BBC Chair-Designate Quizzed on Brexit, Diversity, Pay Gap, Political Donations

BBC headquarters
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BBC headquarters

Former Goldman Sachs banker Richard Sharp also told a committee of the British parliament which BBC shows he watches, including 'Fleabag,' and competition from Netflix and Apple.

BBC chairman-designate Richard Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, faced questions from a committee of the British parliament on Thursday that ranged from the U.K. public broadcaster's Brexit coverage, impartiality and popular shows to its gender pay gap and diversity initiatives.

And he was quizzed about his closeness to the ruling political party and his donations to it over the year.

Sharp, who was recently named the U.K. government's preferred candidate for the role at the public broadcaster, appeared in a virtual hearing with a committee of the House of Commons in London before his appointment is made official by Queen Elizabeth II, which is usually just a technical hurdle.

The 64-year-old was recently unveiled as the pick of Boris Johnson's government by culture secretary Oliver Dowden. Critics immediately highlighted that Sharp has been a donor to the ruling Conservative Party and adviser to finance minister Rishi Sunak. The former chair of the Royal Academy of Arts would succeed David Clementi, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England and chairman of Prudential and Virgin Money.

The government said Sharp was selected in a "robust" process and would "bring his extensive experience in global commerce, the creative industries, and in public service to lead the BBC board, supporting the director general (Tim Davie) to deliver the BBC’s mission and public purposes in the fast-changing media landscape."

Sharp said on Thursday that he was not a member of Conservative Party, but has donated more than 400,000 pounds ($451,000 ) over the past 20 years to it. And he mentioned that Sunak "used to work for me" and asked him to help him with "financing for the corporate sector" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sharp acknowledged that "I am considered to be a Brexiteer," but said the "the breadth of the [BBC's Brexit] coverage, I thought it was incredibly balanced in a highly toxic environment," even though topical debate show Question Time seemed to have more anti-Brexit voices. "There were
certain occasions where the representation was unbalanced."

Sharp also said that "impartiality is the biggest issue" for the BBC and its news team, arguing there have been some "rather terrible" problems that show that the broadcaster's culture here "needs to be rebuilt, so everybody who cherishes the BBC and works for the BBC feels proud and happy." Highlighting the importance of diversity, in terms of ethnic, social, regional and other makeup of staff and freelancers, he argued that "the issue really is 'is there a group think'?" Sharp noted that the BBC has faced the "accusation" that the BBC is dominated by "a liberal, metropolitan view governing editorial decisions." He concluded: "The easy way to combat that is to have a very diverse group of people involved in making those decisions."

Discussing the gender pay gap at the broadcaster, Sharp criticized this "disparity in pay that created, inevitably, a sense of unfairness." And he said pay decisions should be make based on "gender-neutral metrics."

BBC executives have often discussed the competition the U.K. broadcaster faces from U.S. and global technology giants. Sharp acknowledged that, but signaled a way to stand out was to serve local audiences as best as possible. "I’m certainly a great believer in community and localism, and in the BBC’s desire to compete with offerings that have global resonance and compete with the Netflixes, the Amazons, the Apples of the world etc., it’s easy to lose sight of the important community, which is very local," which the coronavirus pandemic has put into focus, he said. He called localism a "fantastic opportunity for the BBC to differentiate itself."

Sharp was also asked what BBC output he enjoys, saying "I inhale dramas." He mentioned Fleabag, sharing that it was "awkward" when he watched it with his 90-year-old mother, and Line of Duty, but also David Attenborough's nature shows.