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BBC: Appointment and Resignation of Chair

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the damage caused to the reputation of the BBC following the appointment and subsequent resignation of the Chair, Richard Sharp.

My Lords, the BBC is a world-class broadcaster and cultural institution which produces some of the very best television and radio in the world. We understand and respect Richard Sharp’s decision to stand down. His Majesty’s Government and the BBC board both want to see stability for the corporation. We want to ensure an orderly transition and will launch a process to identify and appoint a new permanent chairman.

My Lords, last week’s report found Richard Sharp to be wrong in not declaring his close links with Boris Johnson when applying for the job of BBC chair. The facts have been clear for some time, so while we welcome the report, this matter could and should have been resolved much earlier. Does the Minister accept that this sorry episode has caused damage both to the BBC’s reputation and to confidence in the public appointments process? With Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promising integrity at every level of his Government, why was it left to Mr Sharp to resign rather than him being dismissed weeks ago?

It is right that an independent process was commissioned and allowed the time to run. Mr Sharp himself has said that he regrets the impact this has had on the corporation he has faithfully served. Mr Heppinstall’s report says:

“Overall, DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process”.

There are some helpful lessons for all in his investigation, which we will look at and take forward as appropriate.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director-general of the BBC. This episode will not damage the BBC—there, I agree with the Minister. It has been around for 100 years, and it is a wonderful institution. It will quickly ride through this sorry affair. The damage that has been done is to the Government’s own process for making public appointments. The Heppinstall report is a truly shocking read. Will the Government now overhaul the process for making public appointments?

I agree with the first part of what the noble Lord says. The news today about the BBC’s work launching the emergency radio service in Sudan is another testament to the fantastic work it does not just in this country but around the world. As I have said, Mr Heppinstall’s report concluded that:

“Overall, DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process”.

There are some lessons in his report. We will carefully consider its findings and respond in due course.

My Lords, would it preferable if Ministers and holders of public office were, in fact, suspended when being investigated for various situations, such as bullying or arranging loans and things like that for the Prime Minister? Should they not be suspended rather than being allowed to continue with their employment while an investigation takes place?

It is important that there is a thorough and swift investigation in cases such as this, and that is what has happened here; Adam Heppinstall has produced a thorough report. He has looked into this carefully and brought forward his conclusions. Richard Sharp has resigned, and we understand and respect his reasons for doing so.

My Lords, it is very nice to have a Tory voice in this debate. I declare my interest as a presenter on Times Radio. Richard Sharp was an excellent chair of the BBC, and he has been extremely harshly treated—not least by that terrible cartoon in the Guardian over the weekend. However, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Birt: one of things that is clear from this report, and something we all knew at the time, is who the Government’s favoured candidate for the position was. This does a disservice to the Government because it prevents excellent candidates putting themselves forward and giving them a genuine choice. I know the Minister will simply play a completely straight bat as he answers this Question, but he must know that the Government should have a much more open process for the appointment of the next chair of the BBC.

I completely agree with what my noble friend says about the brilliant work done by Richard Sharp during his time as chairman of the BBC and with the comments he made about the deplorable cartoon in the Guardian, which I am glad was pulled. The Adam Heppinstall report rightly points to the impact that the publication of candidates’ names in the media can have on the public appointments process, and we echo the concerns he raised there. The process to appoint a new permanent chairman will be run in a robust, fair and open manner, in accordance with the governance code.

My Lords, when I was a councillor and somebody knocked on my door to say that they were applying for a school caretaker’s job or a dinner assistant’s job, I would say, “Congratulations; I hope you do well. I will now take no part in the selection because I now have an interest: I know who you are”. The noble Lord opposite is right: the Government must make sure that the appointments process is open and that lobbying will actually be a disadvantage rather than the way you get on, which is the way the Government have been behaving.

Ministerial responsibility is a core principle of the public appointments system. It is important that the process is run and is seen to be run in accordance with that code, and that people declare the things they are required to declare, so that people know. However, there are other independent panel members who are appointed to appointment panels to make sure that there is independence in the system. These are decisions on which Ministers are entitled to take a view, in line with the Government’s code.

My Lords, nothing the Minister has said so far can give us any confidence that the process is not going to still be influenced by No. 10 Downing Street. Therefore, is it not absolutely imperative that a system of selection be produced that makes it clear that whoever the incumbent is in No. 10, they will not have undue or improper influence on this appointment? I say this as someone who was once head of the political office in No. 10, so I know how that, under successive Governments, there is a desire to interfere. The Government have an opportunity now to create a really transparent, open system, but they have to have the will to do it as well.

The process for appointing the chair of the BBC is set out in the BBC’s royal charter. It requires an appointment to be made by Order in Council following a fair and open competition. By convention, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport recommends the appointment to the Lord President of the Council, and the Prime Minister recommends the appointment to His Majesty the King. It is important that the process be followed and that all public appointments be set out and conducted in accordance with the Government’s code.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a freelance broadcaster for the BBC. Does the Minister agree that there is a parallel here with your Lordships’ House? For example, we read endless headlines about prime ministerial appointments to the House but very little about the hours and hours of scrutiny that go into legislation. So it is with the BBC, but this has very little to do with the workforce, who produce programmes day in, day out. It has more to do, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Birt, with the selection and appointment process.

I agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, Mr. Sharp pointed in his own resignation statement and letters to his regret at the distraction this has caused to the corporation. We are very lucky indeed to have the BBC in this country, producing the world-class television and radio content I mentioned in my first response.

My Lords, we know that he disclosed the possible conflict to the Cabinet Secretary. Why did the Cabinet Secretary not disclose or tell him to disclose that conflict to those responsible for making the recommendation? When the Government are reviewing the process for these public appointments, will they ensure that the rules on potential conflicts of interest say that all those people involved in making recommendations or making the eventual choice need to have the declaration of interest made known to them? It seems to be an obvious point, which was overlooked by some otherwise perfectly sensible people on this occasion.

Adam Heppinstall’s report makes it clear that the governance code puts the obligation to make a disclosure on the candidate and not on others. He has looked into this matter and concluded that Mr Sharp accepted that he should have disclosed the matter to the panel and apologised for his error. Given that error, he tended his resignation, and the Government understand and respect his reason for doing so.