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28 April 2023

Can the BBC recover from Richard Sharp’s disastrous chairmanship?

The broadcaster is at the centre of a battle for the soul of the British media.

By Andrew Marr

So, he’s gone. There is not a scintilla of doubt that Richard Sharp was right to resign this morning as chairman of the BBC. He really should have gone earlier. That’s no reflection on his personal character or qualities; he is hardly responsible for the toxic mayhem in Downing Street, which eventually produced this crisis.

But by the end, Sharp really had no choice. Adam Heppinstall KC’s report found that he failed to tell the BBC interview panel that he’d been helping Boris Johnson, then prime minister, raise a loan of up to £800,000, and that this “gave rise to a potential perceived conflict of interest”.

“Potential” and “perceived” might make the former chairman feel aggrieved. BBC people who have worked closely with him found him affable, engaged, useful and, yes, sharp. In other circumstances, with his hard-edged City background, he might have been a useful chairman for an embattled BBC at the fag end of a long Conservative era.

The trouble is, there is no relationship so sensitive and so important for the entire British broadcasting ecology than that between the senior BBC management and the government. And that relationship has been turning toxic. For years now we have had ministers who regard the national broadcaster as an organised anti-Tory conspiracy; who fundamentally don’t accept its public service remit or good faith; and who would like to see the UK mimic the American broadcasting system, dominated by right-wing companies, conservative allies whose job it is to echo and amplify the politicians’ views.

Don’t believe, ever, that the alternative to the BBC would be a mixed, varied or tolerant broadcast news system. It would be like the wilder, darker parts of GB News but in relentless competition with other right-wing outlets. As in so many other areas of modern life, this would be a media in which big money bellowed; and everything else was whispering. Absent public funding, it would be a distinct tilt towards plutocracy.

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In common with social media, to attract eyeballs and attention, this post-BBC news world would seek to drive our attention towards the angry, the conspiratorial and the paranoid. That is happening already and so this, without exaggeration, is a battle for the soul of the British media.

Like every big broadcaster, the BBC has a thousand faults and it’s assailed on all sides – battered, beaten by populist politicians of the right and left, unionist and nationalist. But it remains trusted by most, a bitterly fought-over centre ground we would miss if it vanished.

That was the context of Sharp’s appointment. Again, not his fault, but it followed the much-publicised enthusiasm of the Johnson administration to put a fully-fledged right-wing critic, such as Charles Moore, into the BBC, perhaps with Paul Dacre at Ofcom.

General suspicion was aimed at the Conservative hierarchy, not the new chairman himself; the Sharp chairmanship came at a time when Johnson and his friends were trying to demolish or push back any countervailing guardrails in the British state – lawyers, lords, devolved governments, international agreements – as they claimed that the Brexit referendum gave them an absolute (and most un-British) authority to do whatever they wanted.

That was why Sharp’s close relationship with Johnson was so controversial. That was why his chairmanship made life harder for BBC reporters, particularly its political staff. And that was why his resignation was also an act of kindness towards his other political friend, Rishi Sunak, who otherwise would have had to make the difficult decision to sack him.

[See also: How much longer can Richard Sharp last as BBC chairman?]

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