this in that sense, I think it is one of the things that makes this country great.

Q360       Dr Huq: And you would welcome more transparency? The other thing is that you are someone who has had dealings with both the current and the previous Prime Minister. Is there a sense that this could be past and previous Prime Ministers briefing against each other? We know we have a former Prime Minister who has been to the US, to Ukraine and to Davos in an “I’m still here” way.

Richard Sharp: I have to say that most of my career was in the private sector, and in most of my career there was not the leaking that happens in the public sector domain. So I have no judgment as to motivations or issues. I really do not know what the source of this is or what the intention was behind whoever chose to deliver a memo to The Sunday Times. I do not know what their motivation was.

Q361       Dr Huq: Okay. We don’t know where it came from. I have a last question on this. How do you see the role of Cabinet Secretary? We know you met him without other officials minuting it. I am just curious to know.

Richard Sharp: The Cabinet Secretary I see as the most senior civil servant in the country. Under him comes propriety and ethics, and I see his role as to advise on any matters that touch on, in this case, the Prime Minister’s affairs, in so far as they need to be managed in a way that conforms to the rules of propriety and ethics.

Q362       Dr Huq: When I did politics A-level in the last century, we were taught that the Cabinet Secretary, who I think was Sir Robin Butler at the time, was the most powerful man in England, or maybe England and Wales—[Interruption] oh, and Scotland as well—and he was the head of the home civil service. But it feels like now he has turned into a fixer for the PM where you can go and meet him behind the bike sheds without it being minuted. That is what it feels like to me.

Richard Sharp: Look, I think the Cabinet Secretary took a minute of my meeting. He took notes, and there was a memo that followed. It was a meeting in the office in that sense, and it was a disclosed and noted meeting.

Q363       Dr Huq: Okay. That is all I will say on that, but hoorah for investigative journalism.

I just noticed that the BBC is currently advertising for corporate affairs execs, I think on pretty big salaries. The most recent one has come from Primark, for example—someone who has come from the private sector. Is this really a good look when you are sacking journos and local radio presenters, and when huge swathes of the World Service are having the plug pulled on them?

Richard Sharp: We have to run ourselves like any corporation in one sense—that is, we have to manage our communications. For example, if you look at the situation in local radio, how we communicate and manage our involvement with stakeholders has to be professionally managed. We need a team that can do that and that can ensure that it takes place appropriately. In addition, we have to manage communication with the regulator, and we have to manage communication with Parliament. We have to manage our communication with different Governments within the UK as well, and we need to so professionally. That is why public affairs is very important, so that we do that properly.

Q364       Dr Huq: You said that all the journalists who have communicated with you have been very sympathetic, but I represent a lot of BBC staff. I am ex-BBC staff myself, and I have them in my family. One of them said to ask how much that corporate band E is. What sort of salary are these corporate affairs executives getting, compared with your average journalist? It is six figures, isn’t it?

Richard Sharp: One of the things we do at the remuneration sub-committee of the board is ensure that the pay that we make is appropriate.

Q365       Dr Huq: Can you tell us in numbers what that is?

Richard Sharp: I can tell you that we have failed to hire people because we are not financially competitive with the private sector.

Q366       Dr Huq: What is the going rate?

Richard Sharp: It is a great difficulty for us to recruit people for key positions at the BBC. In terms of the specifics of that position, I do not have that off the top of my head and I will have to come back to you.

Q367       Dr Huq: Okay. I would be curious to know. You are going to write to me about this—that is on the record.

The interview that you did in The Sunday Times on 3 December, when you said the BBC should be run more like Goldman Sachs and you are no Marmaduke Hussey—I think the title was, “More guts and no liberal bias”. We know that part of your job as chair is to uphold and display independence from Government. Is the bias you want to steer clear of only liberal bias? You very publicly had a go at Emily Maitlis in that interview.     

Richard Sharp: No. Obviously, in this community, people look at biases in the sense of a partisan political issue. One of the things we have done is also look at associated thematic issues. If you look at Professor Sambrook's recent articles, for example, he talks about the fact that the issues about bias are not around party politics, but around issues of subject. For example, we had a thematic review to look at impartiality in the context of tax and spend, which came out very recently. We are going to have one—I do not know whether we have announced it yet—on migration. Part of our approach to impartiality is to look at it more broadly around topic areas, and how we approach them. For example, and Mr Nicolson has addressed this, AI is another source of potential bias. If you look at some of the recent issues associated with AI, there will be cultural biases and political biases emerging from those areas as well.

These issues we do look at. Part of my job is to ensure, which is why we have had the 10-point impartiality plan, that we look at biases in the broadest possible sense, and party political bias is only one element of that, and increasingly less important to our audience than some of the bigger issues.

Q368       Dr Huq: When you say, “I will fight BBC liberal bias”, it looks like it is only in one direction. I want to give you an applied example. Simon Jupp said that he was going to talk about the World Service, and you just said that you will aggressively champion it. We know that it is a thing that has been running for 85 years. The relative cost of it is £28 million, which is 0.5% of your spend and 0.001% of Government spend, which is a tiny fraction compared with the soft power that we get out of it. We know that for those countries where news is censored it is a vital lifeline—“This is London calling” for years and years has been the truth. My cousins in Bangladesh used to say, “We listen to the BBC when we want the truth.” There is a suspicion about current policy. Why is it being done? I think you could find the money down the back of a sofa, given you are hiring people on six-figure, telephone number-type salaries to do your corporate affairs and structures going in one way.

A report in The Voice newspaper on 3 February recounted that there was a Zoom call with BBC Africa, who were told that they were all for the chop—no consultation. Is that the way to treat staff? Somebody on that call said that “rightwing government are moving away from engagement with the continent” of Africa. It seems that you take one bias and tilt it the other way. Do you know what I mean? We know in that interview that you were fondly talking about how Rishi Sunak worked for you in the ’90s, and then he was your boss at the Treasury. You are good mates with Boris Johnson, brokering his loan. It just all looks like you are trying to reconfigure bias in another direction.

Richard Sharp: I do not have the detail on the Africa situation that you are talking about. I doubt if that is the case, and I will look into it.

Q369       Dr Huq: It just seems that you are substituting a previous bias, which may or may not have occurred. Again, there are the attacks on Emily Maitlis, who was seen as an investigative journalist and the stuff that she did with Prince Andrew. Are you not worried that there is even a kind of brain drain away from yourselves? A lot of big names have gone—Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil—they have all walked.

Richard Sharp: First of all, Emily Maitlis is a very fine journalist. I have always said that, and I believe that. I would not want that to be mischaracterised. We have lost talented people, but we also have a considerable amount of talented people within the BBC to fill those positions. It is often true that for an organisation to work, you need fresh water flowing through it. Absolutely regret the loss of talent, and sometimes that is financial as well. We are not competitive with the private sector. I am touched by the amount of people who will work for the BBC, recognising that they could earn considerably more in the private sector. 

The pressures of the pay and inflation in the media market, overcapacity  and our well-funded competitors will continue to put a drain on our resources. That is unavoidable in the context of the financial constraints that we are operating within, and that is a competitive issue for the BBC that we need to be concerned about.

Q370       Dr Huq: The decimation of local radio that Simon Jupp referred to will, again, cut off the normal pipeline that people come up through.

Richard Sharp: We are seeking to make local radio more efficient. We are not seeking to end local radio. We should always remember that if you look across—this is partly one of the things that inspired me to come to the BBC—that the BBC plays a central role in the whole creative industries. If you look at many of the independent film producers, and much of the talent that is in the private sector, and look at yourselves, many people came through the BBC and go into other professions. That is part of what we do as a public service to the United Kingdom. It is part of our training exercise, where we populate well-trained people in the creative industries. That is something that we should continue to do as a public service broadcaster in that sense and, in some ways, welcome our contribution to the UK in nurturing talent and allowing it to flourish.

Q371       Dr Huq: Everyone understands the need for modernisation, but is the merger of the News Channel and BBC World going to erode your ability to serve all communities of the UK? Small, quirky stories find exposure on the BBC News Channel. It is a different audience altogether.

Richard Sharp: There is no doubt that part of our public service remit is to provide an adequate—an excellent—domestic news service. This comes back to something we discussed earlier. This is an initiative from the executive to create operating efficiencies between our worldwide news and our domestic news, using technology to ensure that as far as the domestic audiences are concerned, they receive adequate news. I am sure this will be looked at by Ofcom as well, in terms of, are we fulfilling our remit? And it will be looked at by the board in that sense, after we see how the final product is delivered. I am sure that in doing it, they are conscious of the need to satisfy the domestic audience that they are receiving an appropriate service.

Q372       Dr Huq: Will investigative journalism—things like “Inside Out”—survive this?

Richard Sharp: Again, it is up to the Director-General to determine which shows go forward and which do not, but part of the BBC’s remit will continue to include investigative journalism, both domestically and globally, including in Africa.

Q373       Dr Huq: I think last time we talked about minority, black and ethnic programming. There has been some U-turn on that, and I have to give you credit for that. I am grateful for that.

Can you give the assurance that current journalists will have a future in the BBC? I think I asked you last time and you weren’t able to say so. We know that there has been some rowing back of the slashing of those programmes.

Richard Sharp: This comes back to making clear the difference between my position as a non-executive and the executive. The journalists do not work for me. What is important as far as we are concerned at the board level is that the evaluation systems are fair and that people retain their jobs and get promoted on the basis of merit. So I can’t speak to the individual journalists, and they should and do in that sense have no more security than they do in the private sector. We have to have processes that ensure that we retain the journalists that we have on merit.

Q374       Dr Huq: Because there is a worry about losing all this expertise. Apparently, on this BBC Africa call, journalists on there were offered a week’s work experience—sometimes people who had given decades of their life.

Richard Sharp: Yes. I think that that is one of the things that makes the BBC great—the quality we have had of BBC journalists who have actually had a period of longevity and experience within the domain that they operate.

Q375       Dr Huq: Okay, I hope in this new merged news channel/BBC World—we have all appeared on the domestic channel, and if all that is squeezed out for some global Britain thing that the Government want, that is not good.

The last one from me is on gender pay. There have been some well-publicised cases—in 2018 Carrie Gracie, and in 2020 Samira Ahmed won a tribunal. In the last century, I do recall Konnie Huq being paid less than her male counterparts on “Blue Peter”. I know the gender gap is reducing. Is there a year when it will be zero? In our job, we are all paid the same thing. We are on a national scale.

Richard Sharp: Gender pay is a complicated issue. It also has to look at functions as well. For example, it is well known that there are more men than women in technology, in terms of the industry more broadly. We have more than 50% employees now who are women—we passed 50% in terms of women at the BBC. What is absolutely critical is that people are paid the same, whether they are men or women, for fulfilling the same task and that they get evaluated on the same basis. That is something we look at at the board, and if we find that the indicators beg questions, we answer those questions.

Q376       Dr Huq: So you are striving to completely erase it.

Richard Sharp: Yes.

Dr Huq: That could be a way to reduce some of this reputational damage from the murky loan affair.

Q377       Chair: To try to pull things together and be as charitable as possible, you took an action that would make the Prime Minister very personally grateful to you while you were applying for a sensitive job that was in his gift, and you did not tell anyone about this. Being as charitable as possible, wasn’t that an error of judgment?

Richard Sharp: What I undertook was to ensure that good process was followed. As I said, I sought to put Mr Blyth in touch with Mr Case, and I then discussed with Mr Case the implications of that. I had a long-established relationship with the Prime Minister, which was based on professional respect. I had served for him in two separate functions when he was Mayor of London, and then in addition I was working on significant activities when I was in Downing Street during the pandemic. So I was comfortable, in my mind, that the Prime Minister knew me professionally and that, as far as I was concerned, the action that I was doing was to put his cousin in touch with the Cabinet Secretary. And that is as far as it went.

Q378       Chair: So you would do it all the same again.

Richard Sharp: Well, obviously I have had a lot of time to consider in the last few weeks my participation in this, in seeking to ensure that all the rules were followed, and I wish we were not where we are now.

Q379       Chair: So you wouldn’t have done the same again.

Richard Sharp: I think I will continue to consider the actions I took. What I do know is I acted in good faith to ensure that the rules were followed, and in that sense I have no regret for that. I clearly underestimated the way things could be seen, particularly in light of when they were described with facts that were not true; for example, I took no part in any financing. I took no part in arranging the financing—I wasn’t party to it. I simply put Mr Blyth together with Mr Case to ensure due process was followed, and to that extent I do not regret the fact that I informed Mr Case that due process should be followed. But clearly I could have said to him, as I think Mr Brennan said, “Find your own way to Mr Case.”

Q380       Chair: Do you wish you had done that now?

Richard Sharp: Well, I think you can form your own judgment on that.

Chair: Thank you. Richard Sharp, thank you very much for giving evidence this morning. That concludes our session.