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23 January 2023

Richard Sharp’s letter to BBC staff leaves the essential questions unanswered

The broadcaster’s chairman offers an inconclusive defence of his role in an £800,000 loan guarantee to Boris Johnson.

By Harry Lambert

Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC, has emailed the broadcaster’s staff justifying his role in the provision of a loan of up to £800,000 to Boris Johnson in late 2020, while under consideration to take up his present role. We are posting the letter in full below.

There are a few key points to note. First, Sharp states that he was “not involved in making a loan, or arranging a guarantee, and I did not arrange any financing”. He does, however, admit that he “introduced an old friend of mine… Sam Blyth, to the Cabinet Secretary, as Sam wanted to support Boris Johnson” financially.

Sharp has, in other words, conceded that he set in motion – and arguably facilitated – a loan to Johnson at a time when he had, as Sharp himself puts it, “submitted my application to be Chairman of the BBC” and was in any case “working in Downing Street as a special economic adviser to the Treasury”.

Blyth, Sharp writes, “told me he wanted to explore whether he could assist” Johnson, “having become aware of the financial pressures on the then Prime Minister”. (Sharp does not explain how Blyth became “aware” of Johnson’s financial situation.)

Sharp emphasises that he had “nothing further to do with the matter” and adds that “I don’t know any more than is reported in the media about a loan or reported guarantee”. He is claiming that he has no knowledge of whether Blyth did indeed act as guarantor on the loan to Johnson, as reported (or ease Johnson’s “financial pressures”).

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It is notable in the letter that Sharp refers to Blyth as a “distant cousin” of Johnson. At first he seems to do so in order to justify the appropriateness of his introducing Blyth to Johnson (they were family, after all). Or as he puts it later on, “as a cousin of the then Prime Minister he [Blyth] wanted to help him if possible”. But if Blyth and Johnson are bound by such a familial connection, why did Sharp need to introduce them?

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The letter is also notable for what it omits. Sharp makes no mention of a dinner between Blyth, Johnson and himself held at Chequers. The trio claim that Johnson’s finances were not discussed. Nor does Sharp refer to the letter Johnson reportedly received from the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team in December 2020 requesting that he desist from seeking Sharp’s advice or assistance over his finances, given the ongoing appointment process.

He goes on to regret that this story, first reported by the Sunday Times over the weekend, has proven to be “a distraction for the organisation”. But if you read closely it’s the distraction that he regrets, not anything he did.

“I have never hidden my longstanding relationship with the former Prime Minister,” Sharp continues, although this letter does not actually make any other mention of his relationship with Johnson or the nature of it – it is entirely about the dealings Sharp had with Blyth and with Simon Case, the cabinet secretary.

The final line is perhaps the most telling. Sharp concludes: “I look forward to continuing our work together.” He has, in other words, no intention of resigning over this matter.

———-

Dear all,

You may have seen reporting over the weekend about the nature of my appointment as Chairman of the BBC.

As Chairman of the BBC I have a responsibility to you, and to our audiences, to make sure that the BBC is always held in high regard, and I don’t want this episode to distract from the important work that you are doing. I wanted to write to you directly to set out the facts.

Prior to my appointment, I introduced an old friend of mine – and distant cousin of the then Prime Minister – Sam Blyth, to the Cabinet Secretary, as Sam wanted to support Boris Johnson.

I was not involved in making a loan, or arranging a guarantee, and I did not arrange any financing. What I did do was to seek an introduction of Sam Blyth to the relevant official in Government.

Sam Blyth, who I have known for more than forty years, lives in London and having become aware of the financial pressures on the then Prime Minister, and being a successful entrepreneur, he told me he wanted to explore whether he could assist.

He spoke to me because he trusts me and wanted to check with me what the right way to go about this could be. I told him that this was a sensitive area in any event, particularly so as Sam is a Canadian, and that he should seek to have the Cabinet Office involved and have the Cabinet Secretary advise on appropriateness and indeed whether any financial support Sam might wish to provide was possible. Accordingly Sam asked me whether I would connect him with the Cabinet Secretary.

At the time I was working in Downing Street as a special economic adviser to the Treasury during the pandemic, and I had submitted my application to be Chairman of the BBC. I went to see the Cabinet Secretary and explained who Sam was, and that as a cousin of the then Prime Minister he wanted to help him if possible. I also reminded the Cabinet Secretary that I had submitted my application for the position of BBC Chairman. We both agreed that to avoid any conflict that I should have nothing further to do with the matter. At that point there was no detail on the proposed arrangements and I had no knowledge of whether any assistance was possible, or could be agreed.

Since that meeting I have had no involvement whatsoever with any process. Even now, I don’t know any more than is reported in the media about a loan or reported guarantee.

I am now aware that the Cabinet Office have a note of this meeting, and that this included advice to the Prime Minister that I should not be involved, to avoid any conflict or appearance of conflict with my BBC application. 

The Cabinet Office have confirmed that the recruitment process was followed appropriately and that I was appointed on merit, in a process which was independently monitored. Moreover they have confirmed that they gave advice at the time that I should have no involvement whatsoever in any process which might or might not take place, precisely to avoid a conflict or perception of a conflict of interest.

This matter, although it took place before I joined the BBC, is a distraction for the organisation, which I regret. I’m really sorry about it all. 

I am proud and honoured to have been appointed as the Chairman of the BBC. I have never hidden my longstanding relationship with the former Prime Minister, however I believe firmly that I was appointed on merit, which the Cabinet Office have also confirmed.

We have many challenges at the BBC, and I know that distractions such as this are not welcomed.

Our work at the BBC is rooted in trust. Although the appointment of the BBC Chairman is solely a matter for the Government, I want to ensure that all the appropriate guidelines have been followed within the BBC since I have joined. The Nominations Committee of the BBC Board has responsibility for regularly reviewing Board members conflicts of interest and I have agreed with the Board’s Senior Independent Director, Sir Nicholas Serota, that the Committee shall assess this when it next meets, reporting to the Board, and in the interests of transparency publish the conclusions.

I look forward to continuing our work together. 

Best wishes,

Richard

Richard Sharp

[See also: Is Robbie Gibb out of control at the BBC?]

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