BBC chief Richard Sharp quits over Boris Johnson loan scandal

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A screen inside BBC headquarters broadcasts a statement by Richard Sharp following his resignation, in London [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Richard Sharp, outgoing chair of the national broadcaster, is a former Goldman Sachs banker and Conservative Party donor.

The chairman of the BBC has quit after a report found that he failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest over his role in arranging a loan for Boris Johnson.

The publicly funded national broadcaster has been under political pressure after it was revealed that Richard Sharp helped arrange the line of credit for the former prime minister in early 2021 – weeks before he was appointed to the BBC post on the government’s recommendation.

The guarantor for the 800,000-pound ($1m) line of credit was businessman Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Johnson’s who founded a chain of private schools in Canada.

The deal was facilitated by Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker and Conservative Party donor, who arranged a meeting between Blyth and the UK’s top civil servant to discuss Blyth’s offer of financial help.

Johnson was then the Conservative Party leader as well as the United Kingdom’s prime minister.

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from London, said the scandal is a “big blow” to the BBC’s credibility.

“It is regarded as a fine, fair, and impartial institution,” he said. “Journalists feel quite low about it … This isn’t over yet, it is not going to end with the resignation of Sharp.”

A report on the episode by senior lawyer Adam Heppinstall published on Friday found Sharp “failed to disclose potential perceived conflicts of interest”.

“There is a risk of a perception that Mr. Sharp was recommended for appointment because he assisted … the former prime minister in a private financial matter,” Heppinstall wrote in his report.

“There may well have been a risk of a perception that Mr. Sharp would not be independent from the former prime minister, if appointed,” he said.

Sharp said he would remain in his BBC role until the end of June while the search for a successor takes place.

He said he made an “inadvertent” breach of the disclosure rules and was quitting to “prioritise the interests of the BBC”.

“I feel that this matter may well be a distraction from the corporation’s good work were I to remain in post until the end of my term,” he said.

Sharp is the latest in a string of politicians and officials brought down through their association with Johnson, who became prime minister in 2019 and led the UK out of the European Union the following year.

Johnson was forced to quit last year after a series of scandals over money, ethics and judgement became too much for his Conservative Party colleagues to bear.

Sunak spared difficult decision

Sharp’s resignation spares the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, from having to decide whether to fire him.

Sunak, a former banker who once worked under Sharp at Goldman Sachs, has tried to restore stability to government after three tumultuous years under Johnson and seven roller-coaster weeks under successor Liz Truss, who quit in September after her tax-slashing economic plans caused financial mayhem.

Opposition politicians accused the Conservative government of undermining the BBC’s impartiality, and called for the government to be stripped of the power to appoint BBC chiefs.

“This breach has caused untold damage to the reputation of the BBC and seriously undermined its independence as a result of the Conservatives’ sleaze and cronyism,” Labour Party culture spokeswoman Lucy Powell said.

Sunak declined to comment on Sharp’s potential replacement, saying, “There’s an established appointments process.”

The loan investigation is the latest uncomfortable episode for the 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by an annual 159 pound ($200) licence fee paid by all households with a television and overseen by a board that includes both BBC nominees and government appointees.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA, AP

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