The public appointments watchdog is to investigate the appointment of BBC chairman Richard Sharp amid claims he helped Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 line of credit.
William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, said he would review the way the competition for the post was run to ensure it complied with Whitehall rules.
Earlier Mr Sharp told staff he was “sorry” over the row and revealed he had asked the BBC board to review any possible conflict of interests he may have amid scrutiny over his ties to the former Tory prime minister.
Labour had demanded inquiries into any conflicts of interest following a Sunday Times report that Mr Sharp introduced the guarantor of Mr Johnson’s loan, Canadian multimillionaire Sam Blyth, to the cabinet secretary Simon Case.
Mr Sharp, a Tory donor, is said to have dined with Mr Johnson and Mr Blyth at Chequers before the credit line was finalised in the weeks before he was recommended for the BBC job by the then prime minister.
The BBC chairman, who has denied any conflict of interest, told the broadcasters’ employees in an email on Monday that the row had become “a distraction for the organisation, which I regret”.
Mr Johnson said he was “ding-dang sure” that claims of a conflict of interest were “a load of complete nonsense” when asked about the matter by Sky News on Monday morning.
“Let me just tell you, Richard Sharp is a good and wise man but he knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for 100 per cent ding-dang sure,” said the ex-PM. “This is just another example of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament.”
Rishi Sunak’s government has insisted that the appointment of Mr Sharp was above board, with the Cabinet Office rejecting claims that there may have been a conflict of interest.
“Richard Sharp was appointed as chairman of the BBC following a rigorous appointments process including assessment by a panel of experts, constituted according to the public appointments code,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson said.
They added: “There was additional pre-appointment scrutiny by a House of Commons select committee which confirmed Mr Sharp’s appointment. All the correct recruitment processes were followed.”
In a letter to shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell, who raised the case with him, Mr Shawcross said he had called for relevant papers to be sent from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
He said his role was to make sure public appointments were “made fairly, openly and on merit”, adding: “I intend to review this competition to assure myself and the public that the process was run in compliance with the government’s governance code for public appointments.”
Mr Shawcross commissioned his investigation into Mr Sharp’s appointment at the “behest” of Mr Sunak, No 10 said.
Labour has also written to Daniel Greenberg, parliamentary commissioner for standards, about whether a conflict of interest should have been declared by Mr Johnson. Ms Powell said she hoped the Shawcross probe “should shine a light on this appointments process”.
The Liberal Democrats said Mr Johnson should be stripped of the £115,000 yearly allowance he receives as an ex-prime minister until he answers questions about his financial arrangements while at No 10.
Roger Mosey, former head of BBC Television News, said on Monday that he was sceptical as to whether Mr Sharp was the best candidate to be appointed the broadcaster’s chair.
“If you look at all the people in the whole of the UK in an appointment process, was Richard Sharp the one with the editorial and journalistic and media industry nous? I simply raise an eyebrow,” he told Times Radio.
“He may have been, but I think the outcome was surprising, maybe, if you’re looking for someone who has knowledge of handling the BBC.”
Former civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake said there was “no question” that there appeared to be a conflict of interest – describing the reported involvement of Mr Sharp in loan talks as an “important departure from what should really happen”.
But a spokesperson for Mr Johnson said the former PM had not asked Mr Sharp for financial advice and that his financial arrangements “have been properly declared”. Asked about Mr Johnson’s private dinner with Mr Sharp and Mr Blyth the spokesperson said: “So what? Big deal.”
In his email to BBC staff, Mr Sharp said: “I was not involved in making a loan, or arranging a guarantee, and I did not arrange any financing. What I did do was to seek an introduction of Sam Blythe to the relevant official in government.”
He added: “This matter, although it took place before I joined the BBC, is a distraction for the organisation, which I regret. I’m really sorry about it all.”
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