Former Goldman Sachs banker Richard Sharp being appointed the BBC's next chairman is fitting for the direction it's heading in, argues Des Freedman
Richard Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker and member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee has been announced as the next chairman of the BBC. This is an entirely fitting decision for a number of reasons.
The fact that he has no experience in journalism, broadcasting or online media means that he will be more able to make utterly independent strategic decisions about the future of the BBC according to sober financial, and not irrelevant creative or editorial, criteria. His background in commercial banking, derivatives and private equity appears to be an essential prerequisite for any forward-thinking senior figure in the cultural sphere.
The fact that he is a former banker also minimises the risk of the appointment given that four of the seven BBC chairs this century have all been drawn from the financial sector.
The fact that he was the boss of the current chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is particularly useful because he is likely to be involved in quiet discussions with the chancellor lobbying for secure funding in return for political favours - such as when the BBC was forced in 2015 to assist with the government’s welfare strategy by agreeing to fund free licences for the over-75s.
The fact that he is not Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, the biographer of Margaret Thatcher and the government’s preferred candidate for the job until he ruled himself out, is another plus for supporters of the BBC. Moore is a long-term critic of the Corporation and his appointment would have been a green light for a programme of privatisation and cuts that would have delighted the Tory press barons who continue to argue that the BBC is a bastion of left-wing bias, despite evidence to the contrary.
The fact that he is, as the Spectator itself put it, a ‘walking caricature of the Establishment’, is particularly helpful for the BBC at a time when it is faced with increased competition from well-funded commercial rivals such as Netflix and Amazon, falling income, declining trust in its political independence and mounting pressure from Tory backbenchers who still manage to persuade themselves that the BBC is some sort of ‘enemy within’ (in much the same way as some Trump supporters believe that Joe Biden is a proxy for communism). A chair with the contacts, reputation and reliability that Sharp clearly has will be essential to stave off the hawks and ensure that the BBC continues to serve the status quo as it has done so faithfully for many years.
Sharp is a sensible appointment because he fits very well with the background and interests of the current director general, Tim Davie, a former marketing executive at Pepsi and former Conservative parliamentary candidate. Sharp’s £400,000 donations to the Conservatives means that he is all the more likely to provide an effective united front with Davie against the unwelcome attention of the broadcasting unions, women fighting for equal pay at the Corporation, and critics who argue that senior BBC journalists are too intimate with the ‘leading political players in Westminster, and too often neglectful of outside perspectives’.
Indeed, Sharp is the perfect expression of an official appointments process that is impervious to democratic debate and far more wedded to ensuring stability, especially at a time of such trauma for the British establishment. Stuart Hood, the novelist and former controller of BBC Television, expertly summed up the process some 25 years ago:
The men and women selected to govern the BBC are not in any sense representative but are appointed because they are ‘safe hands’ who will know what is expected of them. Their task is to see that the policies of the BBC reflect in consensus in politics, in the arts, in ‘taste’ – which is frequently defined as ‘mainstream broadcasting’. ‘Mainstream broadcasting’ has always excluded “extremes”. This means that political opinions which fall outside the parliamentary spectrum have been denied a voice – or granted one only grudgingly.
True, it may seem odd that a former Goldman Sachs banker may be seen as a safe pair of hands given its role in the 2008 financial crash, but Sharp is the very epitome of contemporary cultural leadership: well connected to power, financially savvy and uncontaminated by experience of the creative industries. His appointment makes it increasingly difficult to disagree with the claim made by former BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones just over two years ago that, for all its ‘flashes of editorial independence, there is plenty of evidence that the BBC, in both its international and domestic manifestations, deserves the epithet “state broadcaster”’.
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Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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