Rishi Sunak’s adviser Richard Sharp to be next BBC chairman
An adviser to Rishi Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker, has been announced as the new chairman of the BBC, stepping into a key role at the top of the corporation as it faces a series of critical debates on its future.
Richard Sharp, who has also held a series of roles within the arts establishment and was an adviser to Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, was considered the frontrunner for the £180,000-a-year post.
Sharp, 64, was once Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs and has been an unpaid adviser on the economic response to coronavirus over the last year. The multimillionaire has also been a major donor to the Conservative party, giving more than £400,000 from 2001-10 and £4,600 since then.
After his selection leaked out on Wednesday, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, issued a statement confirming that he was the government’s preferred candidate. The appointment is formally made by the Queen.
Dowden called him “exactly the chair the BBC needs right now” and added: “I’m confident he will drive forward reforms to the BBC to ensure it impartially reflects and serves the needs of all parts of the UK, and evolves to remain a global success that is central to British national life in the decades ahead.”
Sharp said in a statement: “The BBC is at the heart of British cultural life and I’m honoured to be offered the chance to help guide it through the next chapter in its history.”
As chairman, Sharp’s primary responsibilities are to protect the BBC’s independence and and set its overall strategic direction. The board is also supposed to ensure the broadcaster provides value for money for licence fee payers.
But Sharp also steps into a fierce debate over the BBC’s funding, with the long-term sustainability of the licence fee under scrutiny before charter renewal in December 2027 and global streaming platforms presenting more competition for viewers than ever.
The BBC director general, Tim Davie, who was appointed in June, has also sought to address concerns over staff impartiality after the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, claimed the BBC had a “narrow urban outlook”. Leftwing critics view some of the corporation’s news coverage as instinctively conservative.
Sharp succeeds David Clementi, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, who will leave in February after four years in the job.
There was alarm within the BBC last year when the columnist and severe critic of the corporation Charles Moore was floated as a candidate before ruling himself out in October. But while that prospect caused consternation in some quarters over the government’s plans, many within the corporation viewed the suggestion of Moore’s candidacy as a move to ensure whoever was ultimately appointed was seen as a safe pair of hands.
Others named as being in the running for the role included the former chancellor George Osborne and the former culture secretary Nicky Morgan, but both decided not to apply.
Sharp will be viewed as an ally of the government, given his major past donations to the Conservative party as well as his connections to Sunak and Johnson. He is understood to have supported Brexit but was also linked to an abortive centrist group, United For Change, in 2018.
Speaking to the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee last year, Clementi said Moore would have been an unsuitable appointment but noted that political views should not disqualify a candidate, adding: “He or she will have to demonstrate to you that they have left those strong political views at the door.”
Reacting to the news on Wednesday, the DCMS committee chair, Julian Knight, said it was “disappointing” that the identity of the next chairman had leaked out before a formal announcement.
“The committee previously expressed some concerns over the appointments process, calling for it to be fair and transparent,” he added. “The DCMS committee looks forward to questioning the preferred candidate for the post in a pre-appointment hearing next week on their views at a critical time for the BBC.”
Some on the left expressed their concern over the appointment, with the Labour MP Richard Burgon tweeting: “The government has appointed as chair of the BBC a multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs banker who was once Rishi Sunak’s boss and has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. The whole system is rotten.”
But Lord Vaizey, the Conservative culture minister from 2010-16, said: “I suspect Richard Sharp will turn out to be a great chairman of [the] BBC – experienced businessman, track record in the arts, independently minded. Will work well with Tim Davie.”
A recent board-level colleague of Sharp’s said his right-of-centre politics were “not in doubt”. “It seems reasonable for anyone suspicious of the government to be suspicious of him.,” they said. “In the end I think he is a conservative with a small c before he is one with a big C. He will be more interested in protecting the institution than pleasing Boris Johnson.”
Sharp, an Oxford graduate, sat on the Bank of England’s financial policy committee from 2013 to 2019 and was credited last summer with a key role in the £1.5bn arts bailout package announced by the chancellor. Among many other roles, his CV also lists directorships at the International Rescue Committee and the Centre for Policy Studies, a rightwing thinktank.
He was chair of the Royal Academy for seven years and a director of the Olympic legacy board.
Richard Sharp’s to-do list
1 Establish independence …
While Sharp has an impressive CV, the features of his career that grabbed attention on Wednesday were his time at Goldman, his relationship with Rishi Sunak, and his donations of more than £400,000 to the Conservative party. As the person tasked with preserving the BBC’s independence, his most immediate task will be to show those on the left that he is not simply a creature of ideology when it comes to the corporation’s future.
2 … but capitalise on ties to government
At the same time, there are those within the BBC who feel that a better working relationship with government is a prerequisite for everything else. If this is true, Sharp – who has known Sunak and Johnson for years – could hardly be better placed. Director-general Tim Davie will hope to make the most of those ties when the mid-term charter review begins in 2022.
3 Future funding
The BBC’s charter expires in 2027, leaving the future of the licence fee up for debate – both its size, and whether it remains the right model for funding the corporation. While Davie will lead these seismic discussions, they will also be the most significant events of Sharp’s tenure. Any indication from Sharp that he echoes Boris Johnson’s previously expressed scepticism about the current model will be a major blow to those who wish to see the BBC retain its current size and status.
4 The challenge from streaming services
Part of the problem facing the BBC as it gears up for those talks is the growing challenge from international streaming services: where once ITV and Channel 4 were its biggest rivals, global giants with deep pockets like Netflix, Apple TV and Amazon Prime are all now major players in the UK. According to research published by Ofcom in December, 16-34-year-olds spent just 38% of their viewing time with traditional broadcast outlets – and feel much less connection to public service broadcasters than older people do. In his role setting the BBC’s broad strategy, Sharp will consider how those viewers can be turned into enthusiasts and advocates for the broadcaster.
5 Redefine public service
The same Ofcom report suggested that “public service broadcasters” were now transitioning to “public service media”. That means the BBC must work to ensure that every bit of its content is as imbued with a public service ethos as its TV and radio content. Ofcom also suggested that new, smaller online players could provide new routes to public service media – a scenario that some at the BBC will fear is the thin end of the wedge. Sharp is likely to ask how he can ensure that the BBC’s identification with public service remains dominant even as the mechanisms change.
6 Navigate the culture war – and retain public trust
The era of Brexit and social media have challenged the BBC’s notion of its own impartiality as never before. While it has always been the case that the corporation’s journalism faces claims of bias from every side, there is also good evidence that the BBC found it especially hard to navigate both Brexit and the Jeremy Corbyn years, leaving it short of friends in every corner. But some believe that the public has been reminded of the need for a trustworthy national broadcaster by the coronavirus crisis – and that, as this week’s announcement of educational programming during school closures suggests, it still occupies a unique place in public life. If so, it will be part of Sharp’s job to ensure that politicians are aware of it too.