A word of advice for anyone who has worked hard to acquire a reputation they cherish: if Boris Johnson approaches, if he comes anywhere near, run a mile. Richard Sharp is the latest proof that, even out of office, Johnson continues to act as reputational napalm, laying waste careers and turning good names bad.
Sharp joins a long list that includes Christopher Geidt, who had the poison task of serving as Johnson’s adviser on ethics; Allegra Stratton, whom the former prime minister said had “sickened” him when she joked about a party in Downing Street, even though he had attended several himself; and the one-time rising star civil servant and current cabinet secretary, Simon Case, quoted this week as having said of Johnson, “I don’t know what more I can do to stand up to a prime minister who lies”. Each entered Johnson’s circle as a respected figure; each was diminished by their contact with the reverse Midas, the man who rots everything he touches.
One question left by Sharp’s resignation as chair of the BBC is: what took him so long? He hardly needed to wait for today’s report by Adam Heppinstall KC, with its verdict that Sharp’s failure to disclose his role in brokering an £800,000 loan arrangement for Johnson represented “a breach of the governance code”, to know that he could not possibly continue in a job whose defining duty is to maintain the independence of the BBC. As the former director general John Birt said a month ago, Sharp was “unsuitable” for the role, thanks to “navigating a loan for the prime minister at exactly the same time as applying for the job at the BBC. It’s the cosiness of that arrangement that made it unsuitable, and I wish the cabinet secretary had called it out.” (The cabinet secretary being Case, serially Midased by Johnson.)
According to those inside the BBC, Sharp had been a capable chair. But the manner of his appointment meant he could never do the job properly. Witness last month’s row over Gary Lineker’s tweet, aimed at Suella Braverman’s language on migrants. That was a moment when you might expect the chair to lead from the front, publicly explaining either why impartiality is central to the BBC’s mission or why it was vital that the BBC not succumb to government pressure – or both. Instead, Sharp was mute and invisible, too hopelessly compromised as the man who had helped bail out a fiscally incontinent Tory prime minister to say a word.
It’s baffling that all of this did not occur to Sharp himself long ago – including right at the start, when he submitted his job application and was required to identify any conflicts, or perceived conflicts, of interest. The fact that he didn’t mention his role in the Johnson loan, even though he had discussed the issue with Case, suggests he knew that it looked bad – that it would give rise to the “perception that Mr Sharp would not be independent from the former prime minister, if appointed,” as Heppinstall puts it. Given he knew the importance of perceived, as well as actual, neutrality for the BBC, that silence was itself disqualifying.
‘Many have been diminished by their contact with Boris Johnson the reverse Midas, the man who rots everything he touches.’ Photograph: Charles McQuillan/PA
His grudging resignation statement suggests the penny has still not dropped. Dominic Raab may have started a fashion for passive-aggressive Friday departures, because Sharp was insistent that his breach of the rules was “inadvertent and not material”. Still, he invited our admiration for his decision “to prioritise the interests of the BBC” since “this matter may well be a distraction from the corporation’s good work were I to remain in post”. Er, yes, just a bit. Again, if preventing a distraction was Sharp’s concern, he should have gone the moment this story broke. As it is, he’s left multiple questions still to answer – including whether Johnson should not have recused himself from the appointment process on the grounds that he had an egregious conflict of interest, given that he knew Sharp had helped him out with the loan.
What’s needed now is not just a new BBC chair, but a new way of doing things. Even if he hadn’t got involved in Johnson’s personal finances, Sharp was hardly a non-partisan figure. He is a longtime, high-value donor to the Tory party, to the tune of £400,000. True, political parties, Labour included, have been appointing allies and chums to this role since the 1960s, but that practice needs to stop. Lineker distilled the case nicely: “The BBC chairman should not be selected by the government of the day. Not now, not ever.”
This goes wider than the BBC: there’s a slew of public jobs that might appear to be independently appointed, but that are quietly filled on the nod, or whim, of Downing Street. But it’s with the BBC that independence matters acutely. To understand why, look across the Atlantic.
This week’s announcement by Joe Biden that he will seek a second term had to fight for media attention with the firing of Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson. That’s because Carlson had become second only to Donald Trump in influence over the Republican party, able to make senior elected officials and aspirant presidential candidates bend to his agenda and ideological obsessions – even when mainstreaming previously fringe, and racist, ideas like the “great replacement theory”, with its claim of a deliberate, if shadowy, plot to replace white Americans with a more diverse and pliant electorate.
Fox News itself, with its repeated amplification of the big lie of a stolen election, is partly responsible for why nearly two-thirds of Republican voters do not believe a demonstrable fact: namely, that Biden won office in a free and fair contest in 2020. Today’s America is a land of epistemic tribalism: knowledge is not shared across the society, but rather dependent on political affiliation. There are red state facts and blue state facts, and which you believe comes down to which media you consume – which social media accounts you follow, which TV networks you watch.
In Britain, there have been efforts to lead us down that gloomy path. There are partisan, polemical TV channels now, desperate to do to Britain what Fox has done to America. And Johnson was Trumpian in his contempt for the truth, determined to create a world of Brexit facts that would exist in opposition to the real one. But if those efforts have largely failed – and if Johnson was eventually undone by his lies – that is partly down to the stubborn persistence in this country of a source of information that is regarded by most people as, yes, flawed and, yes, inconsistent, but broadly reliable and fair. Trust levels in the BBC are not what they were, and that demands urgent attention, but it is striking nonetheless that, according to a Reuters Institute study, aside from local news, BBC News is the most trusted news brand in the US. It seems that in an intensely polarised landscape, people thirst for a non-partisan source.
The BBC should be defended – and that process starts with governments treating it as the publicly funded broadcaster it is, rather than the state broadcaster some wrongly imagine it to be. That means giving up the power to pick its boss – and getting politicians out of the way. The BBC is a precious thing – so precious, we might not fully appreciate it until it’s gone.