Next BBC chair says it may be worth looking again at licence fee

The licence fee “may be worth reassessing” as the BBC’s future funding is decided, the corporation’s incoming chair has said, describing the model as the “least worst” option but saying he has an open mind about its future.

Richard Sharp, who has been chosen by the government as its preferred candidate for the post, told the Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport select committee his current view was that the licence fee was “fit for purpose”.

But he said: “When we next get the chance to review … it may be worth reassessing. Like anybody I’d come to this with an open mind about what’s appropriate. [The model] is idiosyncratic.”

The remarks from Sharp – who will be deeply involved in discussions over the right model for the corporation’s financial future – came as part of a wide-ranging session that also covered impartiality, the BBC’s internal culture, and his own association with the Conservative party.

His comments may encourage critics of the corporation who view the licence fee model as anachronistic, ahead of the BBC’s charter renewal in December 2027. But Sharp also emphasised the licence fee model meant that “at 43p a day the BBC represents terrific value”.

“What surprised me on some of the statistics is that for what amounts to a regressive tax, the nation broadly supports the licence fee,” he said.

He said his own enthusiasm for the broadcaster’s output dated back to his enjoyment of Andy Pandy as a child, and said he had watched Fleabag with his 90-year-old mother.

But he suggested staff at the organisation had lost trust in leadership and trust in processes, and both needed to be rebuilt.

Referencing the 2012 Pollard inquiry into the Jimmy Savile affair and equal pay cases against the BBC more recently, he said: “Clearly some of the problems it’s had recently are really rather terrible and reflect a culture that needs to be rebuilt so that everybody … who works at the BBC feels proud and happy to work there.”

He said the equal pay issues had “created inevitably a sense of unfairness for people working within the BBC … and that’s not a good culture to have.”

On whether the BBC’s role could be replicated in the marketplace, he said: “I’m familiar with capitalism. I understand what drives Facebook, Google, Apple – I understand that capitalism has its strengths. It also has its fundamental weaknesses and in the area of media and truth and impartial information public service broadcasting has a very important role to play.”

Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker who has been an unpaid adviser to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on the economic response to coronavirus over the last year, told MPs he felt the BBC’s coverage of Brexit overall had been “incredibly balanced”.

“If you ask me if I think Question Time seemed to have more remainers than Brexiteers, the answer is yes,” he said. “But the breadth of the coverage I thought was incredibly balanced, in a highly toxic environment that was extremely polarised.

“There have been studies and there has been some acknowledgment that some aspects of the Brexit coverage, from time to time, was not balanced. But I think both sides have issues with how the BBC delivered its view.”

He said the BBC had sometimes been guilty of an ad hominem defence – “we are the BBC, therefore we are impartial”.

Sharp – who has been a major donor to the Conservative party in the past, giving more than £400,000 from 2001-10 and much smaller amounts since then – also faced scrutiny over whether he was too close to the government for a position tasked with ensuring impartiality.

He explained his role with Sunak by saying: “My involvement with the chancellor arose from the fact that he actually used to work for me [at Goldman Sachs], and when the pandemic arose he asked me to put aside all my other interests and come in and help.”

He said the process by which he had been appointed was “robust and fair”, and that strong political leanings in candidates for such posts were “not unusual and it’s more common than not. It’s because it attracts people who are committed to public life and want to make a difference.”

He claimed his position on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, a rightwing thinktank, did not constitute recent political involvement. He gave up that position as a result of his new appointment.

Sharp’s selection as the government’s preferred candidate was announced last Wednesday. In his new post he will be charged with protecting the corporation’s independence and setting its overall strategic direction.

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, called him “exactly the chair the BBC needs right now”. The multimillionaire, whose wealth was once estimated by the Sunday Times rich list at about £150m, said he would donate his £160,000 salary to charity.

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