BBC chairman accuses own journalists of inaccuracies about Boris Johnson loan

The chairman of the BBC has accused the corporation’s news department of inaccurately reporting his involvement in a loan to Boris Johnson.

Attempting to explain why he had failed to disclose his role in the reported £800,000 deal until it was uncovered by a newspaper, Richard Sharp criticised his own staff.

BBC journalists had “repeated inaccuracies”, Mr Sharp claimed, “and have subsequently made corrections if they have found themselves to be in possession of inaccurate information”.

He said that coverage of the story had given him a personal insight into the issue of impartiality.

“It certainly made me more conscious of the value of the BBC in striving for impartiality and accuracy above and beyond other organisations, and it has also made me aware of the consequences of inaccuracy in a very personal way,” he said.

Mr Sharp was summoned to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Select Committee to explain why he had withheld information from them and from the panel which interviewed him for the BBC role.

He admitted to acting as an “introduction agency” between Sam Blyth, a cousin of Mr Johnson, and the Cabinet Office after Mr Blyth told him during “dinner party conversation” that he wanted to help the then Prime Minister out of his financial difficulties.

After a subsequent meeting with Mr Blyth, Mr Sharp went to the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, to raise the matter.

‘No conflict of interest’

At the time, Mr Sharp was applying to become chairman of the BBC. He denied any conflict of interest, insisting that he had done things “by the book” and did not “facilitate” the loan.

Asked repeatedly why he had withheld the information during his interview process for the BBC role, Mr Sharp said he had considered the matter to be closed.

His comments about BBC “inaccuracies” are likely to fuel opposition to his tenure within the corporation.

Mr Sharp was told by MPs on the committee that many staff members were furious about the loan story.

Asked if his position was now untenable, he replied: “Whilst I regret this has happened, I do believe the people of the BBC know that I am striving to protect the BBC and preserve it.”

However, Richard Ayre, a former controller of editorial policy at the BBC, suggested that Mr Sharp could be out of a job in six months’ time.

‘Considerable disquiet among BBC staff’

He told Roger Bolton’s Beebwatch podcast: “After the performance today, I think within the BBC there will be very, very considerable disquiet among the staff, and among many licence fee payers.

“I think they will be right to be disquieted. And I think it may well be that Sharp feels the right thing to do is to step down in the fullness of time.

“Sharp kids himself that by having no further involvement after putting the Cabinet Secretary on the job, he has no conflict of interest. That was clearly an unsustainable position.

“But what is at fault is not just this selection of the BBC chairman, and not just Boris Johnson’s cronyism, it is the whole public appointment system. If we learn anything from this mess, it has to be that the appointment of people who will lead public bodies in this country has to be taken away from ministers and the prime minister. There has to be an independent process.”

‘Imperfect licence-fee system’

Asked about the future of the licence fee, Mr Sharp conceded that there were “issues” with the way it was collected from over-75s and the fact that a disproportionate number of women ended up being penalised for non-payment.

“It is regressive, in some ways it is considered anachronistic… and there are a number of issues in terms of how they fall on individuals, both in terms of how they collect the licence fee, for example [from] pensioners, and also issues arising from people’s failure to pay the licence fee, including, for example, how that falls with respect to gender issues,” he said.

He described the system as “imperfect” but said he had no preferred option.

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