Richard Sharp has pumped money into a group that funds organisations like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Eurosceptics and the BBC-bashing News-Watch. Was this known at the time of his appointment?
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The Chairman of the BBC gave tens of thousands of pounds through his personal charity to an organisation that funds right-wing organisations in the UK – several of which back the privatisation of the BBC.
Richard Sharp – who has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives – gave the money to the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) think tank, Byline Times can reveal.
There is already growing internal opposition from staff at the BBC and an investigation into Sharp’s alleged role in helping to arrange a £800,000 loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson before he was appointed as the corporation’s Chairman by Johnson in February 2021.
Sharp has denied all wrongdoing but is cooperating with the BBC’s investigation.
The IPR does not have a website but is run by several prominent Conservative backers. Sharp’s donations, via his personal charity the Sharp Foundation, include £20,000 in 2017 and the same amount in 2018.
In 2018, the IPR funded analysis critical of the BBC’s coverage of Brexit, as newly-unearthed Charity Commission records reveal.
The IPR has also given money to an organisation, News-Watch, which produces content almost exclusively targeted at the BBC, as well as the Centre for Policy Studies and the TaxPayers’ Alliance – the latter of which campaigns for tax cuts and rails against “wasteful” government spending.
It is not clear if Richard Sharp disclosed these donations to the BBC upon his appointment as Chairman. They were not mentioned to parliamentarians when he was quizzed by MPs last month over the Johnson loan scandal.
Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee found that Sharp’s “omissions” relating to the Johnson loan “denied MPs the opportunity to fulfil their scrutiny role, as they were left without the full facts to make a judgement on his suitability” when he appeared before the Committee for a pre-appointment hearing in January 2021.
The Committee called on Sharp to “reflect on the potential damage caused to trust in the corporation”.
Richard Sharp refused to comment when approached with several questions from Byline Times but he is understood to argue that he donates to a range of organisations in the spirit of “lively debate”.
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In 2018 – the year Sharp’s foundation donated to the IPR – the think tank gave £30,000 to News-Watch.
News-Watch’s coverage is almost exclusively targeted at the BBC, accusing it of bias against Brexit and Conservatives. In January 2018, it published ‘The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation’ which was heavily critical of the BBC – one of many publications and articles it published that year criticising the corporation.
In the report, News-Watch said it had “conducted around 40 separate reports into elements of the BBC’s output, including for the Centre for Policy Studies”.
Sharp sat on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), which calls itself Britain’s “leading centre-right think tank” – a claim Johnson and Rishi Sunak have endorsed.
Other pieces on the News-Watch site at the time claimed that “the reality is that the BBC has a skewed agenda” on climate change, Brexit and other issues. Other reports – including one published jointly with a Tufton Street think tank – alleged that the BBC was highly partial and sat on the left of politics.
One ‘study’ by the group claimed that the BBC over-cited left-wing think tanks – but the methodology described the free-market capitalist think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs as left-wing; alongside climate-sceptic group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, headed up by Thatcher’s former Chancellor Lord Lawson.
In 2017 and 2018, IPR also gave the TaxPayers’ Alliance nearly £130,000 – making it the third-largest recipient of IPR funds after the CPS and Open Europe.
The following year, it gave the TaxPayers’ Alliance £180,000, accounting for its largest grant at 39% of its total gifts that year.
Between 2016 and 2019, the TaxPayers’ Alliance ran social media posts including: “Do you agree that the BBC licence fee should be abolished?” Many of its comments in the media in this time pushed its campaign to scrap the licence fee.
Sharp also gave £42,400 directly to Robert Colville, co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, chair of the CPS, and editor-in-chief of the right-leaning publication CapX.
Colvile told Byline Times: “Richard was a CPS Board member at the time and was deeply affected by the death of my wife. The money went into a trust to support my children as they grew up, and help ensure that I wouldn’t have to worry so much about education and living costs as a widower. It was an incredibly kind gesture on his part and I will always be extraordinarily grateful to him for it.”
He added that his work on the Conservative Manifesto was “purely voluntary” and that he took a leave of absence from the CPS to do it. “I was only brought in late in the process, during the campaign itself,” he added. “So I didn’t receive any money for doing so or any quid pro quo payments via an indirect route.”
The CPS has published several reports criticising the so-called bias at the BBC against Brexiters and the right.
In the same time period, CapX published articles calling for abolition of the licence fee, with one headed “the licence fee model worked in 1946 – but it is now outdated and should be overhauled”. Several pieces also hit out at the BBC’s coverage on Russia.
Byline Times columnist Peter York – co-author of The War Against The BBC with Professor Patrick Barwise – has charted many of the organisations undermining the BBC, including News-Watch.
“I hadn’t realised Mr Sharp was so involved with organisations that are clearly hostile to the BBC,” he said. “Did the various organisations involved with scrutinising his appointment know all this or is it the first anyone’s seen of it? Did the BBC Board and senior management know all this? Not that they could’ve done anything about it.”
He added: “The issues relating to Richard Sharp’s appointment are not of the BBC’s making. They don’t appoint him – they have no say in it. The Government does: he was imposed on the BBC.”
The BBC did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.
Sharp is the subject of two investigations into allegations he helped Boris Johnson secure a loan of up to £800,000. Industry figures such as Jonathan Dimbleby and Baroness Patience Wheatcroft have called on him to resign, while Labour and the Scottish National Party have described his position as “increasingly untenable”.
A Labour source told Byline Times: “These reports raise further questions about how much pertinent information Richard Sharp disclosed to Parliament and to the BBC ahead of his appointment as BBC Chair.
“The Select Committee has already ruled that Sharp made significant errors of judgement when failing to declare his role in the facilitation of a loan to the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Tory cronyism is dragging down the BBC when we should be promoting it as the cornerstone of our creative economy.”
National Union of Journalist members working for the BBC believe Sharp must immediately resign, according to a snapshot poll carried out over the past week with just over 1,000 respondents.
Paul Siegert, the NUJ’s national broadcasting organiser, said Byline Times’ findings are “yet another reason which explains why our members say they no longer have faith in Richard Sharp to remain as Chairman of the BBC”.
“Impartiality is so important for everyone who works at the BBC and Richard Sharp can’t argue he is impartial,” he added. “The longer he stays in post, and the more stories like this come to light, then the more damage he is doing to the reputation of the BBC.”
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