BBC culture must be rebuilt to avoid liberal ‘groupthink’, says new chairman
The BBC must avoid the dangers of liberal metropolitan “group think” and serve every licence fee payer, its next chairman has warned.
Richard Sharp told MPs that the corporation must ensure diversity of political thought within its ranks because “if the BBC doesn’t mean anything to somebody in Sunderland, then it’s failing”.
He singled out Roadkill, the BBC One drama about a corrupt Tory minister, as an example of a Left-wing programme that could unduly influence viewers’ opinions.
But Mr Sharp asserted that, with the exception of Question Time, the BBC’s Brexit coverage had been “incredibly balanced”.
And in his first comments since being named as the Government’s pick as chairman, Mr Sharp disappointed BBC critics by backing the licence fee and opposing decriminalisation.
Mr Sharp, a former banker (below) who until recently was acting as an unpaid adviser to Rishi Sunak, said that the £157.70 fee represented “terrific value”.
He reserved his strongest criticism for the management culture that had allowed gender pay inequalities to go unchecked for so long and caused trust in the BBC’s leadership to erode.
“Clearly some of the problems it has had recently are really rather terrible, and reflect a culture that needs to be rebuilt so everybody who cherishes the BBC and works at the BBC feels proud and happy to work there,” he said.
Mr Sharp appeared in a pre-appointment hearing yesterday before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.
Asked if the BBC was “too woke”, Mr Sharp replied: “I think the issue is: is there group think? And that accusation you spoke about is centred around a view that there is a liberal metropolitan view governing editorial decisions.
“The easy way to combat that is to have a very diverse group of people involved in making those decisions, and then you make better decisions.”
Asked if he believed that the BBC was guilty of Brexit bias, Mr Sharp said: “No, actually, I don’t. I think there were certain occasions where the representation was unbalanced. So if you ask me, did I think that Question Time seemed to have more Remainers than Brexiteers? The answer was yes.
“But in terms of the breadth of the coverage, I think it was incredibly balanced.”
Impartiality is “clearly the biggest issue” for the BBC, Mr Sharp said. And while both sides of the political debate bring “confirmation bias in terms of rational thinking and emotions”, he criticised the corporation for being overly defensive of its output.
“The BBC certainly, to my dissatisfaction, has adopted the ad hominem defence, which is: ‘We are the BBC, therefore it’s impartial.’ I do think you have to look at the evidence and what you’re being accused of, and ask yourself the hard questions.
“The BBC should be its own toughest critic on impartiality, it shouldn’t be instinctively defensive. It should say, ‘somebody intelligent has accused us of being impartial; we are going to look at it objectively and form a view.”
Mr Sharp said he had enjoyed Roadkill, the drama written by Sir David Hare, the Left-wing playwright, and starring Hugh Laurie (below) as a corrupt politician intent on privatising the NHS.
“Clearly, in producing those four episodes of fiction with Conservative villains, that was a partial view that could influence people in the way they view the Conservative Party. Think of a 12- or 13- or 14-year-old watching it,” he said.
He described the licence fee as the “least worst” option and told the committee: “I am not in favour of decriminalisation.”
His answers prompted Julian Knight, the Tory MP who chairs the committee, to say: “‘No’ to decriminalisation, the BBC’s Brexit coverage wasn’t biased – ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, it feels to me.”
Mr Sharp confirmed that he has donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party over the last 20 years. He has an estimated personal fortune of £150 million, and told MPs that he plans to donate his £160,000 BBC salary to charity.
In terms of BBC spending, he said: “I would want to see the money spent as though it was yours and mine and my mother’s – very carefully.”