Conservative donor John Booth given a leading role in choosing arts and media honors | Honors system

A Conservative donor has been given a prominent role at the heart of the UK honors system, the Observer can reveal.

In a move that prompted immediate claims of political interference, John Booth, a venture capitalist who has given the party more than £200,000, has been named ‘independent chairman’ of the committee which oversees honors in the arts and the media. This role means he will also sit on the main honors committee, which reviews all awards.

Booth, who had already been appointed chairman of the National Gallery last year, was quietly installed as chairman of the arts and media honorary committee this month. This follows complaints that cultural posts have been given to people close to the Conservative Party.

The Observer highlighted a series of positions given to donors, after an attempt early in Johnson’s term to help “rebalance representation” in public bodies. Donors have been appointed to the boards of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and the British Museum.

As chairman of the arts and media committee, Booth will play a key role in the list of proposed names for the gongs. It is feared that any political interference could lead to the exclusion of those who criticize the government or the defense of others seen as promoting its agenda. Booth donated some £207,000 to the Tories in 2017, Electoral Commission records show.

Samir Shah, a former BBC executive who served as a commissioner for the Commission’s much criticized Racial and Ethnic Disparities report, which concluded that “the claim that the country is still institutionally racist is not supported by evidence”. He also slammed “Woke Warriors” in an article about a dispute over the cultural appropriation of food.

Shah said he has been involved in the media for 40 years and in the museum world for 17 – and this year received the Royal Television Society’s ‘outstanding contribution’ award. He said he had never been a member of any political party.

Anneliese Dodds, Labor Party leader, said: “This seems to be another example of the money-for-access culture that Boris Johnson has created at the heart of government. Labor will establish an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission to clean up our politics and restore trust in the public service.

The Lib Dems said a high-profile donor appointed as independent chair ‘frankly doesn’t care about the honors committee as a body’. Wendy Chamberlain, their chief whip, said: “The selection of some of these people, given their political affiliations, is questionable at best and totally inappropriate at worst. The Conservatives seem determined to muddy the waters of our most respected institutions. They should keep their fingerprints off the honors committee.

A government source said political donations were not a consideration or a barrier to nomination. A spokesperson said: “All members of this committee have gone through a fair and open competition, using the principles of the Public Appointments Commissioner. There is a wide range of views and perspectives on the committee – from across the political spectrum.

It comes amid reports that Johnson is set to appoint a former editor of the Daily mail for a peerage. The Prime Minister had wanted Paul Dacre to chair media regulator Ofcom, but the nomination was rejected by a selection committee. Minsters tried to restart the process to give him another chance to get the date, but Dacre eventually backed out.

Among the Tory donors recently named to cultural nominations was Howard Shore, an investment banker who contributed £1.75m to the party as an individual and through his company Shore Capital, who was appointed a trustee of the Tate. The government says these appointments are made after an open selection process in accordance with the cabinet governance code on public appointments, but ministers often have a say.

The Observer also revealed that officials were keen to help one of the biggest Conservative donors, Mohamed Amersi, in his ultimately unsuccessful bid to become chairman of the National Lottery Community Fund. An internal email said: ‘I know you work with the public appointments team. Can we see that he is at least being considered for the role. Amersi said he was shortlisted on his merits and was unaware of any help from the Conservative Party.

An email from party headquarters to donors in August 2019, the month after Johnson became Prime Minister, said: “We thought you might be interested in the latest list of public appointments. It is important that the Conservatives rebalance the representation at the head of these important public bodies.

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