(CN) — The chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, announced his resignation Friday morning after months of controversy that have brought the British national broadcaster’s neutrality into dispute.
Sharp's resignation follows the completion of an investigation which found that he had created a “perceived conflict of interest” by withholding information about a private financial arrangement he had apparently set up for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his appointment process.
Accepting the findings of the investigation, Sharp said, “I would like once again to apologize for that oversight – inadvertent though it was – and for the distraction these events have caused the BBC.”
Sharp was appointed to the role of chairman, giving him the responsibility of maintaining the political independence of the BBC, back in February 2021. The appointment was formally made by the late Queen Elizabeth II, but on the advice of Johnson, who was prime minister at the time.
The appointment was controversial at the time, as Sharp was a significant donor to the ruling Conservative Party. In addition, he had previously been an adviser to Johnson during the latter’s tenure as mayor of London, and was also current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s boss when they worked together at Goldman Sachs. Sharp's appointment followed the rise of Tim Davie – a former Conservative parliamentary candidate – to the position of director-general, responsible for day-to-day management of the organization.
But controversy turned to scandal in January this year when it was revealed that Sharp had contributed to organizing an 800,000 pound ($997,332) loan to help with Johnson’s personal finances, just weeks before he was appointed to the BBC role on Johnson’s advice. Sharp had not disclosed this information during the appointment process.
Sharp was questioned about the loan in a cross-party parliamentary committee hearing last February, claiming that he had “no knowledge of the actual loan” and was merely an intermediary in the transaction, believing this would shield him from any potential conflict of interest.
However, parliamentarians strongly criticized his failure to disclose his role in the loan.
“Richard Sharp chose not to tell either the appointment panel or our committee about his involvement in the facilitation of a loan to Boris Johnson," according to a report published after the hearing. "Such a significant error of judgment meant we were not in the full possession of the facts when we were required to rule on his suitability for the role of BBC chairman.”
The BBC is publicly funded by a license fee, payment of which is required by law to watch television in the United Kingdom. As a result, it is expected to follow strict rules of impartiality when it comes to its current affairs and political reporting. The perception that the BBC is partial towards the government undermines consent for the organization, and BBC employees were widely reported to be privately furious about the Sharp fiasco.
That private fury turned into public mutiny last month, when the BBC’s highest-paid star Gary Lineker – a former England football captain turned sports presenter – was suspended after tweeting criticism of the government’s divisive refugee policy. The decision appeared at odds with a range of other examples of BBC employees publicly taking political positions, and furthered the perception that BBC management was being influenced by the Conservative Party.
Reaction to the Lineker suspension was fierce, with virtually the entirety of BBC Sport’s workforce boycotting production of the broadcaster’s sports coverage until the football pundit was reinstated, resulting in significant disruption to programming. Ultimately, Lineker was reinstated, with the BBC apologizing for the crisis the suspension had caused.
The row severely weakened the already embattled leadership of the BBC. Exposing the extent to which BBC management was forced to cave in to Lineker, the football pundit has continued to tweet critically of the government since his suspension was lifted. On Friday, he chimed in on the subject of Sharp’s resignation “The BBC chairman should not be selected by the government of the day. Not now, not ever.”
Lineker alluded to what is likely to become a highly contentious search for Sharp’s replacement – an increasingly politicized process over the last decade. It is widely reported that the government is considering Robbie Gibb for the position, a decision that is likely to significantly fan the flames of the impartiality crisis.
Gibb is the former communications chief of the Conservative Party, and is widely reported to be intervening on editorial decisions in his current position as a BBC board member. Former BBC News presenter Emily Matlis has previously described Gibb as “an active agent of the Conservative Party.”
Whether the government chooses to back Gibb is likely to be indicative of its determination to influence the BBC’s management, regardless of the broadcaster’s reputation. Opposition parties have lined up to warn Prime Minister Sunak against appointing an ally.
They are joined by the Conservative chair of parliament’s culture committee, Sir Damien Green, who said Friday the reputational damage to Sharp and the BBC could have been avoided if he had been transparent with the committee.
“We hope that lessons have been learnt by all those involved so that future appointments are not clouded in the same way and people can have faith in those chosen for public positions," Green said.
Sharp will remain in his position until June while the search for his successor takes place.
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