Richard Sharpe, the BBC chairman, insisted his only role in giving Boris Johnson a loan shortly before he took the job was to “ensure that due process was followed”, as he faced sometimes brutal questioning from MPs.
Sharpe, who said he personally told Johnson as well as Rishi Sunak, the chancellor at the time, that he would go for a job at the BBC before applying, was accused by an MP of explaining the establishment’s culture of “friends appointing friends”. .
Appearing before the culture, media and sport committee, Sharpe repeatedly refused to express regret for not telling a hearing before the same committee’s appointment about his role in facilitating a reported £800,000 loan facility for Johnson, who was ultimately responsible for his selection. .
Sharp said only that he regretted “the situation” and “the distraction” and that he did not want to overshadow the BBC’s work.
The former banker was summoned by the commission after it emerged that shortly before applying for a role at the BBC he had helped his friend Sam Blyth, a Canadian businessman who is also a distant cousin of Johnson’s, who wanted to help the prime minister financially.
Sharp explained that Blyth was at a private dinner at his home in September 2020 when the Canadian said he had read reports that Johnson was having “some difficulties” and wanted to help. Sharpe said he warned his friend about the moral complexity of this.
Sharpe was working in Downing Street at the time on Covid projects and told both Johnson and Sunak of his aim to be BBC chairman before applying for the job in November.
“Towards the end of November I got a call from Mr Blyth saying he was interested in exploring with the cabinet office what he could do just to help his cousin,” Sharp said.
As he worked in the same office building as Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, Sharp said, he put this suggestion to Case, also mentioning that he was in the running to be chairman of the BBC.
Under intense questioning, Sharp insisted that he believed this conversation with Case, at which no one else was present, cleared him of any perceived conflict of interest regarding the BBC application, and so he never mentioned it at the hearing.
“My involvement was to ensure that due process was followed. I was not involved in any subsequent events that took place. I did not give any financial advice to the prime minister,” he said.
“Having met with Mr Case on this particular matter and having discussed the BBC’s application and that Case raised issues to ensure that there was no conflict or perception of conflict, I did not raise that with this committee,” Sharpe said. .
“I had raised the issue of my application to the BBC specifically [Case]. 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 Mr Blyth was going to come up with was entirely hypothetical. I was comforted by this conversation.”
One committee member, the SNP’s John Nicolson, told Sharp that the overall impression was “a bit of a banana republic”. Nicolson said: “I think it leaves the impression that a lot of it is deeply entrenched. It’s friends appointing friends, donating money to friends.”
Asked if he understood how angry BBC staff were, Sharp said: “I’m sorry for the distraction it’s caused, there’s no doubt about it. And it certainly bothers me that all the terrible things the BBC is doing should somehow be overshadowed by that.”
Sharp said he had given the subject of Blyth’s attempt to rescue Johnson, and his role in it, off the table: “Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it at all until a few weeks ago when I got a call from a reporter.”
William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, was tasked with looking into how Sharp became chairman of the BBC. However, since he had to withdraw from the process, he said the pair had met several times.