“I have never given Boris Johnson financial advice and know nothing about his affairs,” BBC Chair Richard Sharp declared this morning repeatedly of his relationship with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Sharp also revealed he was working in Johnson’s Downing Street Home in the months leading up to applying for the BBC Chair role.
Sharp was pushed repeatedly by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) on the way in which he is reported to have helped facilitate a circa-£800,000 ($960,000) loan for Johnson via their mutual associate Sam Blyth, who is Johnson’s distant cousin and an old friend of Sharp’s. Reports emerged late last month that Sharp helped facilitate the loan just prior to his appointment as BBC Chair. Blyth is acting as guarantor of the loan.
Under stringent questioning this morning, he strenuously denied that he had done anything else apart from connect Johnson with Blyth following a request from Blyth at a private dinner. Sharp reported this soon afterwards to UK Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, he said on several occasions today.
The Sunday Times has reported that a memo from Case to Johnson asked Johnson to stop seeking Sharp’s financial advice but Sharp denied he knew anything of the former PM’s finances and stressed he did not deliver advice.
“This is an ambiguous construction,” said Sharp of the memo. “I have never given Mr Johnson financial advice. I know nothing about his [financial] affairs. This was to protect my position and protect his.”
He added that the memo may have “referred to the fact that efforts were being made to prevent me from receiving calls from the Prime Minister” – the man who rubberstamps the BBC Chair appointment.
“I was comfortable in my mind that the Prime Minister knew me and the action I was making was putting his cousin in touch with the Cabinet Secretary,” he said.
Sharp said he will not resign and criticized the press for “containing significant inaccuracies” in its reporting, inaccuracies that have “no doubt had an impact on people at the BBC.”
Some of these inaccuracies have been “repeated by BBC” journalists, he added, although he praised UK investigate journalism for being “one of the things that makes this country great.”
He was also put under pressure over a private dinner at Johnson’s Chequers residence several months later with Blyth and Johnson present – once he had been appointed chair – and said financing did not come up. At this point, he said he did lobby Johnson to try and ensure the BBC received a good license fee settlement.
Blyth refers to Johnson by his old family nickname ‘Al’, Sharp said, while Sharp calls him ‘Boris’.
The brouhaha was taking place in the summer of 2020 and Sharp was appointed BBC Chair shortly afterwards.
Given that he was applying to be BBC Chair at the time, Committee Chair Damian Green questioned why Sharp didn’t tell Blyth “that because you were applying for this job that the Prime Minster would appoint, you could not be involved.”
Sharp was repeatedly criticized this morning by the committee for failing to disclose his meeting with Blyth and for arranging Blyth’s meeting with Johnson over the loan. Committee members pointed out he was appointed by the government and that appointment is contingent on his disclosing anything that may embarrass or bring the corporation into disrepute.
Sharp defended himself by saying that he had “explicitly addressed the issue of my candidature” during a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Case, at which point he recused himself from the matter.
“In talking to [Case] I was talking to the most senior civil servant in the land,” Sharp said. He was forced to repeat himself on the point several times under questioning from the Committee this morning and stressed the nature of the “open declaration” with Case.
Later, he said there were “facts I have shared with [the committee today] that you weren’t aware of and I have heard loud and clear that this committee wish they were aware of it.”
The BBC Board and UK’s Commissioner of Public Appointments are both probing the matter and Sharp said this is “appropriate to reassure the BBC.”
Downing Street residence
Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs Banker and former adviser to now Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, also revealed that he had been working in Johnson’s Downing Street home shortly before he applied to be BBC Chair.
He had been advising on the government’s Film & TV Production Restart Scheme and Cultural Recovery Fund and said this gave him media experience that led friends to tell him to apply for the Chair role.
“It was clear to me that the bulk of the work I had to do [in Downing Street] was done and I was interested to submit an application [to the BBC],” said Sharp.
Questioned on whether he regrets what has happened, Sharp told Committee chair Green he will “continue to consider the actions I took” but “[Green] can form your own judgement” on whether he regrets putting Blyth in touch with Case.
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