Today
Tue 26 October 2021

Sam Bright reports on the latest in a string of Conservative allies appointed to public bodies

Two GB News presenters have been appointed as trustees of prominent cultural institutions, further extending the involvement of right-wing figures in public life.

This week, it was announced that Inaya Folarin Iman had been appointed by the Government as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Folarin Iman is one of the hosts of ‘The Great British Breakfast’ on GB News – an explicitly ‘anti-woke’ TV platform that launched in June this year.

Folarin Iman stood as a candidate for the Brexit Party, formerly led by Nigel Farage, at the 2019 General Election and is a founding director of the right-wing Free Speech Union, working alongside the likes of Toby Young, Douglas Murray, Paul Staines and Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Folarin Iman has been a vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter campaign, claiming that it’s a “pseudo-radical movement that robs people of their agency and manipulates the goodwill of others to divide people and attain unearned power”. Writing for Spiked in April 2020,Folarin Iman said that she rejected “woke identitarian [sic] narratives that treat identity – race, gender and sexuality in particular – as the primary organising principle of society”.

Fourteen of the 16 National Portrait Gallery trustees are appointed by the Prime Minister following a public application process. Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling are both trustees of the Gallery.

Folarin Iman’s new role follows the appointment of fellow GB News presenter Mercy Muroki to the board of trustees for the Museum of the Home. The Secretary of State for Culture appoints the chair of the board and three trustees, while the board as a whole appoints the remaining trustees. It’s understood that Muroki was appointed by the board, rather than directly by the Government. The Museum declined to comment on Muroki’s appointment, though the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said that, “We are committed to ensuring our publicly funded bodies reflect the full diversity of the taxpayers they serve.”

Muroki was previously appointed by the Government as a member of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which published a controversial report earlier this year suggesting that a lack of evidence exists for the presence of institutional racism in the UK. The report was condemned by United Nations experts. Muroki is also a columnist for The Sun, which describes her as “Unashamedly Conservative”.

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A Chilling Effect

Appointments to public bodies are overseen by the Commissioner for Public Bodies, who is responsible for ensuring that they “are made on merit after fair and open competition”.

However, in a recent interview with Prospect magazine, the outgoing commissioner, Peter Riddell, expressed concerns about potential bias and political intervention in the public appointment system. “It’s certainly true” that there is a small group of people in 10 Downing Street “who want to appoint allies and advisors to prominent public positions,” Riddell told Prospect, “or – possibly as significant – to prevent anyone who is seen, for example, as anti-Brexit or who has links to Labour, or any other party – or the Scot Nats for that matter – from having a post.”

Riddell also expressed his frustration at the rumours that have emanated from Downing Street, indicating the Government’s favoured candidates for public roles. He references newspaper gossip suggesting that Downing Street sought to appoint former editor of The Telegraph Charles Moore as the chair of the BBC, and former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as the chair of Ofcom – claiming that such rumours having a “chilling effect” on other prospective candidates. It “infuriates me and infuriates those operating the system,” Riddell says.

He points to one appointment process in particular, for the head of the Office for Students, in which five people on the selection panel – a majority – “had clear Tory ties”. Former Conservative MP James Wharton was ultimately appointed to the role. “My concern was that the process wasn’t as independent as I think it should have been for such an important role,” Riddell told Prospect.

In July, Byline Times reported that a number of Conservative insiders had been appointed to public bodies. Drawing on the work of Byline TimesopenDemocracy has also revealed at least 16 allies of the Conservative Party who have been given non-executive director roles in Government departments and agencies. Byline Times revealed last December, for example, that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner – also a former Conservative Party vice-chair – had been appointed as a non-executive director of the Department for International Trade. He was appointed alongside Douglas Carswell, a former Conservative MP and a senior figure in the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign.

One unnamed former Government non-executive director told the Financial Times that “there has been a lot of placement of political cronies” and that “Number 10 has taken a close interest in it for the past year-and-a-half”.

This has seemingly included appointments to the BBC. Recently, Robbie Gibb was appointed to the BBC board – a man who worked as the director of communications to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, and in December 2020 wrote that Boris Johnson “has all too often been misunderstood and maligned”. He went on to say that Johnson “is a man who wants to unite not divide. For of all the myths about him there is none greater than that which seeks to portray him as a leader who revels in controversy and division”.

Gibb’s appointment followed the instalment of Richard Sharp as BBC Chairman and Tim Davie as Director-General. Sharp has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party in recent years, while Davie stood as a councillor for the Conservative Party in 1993 and 1994, and was deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives in the 1990s.

It is the prerogative of a Government to appoint allies to public roles. There’s no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the individuals, and this Government certainly isn’t the first to have installed sympathisers in key positions. However, such a widespread campaign does undermine the supposed independence of the public appointments system, risking claims of cronyism and jeopardising the public’s trust in government bodies.

The DCMS added that “Guidance for the Non-Executive Directors of Public Bodies makes it clear that they should act to deliver the outcomes expected by sponsor departments, ministers and ultimately the public.”

Inaya Folarin Iman,Mercy Muroki and the National Portrait Gallery did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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