The new BBC Chairman had close ties to the Government and the Opposition were furious. The latter had already complained that the Corporation’s new Director-General was politically compromised. Now it made the same complaint about the Chairman. “The BBC may not be free of charge, but it should be free of bias,” a senior Opposition politician declared.
That politician was David Davis, then the Conservative Party Chairman. The new Chairman was Gavyn Davies, a former Labour supporter whose wife ran Gordon Brown’s office. The Director-General was Greg Dyke, another former Labour donor. The year was 2001: the zenith year of Tony Blair’s New Labour, during which it won a second general election landslide.
By the time of the next election, Dyke had changed his tune: a third Blair term would be “a danger to democracy,” he declared, on a Liberal Democrat election platform – having resigned in the wake of a BBC report about the Iraq War. By 2007, he was being approached by David Cameron to stand with Conservative support for the London mayoralty.
The tale is a reminder that party politics and BBC appointments have long been intertwined – as have the misfortunes that have afflicted some of the latter. Of the seven Director-Generals who have served during the last 30 years or so, no fewer than three have run into serious trouble.
Working backwards, Tim Davie, who is still in post, oversaw the Gary Lineker Twitter debacle. Tony Hall, who preceded him, survived his period in post but resigned elsewhere afterwards – from Chairman of the National Gallery following an enquiry into the BBC’s Panorama interview with Princess Diana.
Davie was briefly in place pre-Hall, and the Director-General before him was George Entwhistle – who himself had to quit after Newsnight made false allegations about child abuse. Mark Thompson, his predecessor, survived in post, as his did his own brief predecessor, Mark Byford. Then Dyke, then John Birt, whose reforms shaped the modern BBC.
BBC Chairmen have been more insulated from controversy but scarcely more distant from politics. The first one, Lord Gainsford, was a Liberal. I’ve already run a typewriter over Dyke’s politics. Another recent BBC Chairman, Lord Patten, was a former Tory Cabinet Minister.
Of the BBC’s 25 Chairmen, I count nine as having previously been active in politics, and another four as having political connections – most of them Conservative. Such is the background against which the resignation of Richard Sharp should be seen.
Adam Heppinstal‘s report into the affair makes no complaint about Sharp’s appointment: indeed, it describes the process carried out by the then Department for Culture, Media and Sport as “good and thorough”. Its section about the role of the Prime Minister in the appointment of the BBC’s Chairman are worth quoting at length.
It says that “the Prime Minister, by convention, makes the final decision as to who is to be recommended for appointment and is closely involved, through his office at No.10 Downing Street, with the process to select appointable candidates…The Governance Code makes Ministers responsible for appointment processes”.
“Ministers should agree the job description, the advertising process, and the composition of the Panels which consider candidates (known as Advisory Assessment Panels). Ministers should, before the campaign starts, be asked for the names of
individuals who should be approached to apply, as well as the names of those they think should be interviewed.
“Ministers should be invited to provide their views to the Panel on candidates at all stages of a competition. At the end of the process Ministers are provided by the Panel with a choice of appointable candidates from which they choose to appoint. Ministers do not, however, have to accept the Panel’s advice and may ask for a competition to be re-run.”
The report drew heavily on a 2016 review, which said that “the Prime Minister has a direct role in…those appointments for which he has statutory responsibility. Additionally, some appointments are so important to public life in the UK, the Prime Minister will understandably want to be involved. In such cases, the process must be designed from the start to accommodate this.”
Indeed, the report doesn’t even say that candidates for the BBC chairmanship should have no conflicts of interest – merely that “as stated in the Governance Code (paragraph 9.1), a potential conflict of interest should not preclude a candidate from being shortlisted or appointed, provided that it is declared, and appropriate arrangements are made”.
I set all this out to confirm that Heppinstal doesn’t complain that the process by which Sharp was appointed was bent. Nor does he say that Boris Johnson acted improperly; nor that Johnson should have had no role in Sharp’s appointment. Nor even that Sharp should not have had a conflict of interest.
His issue, like that of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, is with Sharp’s failure to declare it during this interview for the BBC post. His report also notes a failure of memory by the trouble-plagued Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, over what Sharp told him about his connection with a loan for Johnson.
In quoting the report at some length, I don’t seek to minimise what actually happened. Indeed, I’d go further that Heppinstal, and argue that this particular conflict of interest should have precluded Sharp from applying for the BBC Chairman post, let alone being appointed.
Johnson’s financial affairs appear to be the most troubled of any British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill – a comparison that might not displease him. Many would go further than either I or Heppinstal, arguing that politics should be taken out of the top BBC appointments.
How exactly would that be done? The BBC has its own internal politics (its own rivalries, its own grudges) and external broadcasting role: elections, climate change, pandemics, Israel/Palestine, abortion, the monarchy, America – all these subjects are intensely contested and intrinsically political.
A panel of unelected experts and unaccountable quangocrats would bring their own prejudices to the role – without reflecting the recent view of the electorate. David Dimbleby, himself an unsuccessful candidate for the chairmanship, avoids this trap. He wants an appointment board “made up of all political parties”, and so is prepared to grasp the political nettle.
The upside of such a proposal is that it would distance the appointment from any single political party or any particular government. The downside is the danger of boiling it down to a lowest political common denominator. Either way, the Sharp affair was yet another personnel hangover from the Johnson premiership into the Sunak one: the last?