BBC chairman Richard Sharp has offered no apology for his part in securing an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, shortly before being recommended by the former prime minister for his job.
Appearing in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the media boss said he regretted the “embarrassment” caused to his employer since it was revealed he introduced Canadian businessman – and distant cousin of Mr Johnson – Sam Blyth to the head of the civil service, Simon Case, to discuss the fund back in 2020.
But despite almost two hours of questioning, Mr Sharp continued to insist he had not “facilitated” any money changing hands in the weeks before his appointment was announced in February 2021, nor gained from it, saying he had instead “ensured due process was followed “.
The saga has caused more trouble for the Conservative Party after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to put “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at the center of his government.
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Asked about Mr Sharp’s remarks after the committee, Mr Sunak said the chairman was appointed by his predecessor “so it is hard for me to comment on the details of it”.
But, he added: “What I do know is that his appointment process was conducted rigorously and transparently.
“It was approved by a panel of experts and indeed, a cross-party select committee in parliament.
“But it is right that people have confidence in the process and that’s why the independent commissioner on public appointments is re-looking at the process to make sure that everything was done correctly.”
‘By the book’
During the grilling by MPs of all stripes, Mr Sharp described the timeline of events, saying he met his friend Mr Blyth back in September 2020 for dinner and he was the businessman who raised the widely reported “difficulties” Mr Johnson was facing with his finances .
Mr Sharp, who was working as an advisor in the Treasury at the time, said he told the businessman to go via the Cabinet Office if he wanted to help his relative, adding: “You may be a family member but you need to be careful – things need to be done by the book”.
The following month, Mr Sharp decided to apply for the BBC role and admitted he met Mr Johnson to tell him of his plan to go for the post.
But he denied to the committee that he raised Mr Blyth’s offer of financial assistance with the then PM, saying the pair’s relationship was “broadly professional”.
Mr Sharp said his friend had not mentioned the monetary help again until a phone call in November – shortly after Mr Sharp had put in his application in with the BBC – and in December he gave his number to Mr Case.
“I raised with Mr Blyth the fact I had submitted my application to be the chair of the BBC,” he said. “And therefore, to avoid a conflict or perception of conflict, I could have, we agreed, no further participation in whatever transpired whatever – and I didn’t.”
The chairman continued to insist he was “not party to anything that did happen or didn’t happen” after the introduction, and had raised his application with Mr Case as well.
But members of the committee were still perplexed as to why he had not mentioned the situation when he faced their scrutiny ahead of his appointment at the BBC.
The SNP’s John Nicolson also said it left the impression “so much of this is deeply establishment”, adding: “It is pals appointing pals, donating money to pals… it is all a bit banana republic and cozy.”
But Mr Sharp said: “The answer is having had the meeting with Mr Case… and having discussed the BBC application and that Mr Case put in place [measures] to ensure there was no conflict or perception of conflict, I did not raise it with this committee.
“I took comfort from the meeting with Mr Case.”
Labor MP Kevin Brennan was less comfortable, however, saying: “I don’t think that is good enough in what is expected as you as a candidate.”
‘I gave no financial advice’
Mr Sharp continued to insist he had never given Mr Johnson any financial advice either, despite reports Mr Case had to tell Mr Johnson to stop asking for it in January 2021.
And while he “regrets the situation”, he was “not party to any subsequent events that took place”.
“I gave no financial advice to the prime minister [and] I gave no financial advice to Mr Blyth,” he added.
Appearing to give him a last chance to apologize, committee chair and Tory MP Damien Green, said: “You took an action that would make the prime minister very personally grateful to you while you were applying for a sensitive job which was in his gift and you didn’t tell anybody about this.
“Being as charitable as possible, wasn’t that an error of judgement?
After a long pause, Mr Sharp said: “What I undertook was to ensure that good process was followed. As far as I was concerned, the action I was doing was to put his cousin in touch with the cabinet secretary and that is as far as it went.”
Asked if he would do the same again, the chairman continued: “Well, obviously, I have had a lot of time to consider in the last few weeks my participation in this in seeking to ensure all rules were followed and I wish we weren’ t where we are now.”
And after another pause, he added: “I think I will continue to consider the actions that I took. What I do know is I acted in good faith to ensure that rules were followed and in that sense I have no regret from that.
“I clearly underestimated the way things could be seen, particularly in light of when they were described with facts that weren’t true… I simply put Mr Blyth together with Mr Case… but clearly I could have said to him. ..find your own way to Mr Case.”
And did the BBC chairman wish he had done that? he was asked. “You can form your own judgment on that,” said Mr Sharp.