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13 March 2023

How much longer can Richard Sharp last as BBC chairman?

The Tory-led furore over Gary Lineker and impartiality has only succeeded in making Sharp’s position appear even more untenable.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The Gary Lineker saga is the political equivalent of the dress that went viral in 2015 because people couldn’t decide what colour it was. Blue and black or white and gold? Shameless politicking by the Beeb’s highest-paid presenter or a Conservative attack on the right of a beloved former footballer to criticise an abhorrent government policy? Your preconceptions will determine which stance you take.

It is clear that Lineker, who has hosted Match of the Day since 1999, owes much of his current fame and 8.8 million Twitter followers to the position the BBC has given him. This, according to the dozens of Tory MPs who have written to Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, to demand an apology and independent investigation, is apparently why he should not have the freedom to say what he likes on his personal social media account. “For him to use his privileged position to spout deeply offensive extreme dogma is certainly out of keeping with BBC impartiality guidelines,” the letter says. John Hayes, who chairs the anti-woke “Common Sense Group” of Conservative MPs behind the letter, has argued that comments made by Lineker both this week and in the past will “no doubt shake many people’s – already fragile – confidence in both the impartiality and professional standards of the BBC”.

Regardless of whether you agree with the letter’s characterisation of Lineker’s comparison of the government’s immigration rhetoric to 1930s Germany as “deeply offensive extreme dogma”, the implications of Conservative attacks on the Match of the Day presenter are intriguing. This isn’t a question about the impartiality of the BBC’s output – these weren’t comments made on air during a BBC programme, or published on its website. Rather, it’s about perceptions. Can public faith in the BBC’s ability to be impartial survive when high-profile individuals closely associated with it display such clear political bias?

[See also: Gary Lineker: “The BBC can’t stop me talking about politics”]

That’s an interesting question – and it’s one that’s impossible to debate properly without talking about Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman. Sharp was appointed to this role by Boris Johnson after he helped to facilitate an £800,000 loan to… Boris Johnson. There are currently two investigations underway into the ethics of the appointment and whether Sharp should perhaps have mentioned any of this during the application process.

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Sharp, of course, denies any impropriety, and when the row first broke out Rishi Sunak chose to back him. But it’s difficult for a phalanx of irate Tory MPs to rage about the damage done to the BBC’s reputation for political impartiality by a few tweets from a sports presenter without drawing attention to the far greater damage arguably caused by Sharp. A long-time Conservative donor who personally assisted a Conservative prime minister in getting a loan nabbing the top job at the BBC – the perceptions aren’t great, are they?

And that’s before you remember that Davie himself was an active member of the Tory party, once standing for election as a local councillor. Or that Robbie Gibb, the erstwhile director of communications for a different Conservative prime minister, now sits on the BBC board and lectures journalists about bias. (We can only assume Gibb forgot that he himself appeared on a Tories in Comms panel at the Conservative Party Conference in 2021 after taking up his board position – or maybe he doesn’t think his own clearly stated politics are a threat to BBC impartiality.)

In any case, the point is that Sunak would rather not be talking about any of this. Coverage of his Illegal Migration Bill has been utterly overshadowed by the Lineker row – not helped by the fact virtually the whole BBC football team went on strike on Saturday in solidarity with Lineker being forced off air, leading to some hasty programme rescheduling. Going to war with a popular footballer is never a smart political move (just ask Boris Johnson about Marcus Rashford), and the tenacity of the anti-Lineker Tories is raising some awkward questions about double standards for the Prime Minister, who promised to place “integrity” at the heart of his government – not least since Sharp was once his boss at Goldman Sachs.

So it’s not really surprising that, on a plane to San Diego today, Sunak refused to say whether he had confidence in Sharp. In fact, while he said reporters would have to wait for the results of the independent review, he also made it clear that Sharp’s appointment was “nothing to do” with him. The PM has not quite thrown his former colleague under the bus yet, but it seems he’s made a calculation: now that this scandal has been unhelpfully brought back into the spotlight thanks to Lineker’s tweets and BBC impartiality is a headline news issue again, the cost of backing Sharp is too great. As for Match of the Day, it seems that despite the furious letter from Hayes and co, the BBC has come to some sort of compromise and Lineker will be back on-screen this weekend. Sharp’s future looks far less certain. It would be ironic if the Conservatives’ efforts to run one high-profile BBC figure out of office resulted in the departure of another.

[See also: Gary Lineker played into the hands of the BBC’s right-wing enemies]

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