No more metropolitan elite dominance, vows new BBC chair, himself excepted | John Crace

Richard Sharp appeared before a blunt Commons committee for what all knew was a mere rubber-stamping exercise

What do you call Rishi Sunak’s former boss at Goldman Sachs, Boris Johnson’s former economic adviser when he was London mayor, a former member of the Bank of England financial policy committee, an unpaid adviser to the chancellor during the coronavirus crisis and a man who has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative party over the past 20 years? As of April, you will be calling him the new chair of the BBC.

So it was understandable that these connections dominated the early exchanges of Richard Sharp’s pre-appointment appearance before the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. The ever urbane Sharp professed himself to be rather nonplussed by all the attention. He was sorry news of his appointment had been leaked early, but what could you do when your new job was overtly political and you were surrounded by gabby government ministers?

All he had done was spot an advert for “BBC chair” in his local jobcentre and fill in the online application. Just as he had done once before, when he had received a thanks-but-no-thanks automatic email reply. No one had been more surprised than him when he had been invited in for an interview and then offered the job. And yes, it was true that he and the new director general, Tim Davie, were both natural Conservatives – though Sharp observed he had never actually joined the party – but that only evened things up from when Labour installed its own favourites. And no, it was of no concern that neither of them had any editorial experience. Rather it should be seen as a positive as they would bring fresh pairs of eyes to some of the Beeb’s long-running problems. In any case he was donating his £150,000 salary to charity.

“You’re a Brexiteer,” observed the Tory chair of the committee, Julian Knight. “People say I’m a Brexiteer,” Sharp corrected him. Whether this reticence for full disclosure was a desire to appear apolitical or buyer’s remorse was never made clear. But Knight persevered regardless. What had he thought of the BBC’s coverage of the Brexit debate? Sharp had known this question was coming ever since his appointment had been announced and eased himself into a pre-cooked answer. There had been confirmation bias on both sides. Brexiters had thought the Beeb too remainy, and remainers had thought it had been too Brexity. So it had probably got the balance about right. Apart from on Question Time, which had been packed with remoaners.

Questions over the rigour of the BBC recruitment process continued with the SNP’s John Nicolson, who couldn’t help wondering if it hadn’t all been just a little too cosy and unrepresentative. There had been someone senior on the board of Tesco on the panel, Sharp reminded him. It had been extremely thorough, and he had felt rigorously challenged throughout. And it wasn’t true that he only gave to Conservative charities: he also donated to a couple set up by Labour MPs.

For the most part, Sharp was the epitome of smoothness. Years at the very top of the corporate ladder have taught him how to deflect most hostile questions and the only time he looked slightly rattled was when pressed on the depth of his involvement with the right-of-centre thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), founded by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Still, sometimes the art of a job interview lies in not answering the difficult question, and we never did learn just how close his ties to the CPS were. Other than they were probably closer than he cared to admit.

Other than that, the committee proceeded much along the lines for which he had prepared. In fact he made it look a doddle. He went out of his way to say how much he had always loved the BBC – Andy Pandy, Tomorrow’s World and Fleabag all got name checked – and how he was committed to diversity (no more dominance of the metropolitan elite, himself excepted), transparency, equality of pay, local and community broadcasting and dealing with the threats posed by online streaming services. “Do you know what Dude Perfect is?” asked the down-with-the-kids Steve Brine.

“Er, no,” said Sharp.

“Well that’s what you’re up against,” Brine added triumphantly, leaving even his fellow committee members confused.

Except it wasn’t really. What he was really up against was a committee going through the motions of rubber-stamping his appointment. He knew that and so did the MPs, who were mostly relieved not to be having to approve George Osborne or Charles Moore, who had previously been tipped for the job. By the end Sharp did allow himself to say he thought the licence fee was the least worst funding model, which was the closest he came to committing news. Meet the new boss. Much the same as the old boss.

It was all a great deal chummier than the hour George Eustice, the environment secretary, had spent earlier in the day answering an urgent question on the post-Brexit fishing arrangements in the Commons. It wasn’t just the SNP MPs who were on his back about the amount of red tape, low quotas, unsaleable fish and boats tied up in ports. Eustice was also facing a full-on rebellion from Tory MPs with coastal constituencies in Great Britain. They were so angry they didn’t even resort to the fish puns that had punctuated previous debate. Time and plaice and all that.

This wasn’t his finest hour. First he tried to claim that when the fisheries minister, Victoria Prentis, had said she hadn’t bothered to read the trade agreement on fish because she had been busy preparing a nativity trail, what she had really meant was that she was so across all the detail she hadn’t needed to read it. Mmm. Then he kept referring to every concern as just five-year “teething problems” while spending the £100m Boris Johnson had promised to fishing fleets several times over.

No one believed him. Not even himself. By the time the urgent question was over, Eustice was prepared to throw himself overboard. Along with anyone else who got in his way.

Contributor

John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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