Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Cosy Politics of the BBC Chair

The appointment of Tory donor and right-wing think-tanker Richard Sharp as BBC Chair strengthens the party's grip on the broadcaster – and continues a long history of political concerns trumping the public interest.

After watching parliament’s pre-appointment hearing with the new Chair of the BBC, some may wonder if MPs accidentally invited the wrong Richard Sharp. Since he was announced as the government’s preferred candidate last week, the details of Sharp’s background have met every requirement on the jobs-for-the-boys checklist: Oxbridge graduate, Conservative Party mega-donor, board member of a Thatcherite think-tank and lifelong City banker with no experience of journalism.

Yet right-wing ideologues will have been disappointed hearing Boris Johnson’s chosen Chair say he is ‘absolutely committed to the importance of public service broadcasting’ and plans to promote greater ethnic minority representation in the BBC’s staff and programming. In a blow to the #DefundTheBBC crowd, Sharp even declared he opposes the slipshod Tory plans to decriminalise the licence fee, which would effectively replace the BBC’s public funding with subscription by stealth.

The Problem with the Least Worst Option

So has Richard Sharp signalled a ceasefire in the war on the BBC? Hardly. His boilerplate comments on funding reform, free-to-air sports, and BBC bias have grabbed a few predictable headlines, but his real impact as Chair will be in further weakening what’s left of the BBC’s fragile independence and exposing it to greater political interference from government.

The damage began with the campaign of anonymous briefings and doom-bearing leaks that preceded Sharp’s appointment. From the moment David Clementi announced he was stepping down, we were treated to an alarming parade of potential candidates to take charge of the BBC’s governing board. First was Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph editor who has described the licence fee as ‘the single greatest wrong on which the BBC rests’. Next was George Osborne, who as Chancellor orchestrated swingeing cuts to the BBC’s funding in 2010 and 2015. Speculation around other figures such as Robbie Gibb (architect of the Fox News-style GB News) and former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan made clear the government’s intention to cement their influence at the top of the BBC.

Against this longlist of Conservative insiders and anti-BBC diehards, and with ministers posturing for ‘a strong, big person who can hold the BBC to account’, culture secretary Oliver Dowden reassures us that Richard Sharp embodies a notably softer sounding ‘passion for culture and public service’. However intense these passions are, Sharp’s intimate ties with government power, the corporate elite, and conservative politics mark him as anything but a ‘safe pair of hands’ for the BBC.

The growing perception that Sharp is the least worst option fits neatly in this recent trend of warped BBC-government relations. Threats of aggressive government reforms—like forcing the BBC to cancel Strictly Come Dancing or explicitly banning ‘left-wing bias’ in programmes—are shelved in place of ‘moderate compromises’ that infringe on the BBC’s public service mission in far more subtle (though no less damaging) ways. Having faced the glum prospect of dogma and destruction from Boris Johnson’s old boss at the Daily Telegraph, we are expected to feel grateful that the BBC will instead be chaired by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s old boss at Goldman Sachs.

An Unaccountable, Undemocratic Appointment

Added to this is a deeply flawed and undemocratic appointments process. The power to select the BBC chair belongs exclusively to the government and is subject to the barest public accountability. The only role for parliament is a cursory Select Committee hearing, tasked with merely noting an opinion on Sharp’s suitability. The quality of scrutiny from MPs on Thursday proved he had little to worry about: after humbly announcing he would donate his salary to charitable causes, none of the committee members thought to suggest that Sharp instead reinvest it in the BBC’s public services. Not once in this process were the views of millions of licence fee payers—who will bankroll Sharp’s £160,000 charity pot—nor thousands of BBC staff taken into account.

Opaque and unaccountable government appointments are by no means new to the BBC. Newspaper director Marmaduke Hussey recounted in his memoire how Douglas Hurd, Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, offered him the job over a single private phone call. After a string of commercial media executives and financiers held the post through the 2000s—each with close political connections to the governments of the day—David Cameron appointed Chris Patten (former Conservative MP and party chairman) and then Rona Fairhead to lead the ill-fated BBC Trust. With the Trust scrapped in 2016, Fairhead allegedly lobbied the Prime Minister to stay as head of the reformed BBC Board before being forced out when Theresa May took office.

May’s chosen chair was David Clementi, who hadn’t applied but suspiciously was asked to put his name forward by senior government figures. The appointment was even more dubious given Clementi’s role in the previous year’s BBC Charter Review. Having recommended replacing the Trust and subjecting the BBC to stricter market regulation by Ofcom, Clementi was given command of the commercially-sensitive new governance structures that he had designed on the government’s behalf.

A Pressure Point for Government Interference

This has been the true power of the chair throughout the BBC’s history: shaping the Corporation’s strategic direction and giving governments a pervasive influence over what the BBC can make and do. The Real Lives saga in 1985 saw chairman Stuart Young (brother to a Conservative MP) issue an unprecedented pre-transmission ban on a documentary on Northern Ireland after furious ministers, who had not even seen the programme, condemned the BBC for ‘giving succour to terrorists’.

When Young died in 1986, his successor, Hussey, quickly re-aligned the BBC with the politics of the Thatcher government, and within a year had sacked then director-general Alasdair Milne following another fierce battle over reports on government intelligence. During his decade in office Hussey transformed the BBC’s management and commissioning, instituting the same ideals of market competition and commercial logic that Margaret Thatcher imposed on other public services.

There have been moments when chairs have defended the BBC against government interference, albeit with mixed results. Alexander Cadogan negotiated with Anthony Eden to protect the BBC’s impartiality over its coverage of the 1956 Suez Crisis, and Gavyn Davies (like Sharp, another former Goldman Sachs banker) firmly supported the Today programme’s reporting on the Iraq War ‘dodgy dossiers’—though he and the director-general, Greg Dyke, both resigned after the Hutton Inquiry sided with the government.

The Deeper Need for Reform

Only time will tell what kind of leader Richard Sharp will be. The Guardian quotes one media insider saying ‘whatever you think of bankers, he is very client-friendly, and our biggest client is the government’. This reveals the core flaw in the modern day politics of the BBC Chair: that the role exists as a middleman between a quasi-commercial company and politicians, rather than as a steward of the public interest against politically-motivated meddling.

The next few years hold some major challenges for the BBC and the future of British public service media. A mid-term review and licence fee negotiations in 2022, followed by a full Charter review in 2027, will test the limits of the BBC’s independence and its fundamental purpose. Whether Sharp emerges as a pliant government placeholder, a devotee of public service broadcasting, or an unpredictable radical reformer, his appointment reminds us once again of the deep structural reforms needed to truly democratise the media.

This research is part of the UK component of the Media Influence Matrix, set up to investigate the influence of shifts in policy, funding, and technology on contemporary journalism, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It is due to report in Spring 2021.

About the Author

Tom Chivers is a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also associate lecturer in media, history, and politics.