Pressure is mounting on the Johnson-appointed BBC Chairman – but no answers have been forthcoming from him or the corporation, reports Josiah Mortimer
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Byline Times last week revealed the latest in the chaos at the BBC. Before he was appointed as the corporation’s Chairman, Richard Sharp donated tens of thousands of pounds to a group called the Institute for Policy Research (IPR).
There are many organisations with vague-sounding names but this one is quite a strange beast. It is a charity without a website, and seems to almost exclusively fund right-wing think tanks in the UK.
Several of those have essentially backed the privatisation of the BBC. One, NewsWatch, produces countless reports that accuse the BBC of being biased against the Conservatives and Brexit. Many people on the other side of the debate would, of course, argue the opposite.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance is another such group. After Sharp’s donation (though unlinked to it), this think tank went on to run a campaign called ‘Axe The Tax’ – call to scrap the BBC licence fee.
Byline Times’ findings raise serious questions about what MPs were told before Richard Sharp’s appointment by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021; about what the BBC Board was told at the time; and whether Sharp knew he was funding these organisations that seem to have an anti-BBC agenda.
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It is useful to ‘follow the money’, although many of these think tanks are extremely secretive about their sources of funding.
The cash didn’t come out of Richard Sharp’s current account but from his own personal charity, the Sharp Foundation. He has used this to donate to various groups – some of which are very benign and others that are quite political.
It is already known that Sharp donated £400,000 to the Conservatives previously and he does not appear to have hidden his political leanings.
Through his charity, he also gave money to Quilliam, the disgraced and now defunct former anti-extremism group. In addition, he made a personal donation to the director of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank while he was on the board of the “leading centre-right think tank” set up by Margaret Thatcher. (The donation followed the death of Robert Colvile’s wife).
Nonetheless, MPs and peers might have been keen to know these details.
Lord Foster, who sits on the House of Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee, told Byline Times that he was not aware of these donations prior to Sharp’s appointment.
“No, and as far as I know he did not offer details to the [Commons] Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee,” he said. Should they have been informed? “Yes, it’s important that select committees are given all relevant information, that is the point of those pre-appointment evidence sessions.”
The peer also believes there is a risk of a conflict of interest in Sharp donating to a group which funds anti-BBC campaigners. “At the very least, they should have been openly acknowledged in advance,” Lord Foster said.
NewsWatch has been funded to a large extent by the IPR, to which Sharp donated at least £40,000. It has branded the BBC the “Brussels Broadcasting Corporation”.
But is it likely that Sharp could have given money to a group – one without no website and the trustees of which are largely Conservative supporters – and have no knowledge as to the use that money would be put to?
Close to the Limits
Henry Tinsley, a Byline Times reader who runs a charitable trust, told this newspaper that Sharp’s donations to non-charities such as Robert Colvile could be legal – but only if the money was used for charitable purposes. (Robert Colvile has said Sharp’s £42,000 donation went into a trust for his children’s education and upbringing after their mother passed away).
The issue of the IPR is more contested, given it regularly gives to non-charities that have political or campaigning purposes. “Money given to organisations perceived as political needs to be very clearly ring-fenced and subject to legal agreements,” Mr Tinsley said.
“What is a charity doing giving money to outfits that are clearly propagandist outfits like TaxPayers’ Alliance and NewsWatch?” he asked. “The IPR seems to be giving a very high percentage of their money to the TaxPayers’ Alliance and (mostly) other right-wing groups that aren’t charities. They would need to have some pretty specific grant agreements in place.”
Public interest lawyer Jolyon Maugham told Byline Times that “the rule that charities shouldn’t have political aims can’t be dodged by setting up a charity that primarily donates to other organisations with political aims”.
“This lesson was learned – if it needed to be – back in 2017 when the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance was funded by a similar entity to the Institute for Policy Research – the Politics and Economics Research Trust.”
Waiting for Answers
Byline Times has put many of these concerns to Richard Sharp and the IPR but has received no answers (although it is understood that Sharp argues that he contributes to a number of groups to promote “lively debate”).
Did Sharp disclose these donations to the BBC? They do not appear in his published declaration of interests. The BBC did not return this newspaper’s calls and emails.
The Charity Commission told Byline Times that it is “assessing” this newspaper’s findings to determine whether there is a “regulatory concern” over Richard Sharp’s charity. “Charities must ensure they manage any conflicts of interest in the way in which they make decisions,” it added.
The regulator said the same with regards to the IPR.
Sharp has denied any wrongdoing in helping to secure an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson prior to being appointed the BBC’s Chairman by Johnson. Two investigations are already ongoing into Sharp’s appointment, led by the BBC Board and the Commissioner on Public Appointments.
While it remains possible that Sharp has also donated to organisations that vigorously defend the BBC, no evidence of this has so far emerged.
But Sharp has never made a secret of his views that the BBC has a liberal or left-wing bias – he said as much in a recent interview with The Times newspaper.
The man who appointed him – his long-term personal friend Boris Johnson – was also very keen to have him on the BBC Board, despite Sharp having previously been rejected for a non-executive role (for which he didn’t even get an interview). Johnson has been no friend of the BBC, or public service broadcasting more generally: aside from continuing the BBC licence fee freeze, he attempted to privatise Channel 4.
Why This Matters
The questions of alleged impropriety and conflicts of interest at the top of the BBC are important for its viewers, who should be provided with an impartial broadcaster, and staff alike.
There is a growing sentiment on the right that the licence fee – which protects the principle of universal, free, public service broadcasting for the good of the country – should be abolished when it comes up for renewal in 2027.
It has already been frozen, meaning that in real terms it is having to implement drastic cuts. Morale there is very low indeed, with 95% of journalists surveyed by the National Union of Journalists last week saying they wanted Sharp gone.
It is the job of the BBC Chairman to defend the independence of the BBC. Sharp has been tasked with protecting its mission of independence and impartiality. So why has he not answered Byline Times’ questions?
Whatever happens next, change is needed. As Lord Foster told Byline Times: “There should be an independent and transparent process of appointments to such a sensitive position. If the chairmanship of the BBC is in the gift of the Prime Minister, it damages the BBC’s worldwide reputation for independence and impartiality – a reputation further damaged when stories like these emerge.”
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