The story of how Richard Sharp came to chair one of our greatest national institutions is both entirely proper and entirely seedy.
It’s probable that the two investigations into how he helped his old friend, Boris Johnson, out of an embarrassing financial hole will clear him. But it would be a shame if we lost sight of the wider context.
When Johnson became prime minister he took an unusually close personal interest in the leadership of two extremely important pillars of our media ecosystem—the chairs of the supposedly independent regulator, Ofcom, and the supposedly independent BBC.
In some countries it would look positively grubby for a political leader to fix things so that the media came under the umbrella—“control” is slightly too strong a word—of the ruling party. But barely an eyebrow was raised when, in a series of leaks, it “became known”, as we say, that Johnson strongly favoured gifting these two key roles to his old Fleet Street friends and colleagues.
Johnson wanted the former editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, to run Ofcom, which—in addition to its multiple other responsibilities—regulates the BBC. (Johnson made a personal approach over a “rather sad bottle of wine,” according to Dacre.) And he wanted his former Spectator and Telegraph colleague, Charles Moore, to chair the BBC. And—through anonymous briefings—he was not shy of letting both these wishes be widely circulated.
Why does this mode of operation matter? Because the very act of leaking the preferred candidate deterred other, more capable, candidates from even applying.
I recall bumping into a supremely well-qualified figure around this time. He had spent a lifetime in broadcasting; had extensive experience of chairing large and complex organisations and had a nuanced and informed view of public service broadcasting. On paper, he was much more qualified than the man who eventually got to chair the Beeb.
“Will you put your hat into the ring for the BBC job?” I asked. “No chance,” he replied. He’d once naively applied for a role in a similar situation where the process had effectively been rigged to favour a preferred candidate. His interest in that job had duly been leaked to a government-friendly newspaper which compliantly rubbished him.
Why, he asked, would you put yourself through such pain when there was almost zero chance of succeeding?
He was not the only one. Another veteran editorial figure who would have been supremely qualified for either job told me he wouldn’t go near them.
This tactic of publicly anointing before appointing did not go unnoticed by the commissioner then overseeing the way public jobs were handed out, Peter Riddell. As he stepped down in the autumn of 2021 he said of the anonymous briefings favouring Dacre and Moore: “This infuriates me and infuriates those operating the system… [it] deters good candidates from applying. It’s the chilling effect which really concerns me.” In reference to Ofcom he said: “I think only nine candidates applied, that’s extraordinarily low.”
Nine! Deliberately deterring well-qualified candidates from applying for important public roles is certainly seedy, if not scandalous. But Johnson’s cavalier choices still had to stumble through some sort of “proper” process to get over the finishing line.
That process finished off Dacre, who was deemed unappointable… but not so unappointable as to deter unnamed ministers from doing their best to rig the system to give him a second tilt at the job. (A 79-year-old Conservative peer, Lord Grade, a frequent critic of the BBC, eventually landed the Ofcom role after a chaotic two-year “search”. Dacre is reported to be in line for a peerage by way of compensation.)
Meanwhile, over at the BBC, the quasi-rigged process was also faltering. Charles Moore, a talented editor and always-provocative columnist—as well as a staunch defender of his old friend Boris through thick and thin—should in truth never have been considered for the role of chair, having been convicted in Hastings magistrates court in 2010 for refusing, on principal, to pay the BBC licence fee. He was fined £262, with £530 costs. It would have been like appointing a convicted hunt saboteur to chair the Countryside Alliance.
Nevertheless, reporting in late September and early October 2020, the Sunday Times alleged that the appointment of Moore was “virtually a done deal” after six weeks of wrangling over pay and conditions. Whether sad bottles of wine were involved is not known. Applications for the role, let it be noted, did not close until 11th November. Which was just as well, as Moore was reportedly unable to agree terms with whoever he was negotiating with, and pulled out of the one-horse race.
Another horse had to be found, and by 22nd October friendly journalists were being briefed by Downing Street that another friend of Johnson’s—one Richard Sharp—was the preferred candidate. Once again, the leak had the desired effect. The next day two other prominent candidates were reported to have ruled themselves out. The field was left clear for Boris’s horse (also, coincidentally, Rishi Sunak’s former boss. Small world).
ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, reported on 19th November 2020 that would-be applicants were being told by ministers: “Don’t waste your time applying, the PM has made up his mind it will be Richard Sharp.”
“Candidates, who are better qualified than Sharp, have concluded there is no point putting themselves forward,” wrote Nick Cohen in the Spectator on 3rd November—with a week still to go before the final date for applications. “Who, after all, goes for a job when they know the selection is preordained?
“The interviews are not an honest attempt to find the best man or woman, but a sham. If you apply, you waste your time preparing, and then suffer the humiliation of a public rejection in a contest you never had a chance of winning in the first place. It is worse than not applying at all, not least because you have been conned into adding the appearance of propriety to a seedy enterprise.”
It was around this time, according to the Sunday Times, that the anointed candidate, Sharp, offered to help Johnson out of the financial hole in which he found himself. In early December—more than six weeks after applying for the BBC job—he personally visited Downing Street to suggest a solution to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case. Sharp says he feels “comfortable” there was no conflict of interest involved.
So far, so seedy. And then comes the entirely proper bit.
Sharp—together with such candidates as had not been deterred by the advance briefing—did have to submit to a sifting and interview process, which he evidently negotiated well.
Sharp himself is convinced that he was appointed on merit. “It was a highly rigorous process” he told the BBC yesterday. “Very tough interview, a very tough process to be part of.… they were asking very searching and challenging questions.” The government insists he was appointed on merit—which may be true if you discount all those who didn’t think it was worth applying.
The make-up of the final interview panel suggests that it would not be confused with the Spanish Inquisition. The Guardian reported this week that the members included a Conservative party donor and prospective MP, as well as the wife of the former chair of the Spectator who worked with Boris Johnson when he edited the magazine.
It is difficult to ignore Sharp’s political associations or donations (more than £400k to the Tories) since he insisted on being on the selection panel to appoint the corporation’s head of news and has publicly accused the organisation he leads of having a liberal bias.
Nevertheless, Riddell has in the past defended this element of the process: “I am confident the panel used the published criteria for the role to assess each candidate fairly,” he wrote to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in January 2021—while also asking politicians to keep “their views to themselves” in future.
Now the present commissioner for public appointments, William Shawcross, will review the case. Will he look narrowly at the “proper” final bit of the process, or will he pan back and look at the seedy context?
The smart money will be on Shawcross (himself Boris Johnson’s “preferred candidate”) deciding everything was above board.
Nick Cohen, writing in November 2020, saw it differently: “The best way to understand contemporary Britain is to stop thinking of it as a liberal democracy. If we lived in Russia, Hungary or Venezuela we would have few problems in understanding the manoeuvrings around the BBC. The governing clique wants the state broadcaster to be run by a fellow traveller, who has paid his dues by giving it money, and shown a willingness to conform by subscribing to its ideology. What else do you expect?”