Watchdog to investigate BBC chair appointment

Simon Case "should have made appointment panel aware" of conversation with Richard Sharp, former commissioner says
William Shawcross. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

24 Jan 2023

The government’s appointments watchdog will investigate the recruitment of BBC chair Richard Sharp amid concerns a conflict of interest was not declared.

Meanwhile, cabinet secretary Simon Case's actions during the process have been questioned by the watchdog's predecessor.

Sharp was picked as BBC chair in early 2021 but claims have emerged in the last few days that he had helped then-prime minister Boris Johnson secure a loan during the appointment process.  

William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, has written to Labour shadow media secretary Lucy Powell to confirm he will review the recruitment process for the role “to ensure it was conducted in line with the governance code for public appointments”.

Powell wrote to Shawcross on Sunday requesting an investigation into the appointment process to “satisfy the public and parliament of its integrity”.

Sharp yesterday ordered a separate BBC investigation to ensure all the appropriate guidelines were followed.

Sharp has said he had put his "old friend" Samuel Blyth in touch with cabinet secretary Simon Case after Blyth had asked him how he could help Johnson financially. He said he met Case separately to discuss Blyth and "reminded" the cab sec that he had applied for the BBC job, and that his involvement ended there.

The Cabinet Office has insisted the correct procedures were followed during the appointment process, while Johnson has called the claims “absolute rubbish”.

Speaking in parliament yesterday, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin said the process for the appointment was “incredibly robust”.

He said Shawcross will “make certain that the process…was absolutely consistent with the government’s rules on these appointments”, while thet BBC’s senior non-executive director will take charge of the corporation’s review.

Case ‘should have made appointment panel aware’

Shawcross’s predecessor, Sir Peter Riddell, said the cabinet secretary could have been more open about what happened.

Case met with Sharp, and separately with Blyth, to discuss the loan arrangement for Johnson. Sharp said he and the cabinet secretary agreed he should have no further involvement in the loan discussions due to the potential conflict of interest.

Shortly afterwards, the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team wrote to Johnson, asking him to stop seeking the soon-to-be BBC chair's advice about his personal finances because of the forthcoming appointment.

Riddell, who was the public appointments commissioner during the recruitment for the role, told Times Radio that Case should have told the advisory panel for the appointment, which included DCMS permanent secretary Sarah Healey, what he knew about the loan.

“I certain think that he… I think probably he should have made it aware to the relevant colleagues chairing the panel,” Riddle said.

Riddell also told the Guardian that while he was happy with how the process was run at the time, his successor’s decision to review the process is “quite right” given the new information that has come to light.

The former commissioner scrutinised the process closely, “partly because at the very beginning of the process No.10 had leaked a preferred name, Charles Moore, who then withdrew and then they indicated that Richard Sharp was a preferred candidate," he told Channel 4.

“I was quite angry about this because it implied that the whole thing was pre-set from the start. So I sought assurances from DCMS that there would be a properly robust and independent competition and I took a close interest in it,” he added.

Riddell said his inquiries into the process left him "pretty happy that there was a robust process, in which conflicts of interest, as far as we knew them, and I emphasise that, were addressed”.

He also said Sharp should have let the panel know about the potential conflict of interest.

“I would hope, even though Richard Sharp says there was no conflict of interest, the mere fact that he’d been involved in discussions about that at an early stage, of putting people in touch…I think it would have been desirable that that be declared," he said. "Because I’d bend over backwards. Even if that’s not the letter of the code, it’s much better to be much more open about what you declare.”

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