Richard Sharp’s Resignation Proves Divisive At The BBC As Thoughts Turn To His Successor

Richard Sharp’s resignation as BBC Chairman over a Boris Johnson loan scandal has stoked division at the British broadcaster as thoughts turn to finding his successor.

The former Goldman Sachs banker will step down at the end of June after he failed to properly declare his role in facilitating Johnson’s £800,000 ($1M) loan guarantee as ministers went about installing him on the BBC board.

Barrister Adam Heppinstall concluded Sharp’s actions gave rise to a “perceived conflict of interest,” though he stopped short of concluding that the BBC Chairman sort to curry favor by involving himself in the Prime Minister’s private financial affairs.

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Sharp has dug in for months since the story was first reported by The Sunday Times and maintained today that his failure to be fully transparent about Johnson’s loan was “inadvertent and not material.”

BBC employees were angry about The Sunday Times story when it broke in January, arguing that it left the corporation exposed to accusations that it was too cozy with the government and, therefore, not sufficiently impartial.

This view still exists within the BBC, particularly in the broadcaster’s newsroom, where Sharp is said to have “lost the shop floor,” according to one insider.

Journalists accuse him of damaging the BBC by clinging on to his job for four months, creating headlines that have reflected poorly on the broadcaster, even though it was not to blame for his appointment. When grilled by lawmakers earlier this year, Sharp even criticized BBC journalists for repeating the “significant inaccuracies” published about the debacle by other newspapers.

Sources added that Sharp compounded a separate impartiality crisis over Gary Lineker, the Match of the Day presenter who was suspended and then swiftly reinstated for criticizing the government’s asylum policy. The BBC was seen to be punishing a presenter for voicing opposition to the government at the time as having a Chairman who has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party.

Indeed, Lineker himself waded into the debate on Friday. “The BBC chairman should not be selected by the government of the day. Not now, not ever,” he tweeted to his 9M followers.

Sharp has, however, turned the tide of opinion in other areas of the BBC and some are sorry to see him quit. This group of employees argue that he has embraced change at the BBC and become an important advocate for the corporation in influential circles. “He had really become quite a champion and quite an innovator, so lots of us will be sad to see him go,” said a senior insider.

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s Chief Content Officer, gave a sense of this support last week when she said Sharp was “doing a really good job.” Moore picks her words carefully on public platforms, so it was telling that she chose not to use more neutral language as the investigation into Sharp continued.

Support for Sharp was also evident in warm statements on his resignation from the BBC board and Tim Davie, the Director General. The board said he was a “very effective” chairman and a “person of integrity,” while Davie praised his “significant contribution to the transformation and success of the BBC.”

Insiders are now speculating about Sharp’s successor, with the government once again overseeing the recruitment process, albeit under the leadership of Rishi Sunak rather than Johnson.

Early Runners And Riders

There is a view within the BBC that ministers should avoid hiring a candidate with obvious links to the Conservative Party, though there is no suggestion that the government will heed this advice.

One senior Conservative source said: “It’s perfectly reasonable for the government to take the view that they want another political sophisticate as BBC chairman.”

Early names being linked with the role include Baroness Stowell of Beeston, who chairs the influential House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee. Stowell does have links to the government but has also worked at the BBC, including as its Head of Corporate Affairs. She is a creative industries champion and recently helped nudge Chancellor Jeremy Hunt towards a U-turn over the lucrative high-end TV tax credit threshold.

Sir Damon Buffini, a private equity manager, has impressed during his time on the BBC board and was elevated to Deputy Chair last December. As with Sharp, he is commercially minded and is viewed as an innovator. Sir Nicholas Serota, the BBC’s Senior Independent Director, is also seen as a capable candidate, though there are questions about whether he would want the role.

Sir Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member and one-time Director of Communications to former Prime Minister Theresa May, has reportedly ruled himself out of the race to replace Sharp.

Damian Green, Acting Chair of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said lessons must be learned from the Sharp saga and any potential conflicts of interest should be properly declared. “The government must now ensure that it recruits a new Chair for the BBC who can demonstrate the integrity and impartiality needed for this role,” he said.

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