Why are national institutions being stuffed with Tory ‘stooges’?

Boris Johnson might be looking down the barrel of political oblivion after his disastrous appearance at the Privileges Committee, but his legacy of ‘jobs for Tory cronies’ and the politicalisation of public appointments, is alive and kicking.

Right-Wing Watch

Calling Conservatives…. Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Government Art Collection wanted.

I kid you not, this was an advertisement for a job – if you can call it that – in ConservativeHome this week, encouraging subscribers to apply for the position. Can you imagine having a Tory in charge of choosing the art for the government’s collection? Only Conservative painters, and definitely no socialist realist artists, or miners’ folk art, or representatives of the counterculture, or Banksy, although he is quite fashionable these days. And take a look at this one – an official Verderer of the New Forest wanted to ‘regulate development on the Open Forest.’ Goodness knows what would happen if a socialist took on that position!

These job openings are part of a regular call on ConHome that encourages readers to apply for obscure government posts. Jokes aside, are they part of sinister plot to try and stuff every public body position with a Tory hack?

Boris Johnson might be looking down the barrel of political oblivion after his disastrous appearance at the Privileges  Committee this week, but, sigh, his legacy of ‘jobs for Tory cronies’ and the politicalisation of public appointments, is alive and kicking. The ConHome jobs’ ads section certainly seems to suggest as much.

The attempted Tory takeover of civil society organisations is something authoritarian regimes always regard as a priority, and during Johnson’s reign there was certainly a spike in the politicisation of public body positions being filled by people with strong links to the Conservative Party.

And as Tory ‘stooges’ muscle their way into positions of power within our much-loved organisations, they often have little in terms of qualifications in relation to the hats they are wearing, which, in turn, inevitably comes to the detriment of the public bodies they are representing.

The BBC is perhaps the most glaring example of the ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ approach having negative repercussions.  

Chairman Richard Sharp, who has made an estimated £200m fortune in banking over the years, is a card-carrying Tory. He has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, was Rishi Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs, and was an economic advisor to Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London. The Brexit-backing millionaire was a former member of the Centre for Policy Studies, the conservative think-tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman in the 1970s.

Eyebrows were raised when Sharp was nominated as BBC chair in 2021 by the then prime minister Boris Johnson, as just weeks before the recommendation a cross-party group of MPs found that Sharp has made ‘significant errors of judgement’ by acting as a go-between for an £800,000 loan guarantee for Johnson.

The damning report by the committee of MPs also found he should “consider the impact of his omissions” on trust in the BBC, and his own appointment. Such warnings came to light in the wake of the row over Gary Lineker’s suspension, when the BBC slipped behind ITV as Britain’s most trusted news source.

But Sharp has always defended his links with the Conservative Party, insisting that it is ‘not unusual’ for the post to go to people with political connections.

While that might be true, the trouble is that the Conservatives seem to be the dominant force in filling high-profile positions with ‘their’ people. Which makes us suspicious that there is a hidden agenda to infiltrate and, in no uncertain terms, mark institutions with a right-wing stamp.

Furthermore, the appointment of someone who has worked for more than 30 years in the financial sector, including a 23-year stint at the investment giant Goldman Sachs, surely puts a question mark over Sharp’s ‘suitability’ as chair of a broadcaster.  Ironically, it took a media storm initiated by a football presenter to really put Sharp’s financial background and Tory links into the spotlight.

As the row of Gary Lineker and BBC impartiality rumbles on, Sharp’s connections to the Tories have come under growing criticism. Amid concerns that his position is ‘increasingly untenable’ are calls for the BBC chairman to resign. Pressure has also been growing on Rishi Sunak to end political BBC appointments.

Of course, Richard Sharp isn’t the only Tory-linked BBC ‘big shot’ to have found himself embroiled in the Gary Lineker controversy and have their own impartiality questioned due to past links to the Conservative Party. Director general Tim Davie has had a tumultuous couple of weeks after he decided to suspend Gary Lineker over the tweet. He was forced to apologise after the corporation’s sports coverage was severely disrupted, as Lineker’s colleagues walked out in solidarity with him.

In the 1990s, Davie was deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives, standing unsuccessfully as a councillor in 1993 and 1994. He is good friends with the Tory peer Stephen Greenhalgh, who, until 2022, was a minister in Johnson’s government. Celebrating Davie’s appointment as DG in 2020, Greenhalgh tweeted: “Congrats to my mate Tim Davie just appointed @BBC Director-General.”

Like with Sharp, rebellion has been brewing about Davie’s Tory-supporting background. As actor David Lyddon tweeted: “Something doesn’t smell right with this director general who’s a Tory running the BBC. Not one single politician or donor should be left to be a director general of any media corporation. We can see the right-wing influence starting to show in the BBC. Impartiality? Ha, right!”

British Museum appointment of George Osborne as chair

But sigh, the BBC is just one of a long line of British institutions finding themselves at the mercy of Tory-linked lackeys.

In June 2021, George Osborne, who oversaw sweeping austerity measures as chancellor from 2010 – 2016, was appointed as the chair of the British Museum in London.

Yes, the man who had made crippling cuts to the museum sector, was approved unanimously by the museum’s board of trustees.

The question is why and how? In the case of Osborne at the British Museum, the most obvious answer is that the search panel to find the new chair, was dominated by Tory/Osborne associates. Baroness Shafik, Bank of England governor when Osborne was chancellor, led the panel. Osborne had other friends at the museum, including Philipp Hildebrand, vice-chair of BlackRock, which that year employed Osborne on a £650,000 salary, as well as Tory peer Lord Sassoon, an ex-Treasury spokesman. As the Guardian reported at the time of the appointment:

“The board is thick with financial super-insiders.”

But then the board also comprised of individuals considered to be on the Left or at the very least liberal, including artist Grayson Perry, playwright Pat Cumper, and author Muriel Gray.

The fact that unanimous appointment of Osborne was made by a board comprising of those on the right and left – though tilted more heavily to the right – is even more worrying, suggesting that regardless of political slant those in charge of appointment believed Osborne possessed what they thought the museum needed – namely proximity to power, the ability to call up money from the rich and powerful when the museum’s funds were scarce. Ultimately, in that appointment, power and money triumphed.

Then there are the culture wars at play. In the year preceding Osborne’s appointment, the British Museum became embroiled in a debate about how institutions should present controversial items from Britain’s past. One specific incident involved the museum redisplaying a bust of funding father Hans Sloane in its Enlightenment Gallery. The move drew attention to Sloane’s ownership of slaves. The government had warned at the time that museums could lose taxpayer support if they remove artefacts. Despite the museum assuring it had “no intention of removing controversial objects from display,” the right-wing culture warriors came out in force, claiming that museums and art galleries today prefer to preach than teach and subject visitors to ‘finger-wagging lectures about the evil of Western colonialism, transphobia and other obsessions of the 21st century Left,” as the Telegraph bitterly put it.

With the culture war troopers venting their fury at Britain’s oldest museum, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that Osborne’s appointment is another example of a deliberate Tory placeman designed to influence a route rightwards.

Zewditu Gebreyohanes and the V&A

Speaking of deliberately forging paths to the right, the appointment of Zewditu Gebreyohanes as a trustee at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is another concerning case.

Like the BBC recently, the V&A has been embroiled in controversies. In May 2022, the Tories faced a fresh sleaze row after a private tour of the V&A was auctioned off to a wealthy donor to raise money for party funds. Labour demanded an investigation into the lot offering a trip to the art and design museum personally conducted by V&A chairman Nicholas Coleridge. The museum and Tories denied any wrongdoing, but Labour said selling access to the museum to fundraise for a political party breaches the museum’s commitment to political impartiality.

In September 2022, three new trustees were appointed to the V&A by the then prime minister Boris Johnson, including Gebreyohanes. In an interview a month later with the Telegraph, Gebreyohanes was described as having a ‘remarkable curriculum vitae for a young woman of 23.’

Remarkable for a right-wing newspaper maybe, but scary for the rest of us. The same article spoke of the National Trust apparently having an agenda to skew history so it’s anti-British.

Gebreyohanes has a track record of opposing ‘woke’ and ‘post Black Lives Matter’ policies in the cultural sector. She previously worked as head of the History Matters Unit at the right-wing think-tank, Policy Exchange. It was in this post that she reportedly accused institutions of pursuing a ‘post BLM trend’ and to ‘take action in relation to the public representation of history on a whim.’

Gebreyohanes is also a former canvasser for the Conservative Party.

And it doesn’t stop there. In 2022, she also became director of Restore Trust (RT), a group that for a couple of years has been unsuccessfully campaigning against perceived ‘wokeness’ within the National Trust. RT presents itself as a grassroots organisation of National Trust (NT) members, but senior lawyers claim it is funded by powerful, hidden sources. The group is supported by a number of Tory MPs, including Tory MP Sir John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense group, one of a number of backbench pressure groups formed following the success of the European Research Group’s influence over shaping Brexit policy.

The National Trust accuses RT of seeking to stoke divisions. In 2021, NT members raised concerns about a number of “extreme positions” taken by some of the individuals involved in Restore Trust. Like in 2021, in 2022, Restore Trust backed a slate of candidates in the elections for the NT’s governing council. Fortunately, RT failed miserably in their bid to take over control of the National Trust, as none of their candidates were elected onto the Trust’s council.

But back to Johnson’s ‘chosen one.’ In response to Gebreyohanes’ appointment on the V&A board, the government was accused of ‘cronyism.’ Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow minister for civil society, accused the government of “abusing the public appointments system”. She said:

“Public appointments should be based on merit not how much you’ve donated to the Conservatives or whether you work at one of their think tanks. The constant stream of cronyism in public appointments without any public scrutiny or accountability threaten to damage the reputation of many of our great British institutions.”

Charities Commission

In May 2022, the government once again stood accused on ‘looking after their own’ after choosing a former Tory party candidate with links to a right-wing think-tank as the preferred candidate for the chair of the Charities Commission. On the appointment of Orlando Fraser, a founding fellow of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) as chair of the Charity Commission, Labour said ministers had ignored due process in favour of another Tory supporter.

Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell MP, had said: “The chair of the Charity Commission is an important post, and the public must have confidence that this role is independent, not party political, and that there is no conflict of interest in investigations the Commission carries out. Instead, this is another case of the Tories looking after their own.”

The role at the charity watchdog role was dragged into a “culture wars” political controversy in 2021, after the previous culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said its next chair should be prepared to pursue charities which stray into so-called “woke” and “political” activities. The position had previously attracted criticism when, in 2012, the controversial journalist and royal biographer William Shawcross was appointed as chairman, despite reservations among some MPs over his independence and experience. Under Shawcross’s leadership from 2012 to 2018, several members of the board were said to have close links to Tory MPs and right-wing thinktanks.

Of course, Labour isn’t devoid of the propensity of filling public body appointments with ‘their own.’ David Cameron claimed he brought in reforms to the way ministers had become more involved in public appointments as a reaction to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s filling of public bodies with their own supporters. Cameron complained that he was too often “served up New Labour people” for appointment when he took office in 2010.

Though ironically, on the recommendation of businessman Gerry Grimstone, who was himself made a Tory peer and minister in 2020, Cameron’s reform of the system in 2016, has been described as institutionalising greater political input. Former Public Appointments Commissioner David Normington criticised the ‘Grimstone reforms,’ for giving the government the power to write their “own appointments rules, appoint the advisory panels, intervene at every stage to get their candidates appointed, ignore the panels’ advice, and appoint their friends and cronies.”

More recently, news of the hiring of the former civil service ethics chief Sue Gray by Keir Starmer created a huge Tory backlash.  Angry Tories lashed out at the appointment, and a bitter Johnson jumped on the claim that bias was against him when Gray investigated him over Partygate. Of course, unlike the unqualified hacks or idealogues taking over public posts with Tory links, Sue Gray is a professional who is more than qualified and capable of being Starmer’s chief of staff. It is also rather different in that the post is not tax payer funded.

So, what’s next, now the ‘king of Croyism’ Johnson looks like he’s finally out of the political fray? Will Rishi Sunak ‘stop the rot’ in politics to the saviour of our best-loved institutions? Which brings me back to the unremitting BBC scandal. As Richard Sharp limps along as the chair of a badly wounded BBC, the survival of Sunak’s old boss at Goldman Sachs shows that Tories will go to great lengths to keep ‘friends from old boys’ clubs’ in the highest of places.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Suella Braverman gets her big ‘Rwanda’ headlines in the Tory press

The Home Secretary’s “dream” and “obsession” to see a photograph of a flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda on the front page of the Telegraph almost came true last weekend. Almost, not quite. Because instead of asylum seekers being on-board the flight, it was herself, accompanied that is by a number of Tory news outlets.

Talk about partisan reporting. While the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and GB News secured seats on Braverman’s flight to Rwanda to meet the country’s President Paul Kagame, the BBC, Independent, Guardian, Daily Mirror and the i newspapers, were barred.

One can only assume the selective handling of the PR stunt was to avoid any critical scrutiny of the trip. Instead, reports would feed into the fake narrative that the small and mountainous country is a prosperous and harmonious utopia led by a heroic and principled president. 

The selective coverage of the two-day trip naturally evoked indignation, with journalists, opposition MPs and academics expressing shock. Jon Sopel, the BBC’s former North American editor, compared the strategy to when Donald Trump was president, and there was a “period when several newspaper titles were not going to be allowed in to press briefings.”  

Since the £140m deal with Rwanda to send asylum seekers there from the UK was unveiled by the Priti Patel in April 2022, the Tories have insisted the country is ‘safe’ for deportations. In November 2022, Suella Braverman contended that Rwanda is a ‘very inspiring’ and ‘safe and secure’ country with a record of supporting asylum seekers.

Such insistence comes despite a wealth of testimony that proves otherwise. Court documents reveal that officials in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had concerns about the deportation plan. An FCDO worker said torture and “even killings” are accepted in Rwanda. The UK high commissioner to Rwanda in 2021 warned that the country “has been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries.” Meanwhile, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has been accused of having orchestrated the kidnapping and murdering of his political opponents in order to eliminate challengers to his rule, accusations he denies. 

The US Department of State ‘2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Rwanda’ describes significant human rights issues, including unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; transnational repression against individuals located outside the country, among others.

When Suella Braverman defended the controversial deal, claiming Rwanda was ‘safe and inspiring,’ Labour MP Diane Abbott highlighted the US State Department assessment that Rwanda engaged in arbitrary detention, torture, and abused fair trial standards. Abbott asked Braverman if the American view was wrong, to which she replied: “I have actually visited Rwanda twice, around 2010/2009, and I’ve always found Rwanda to be a very inspiring country.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty have raised the same concerns. In a country overview, the HRW describes the arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace and “fair trial standards are routinely flouted in many sensitive political cases, in which security-related charges are often used to prosecute prominent government critics.”

“Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of street children, sex workers and petty vendors occurs widely,” says the HRW.

Rather than providing any critical assessment of the controversial scheme, reports of the trip were led by a series of photo-ops. The Telegraph ran with a headline about Braverman joking she could use the interior designer behind the homes built for the migrants in Rwanda. The newspaper’s swooning report attempts to big up the £14,000 and £30,000 homes being built for migrants that are part of a 2,500-house town on an estate in Kigali, noting how they will include off-street parking, fibre optic broadband, front and back gardens, and so on, which, wait for it, comprise of ‘décor that would not look out of place in a British town house.’

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but looking at this photograph, the accommodation looks more in-line with a community-based correction unit rather than a safe and secure home for families fleeing persecution.

And it gets worse. One photo particularly stood out. It was of the Home Secretary appearing to be laughing at full throttle with her head thrown back while visiting the accommodation.

Obviously, the meticulously selected right-wing press convoy was nothing but a plot to get Braverman and the cruel and expensive Rwanda deportation failure publicity with the right-wing base. And also, to distract from its failings.

Though the ploy backfired to some extent, as the bizarre and almost mocking photo op heightened criticism of the trip and the Rwanda policy, at least among the non-right-wing base. 

As shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said of Braverman: “Flailing around trying to get a photo op to distract from her failure to tackle the problem.”

Woke-bashing of the week – Mail blames Met’s epic failures on ‘woke’

Just when we thought the phoney war on woke couldn’t get much more bizarre and the woke-bashers had exhausted every institution and way of life, this happened.

Yup, the Met is racist and misogynistic because it’s woke. Er…

Author Anthony Stansfeld, a former Police and Crime Commissioner claims, the more the Met’s top brass fixate on wokeness, the more bigoted its officers become.

The antagonistic language used in the article is not only typical of the Mail but is kind of in keeping with a story about bullying and intimidation, and the swaggering rank conferred by a police officer status, albeit a male one. 

“A repugnant culture of macho thuggery has taken over,” and the Met’s profound failings are part of a “grotesque pattern of swaggering, selfish cruelty: men in uniform whose contempt for the law is matched only by their disdain for women, gay people and minorities.”

But it’s when Stansfeld attempts to provide reasons for the problems in the Met, that the piece really nosedives. The former police officer claims that as from around 2012, he could see that public confidence in the police was evaporating as ‘woke ideology triumphed, distorting everything from recruitment of officers to the fight against Islamic terrorism.’

The author continues that despite leadership’s ‘obsession’ with ‘diversity’, racism, misogyny and homophobia are rampant. He attempts to reason that the force has so badly lost its way – his article has definitely lost its way at this point – because “too many of those in senior positions are the products of progressive education peddled by woke university courses. They are more concerned with social engineering than fighting crime.”

The nonsensical column tries to couple weak leadership driven by a politically correct dogma to an ‘inevitable and ugly backlash against the woke agenda.’

Yes, I was a bit confused too. How can bringing more diversity to a workforce create a backlash against diversity? 

The column is of course in response to Louise Casey’s independent review of the Met Police’s culture and standards, which concluded what we kind of knew anyway, the Met is ‘racist, homophobic and sexist.’

As Stephen Bush, an associate editor at the Financial Times writes, part of the problem is that successive governments have preferred to go for the easy option of appearing to be ‘tough on crime’ and ‘pro-police,’ rather than asking difficult questions about whether the British police in general and its largest force in particular, could be made any better.

Appearing to ‘be tough’ on crime while actually doing sweet FA was visible during Priti Patel’s time as home secretary. Patel was famously pathetic in responding to the problems in the Met Police, including a dismal record on rape and domestic abuse. Following the resignation of Cressida Dick as commissioner in 2022, Patel was criticised for being ‘silent’ on policing while failing to implement reforms.

But no, according to the Mail’s report, the deep-rooted problems within the force are due to a fixation on wokeness. In her report on the devastating failings of the police, Louise Casey decided not to name the killer of Sarah Everard, nor the officer recently revealed as a serial racist. But then we couldn’t expect the same subtle understanding from the Daily Mail, which jumps on the chance to critique anyone or anything trying to make the society more inclusive and mindful – aka ‘wokeness’ at any cost. 

Sadly, the absurdity of coupling the epic failings of the Met police with a ‘woke’ agenda proves that the same machismo mindset prevails and there is a huge way to go before the radical reform the broken force desperately needs is properly enacted. 

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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