The best way to understand contemporary Britain is to stop thinking of it as a liberal democracy. If we lived in Russia, Hungary or Venezuela we would have few problems in understanding the manoeuvrings around the BBC. The governing clique wants the state broadcaster to be run by a fellow traveller, who has paid his dues by giving it money, and shown a willingness to conform by subscribing to its ideology. What else do you expect?
In the case of Britain, the Johnson government is briefing it wants to appoint one Richard Sharp as chair of the BBC. Never heard of him? Then, dear reader you clearly don’t move in the right, right-wing circles.
Its first choice, until he dropped out, was Charles Moore, of this parish. He would have been a solely ideological appointment as he is not a major donor to the Conservative party. Sharp has given over £400,000, by contrast, and shown his fealty to the Conservative cause by serving on the board of the right-wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies. His appointment as a government adviser earlier this year produced accusations of a conflict of interest. Sharp was chairman of RoundShield, a firm that lends to distressed businesses and buys assets from them. He stepped down temporarily from RoundShield while working on the coronavirus business interruption loans scheme, and the company said it would not be a lender to the scheme.
None of the above is a problem. Or rather, it might not be a problem. Contrary to paranoid right-wing myth, most chairs of the BBC have been Conservatives. Their politics didn’t matter as long as they left them behind when they went to work, and did not allow them to influence their judgement. For the life of me, I cannot believe that this government would recommend anyone other than a partisan who would bring his politics into work. But maybe I am the one being paranoid now. Even if I am not, I cannot prove that Sharp would see his job as stopping BBC journalists holding the government to account. I just don’t know.
The true problem is that, when Downing Street briefs favoured journalists that it wants Sharp or Moore appointed chair of the BBC or Paul Dacre to run Ofcom, it’s trying to rig the system.
Applications for the BBC chair close on 11 November. Candidates, who are better qualified than Sharp, have concluded there is no point putting themselves forward. Who, after all, goes for a job when they know the selection is preordained? The interviews are not an honest attempt to find the best man or woman, but a sham. If you apply, you waste your time preparing, and then suffer the humiliation of a public rejection in a contest you never had a chance of winning in the first place. It is worse than not applying at all, not least because you have been conned into adding the appearance of propriety to a seedy enterprise.
I hear that Lionel Barber, the recently retired editor of the Financial Times, who had the journalistic and business experience to chair the BBC, will not apply. My guess is he saw no point in rolling loaded dice.
If the fix works, come 11 November the new BBC chair could be chosen from a pool of one.
Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, told the Commons Public Appointments Committee that:
“‘Two potentially very strong candidates for the BBC contacted me last week, saying, “Is this going to be a fair and open competition?” I said, “Well, I have been assured by the Department that it will be,” but that clearly does not help… By pre- announcing, you are trying to influence the field that is going to apply.’
The problem from Downing Street’s point of view is that Britain is not Russia and Johnson is not Putin. It is leaking names to the press because it cannot be certain of getting its way. A panel chaired by a senior civil servant from the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and which includes an independent assessor and the current BBC Chairman, interviews applicants. The panel then puts two names forward to Downing Street.
People close to the process tell me a lot of effort is being spent trying to get competent candidates to test the impartiality of a system the Cabinet Office still maintains (despite all the attempts to nobble it) is an ‘an open and transparent process’. I have heard talk of leading figures in business, broadcasting and the film industry being lobbied to stand, including Carolyn Fairbairn, formerly of the CBI, and the television executive, Peter Bazalgette. The hope is to flood the interview panel with better candidates than Sharp so he does not make the final run-off. Whether that hope materialises or not is another matter.
As I said, the whole point of Downing Street’s off-the-record briefings is to put off people like Barber, Fairbairn and Bazalgette.
In the end, Johnson will have his way. Maybe not next week with the BBC, but a few months down the line. This government hates regulatory constraint. In a disturbingly Trumpian gesture, it wants to abolish the Electoral Commission, which protects against fraud at the ballot box, and I hear rumours it wants to scrap the commissioner for public appointments too.
Tory readers may shrug their shoulders and say they want ideologues and sycophants in positions of power. They should remember that everything a Johnson government does now a Labour government can do in the future. If Conservatives stay silent now, they will have no right to complain when it does.