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Bell Pottinger has been in hot water before, the South Africa scandal won't be its end

Nearly a decade ago, the then-chief lobbyist at Bell Pottinger was asked by MPs for an example of a public relations campaign having a ‘malign’ effect on society.

Bell Pottinger’s Peter Bingle replied: “We had a call from Zimbabwe asking us to advise Zimbabwe. We said, “Thank you very much, but no.” That would have been, I think, a very malign campaign if somebody had run it.”

Had the question been asked today, Bingle might have cited his old employer’s not-so-secret PR campaign to stir up racial tension in South Africa.

As has now been revealed, Bell Pottinger was hired to scrub the reputation of the billionaire Gupta family, which stands accused of exploiting its relationship with South African President Jacob Zuma for private gain. Bell Pottinger’s campaign, as revealed in leaked emails, sought to deflect attention away from the family and Zuma by portraying their critics as being in the pocket of wealthy whites. Its message was that ‘white monopoly capital’ was the real enemy holding back South Africa, not Zuma and his friends.

After the scandal broke, and after losing several clients, Bell Pottinger chief executive, James Henderson, issued a ‘full, unequivocal and absolute apology’ for its work, which he said should never have been undertaken. He claims, however, that Bell Pottinger’s involvement has been exaggerated and that the agency’s management was misled by rogue employees in South Africa.

The denials, apology, plus the firing of one staff member and the suspension of three more, topped off with an inquiry into the scandal commissioned by the agency from a law firm, are intended to shut the story down before it shuts down Bell Pottinger.

If history is anything to go by, the firm will survive. Over the past decade, Bell Pottinger has been in the spotlight more than any other London lobbying firm, as it has stumbled into one scandal after another.

Often, its choice of client is the cause for concern. Its roster has included such regimes as the government of Sri Lanka, which hired the firm to boost its post war image; Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, who wanted help with the lifting of sanctions; and the government of Bahrain, work that included Bell Pottinger handling media inquiries about the government’s bloody reaction to Arab Spring protests.

The nature of its work has been controversial too, as in the case of the half a billion dollar covert propaganda campaign Bell Pottinger orchestrated for the US military after the 2003 invasion of Iraq (by a division of the firm subsequently shut down). According to someone who worked on the operation, it involved, among other things, the creation of fake al-Qaeda propaganda and recruitment videos that were encoded, dropped onto targets by US forces and then tracked when played.

Its methods have also been called into question many times. Its ‘reputation management’ experts boast of being able to ‘drown out negative content’ online, allowing them to ‘control the debate’. It talks of creating ‘third party blogs’ that are used to seed positive content online and push favourable reports to the top of Google search results. Entries on Wikipedia, which Bell Pottinger founder Tim Bell describes as a ‘ridiculous organisation’, have been doctored for clients by Bell Pottinger employees. Bell, who quit the firm last year, is a whizz at making unwanted press attention go away.

Then there is the privileged access it has to the British government. In 2011, its chief lobbyist bragged: ‘I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for twenty years plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through.’ It currently employs James Chapman, ex-chief of staff to Brexit secretary, David Davis. Bell Pottinger is one of very few lobbying agencies to have secured a formal meeting with Davis since he landed the job.

Little of this – and the above just gives a flavour – has had any lasting impact on Bell Pottinger’s balance sheet (it may even have had the opposite effect). Nor will the impending ‘investigation’ into its South African campaign by the PRCA trouble them too much.

An outlier in the industry, Bell Pottinger only signed up to the industry-funded trade body in 2010 under duress (the PRCA runs one of two very weak systems of self-regulation for lobbyists, which require minimal disclosure from members). In 2012, following boasts made by Bell Pottinger of its government access, the PRCA cleared it of breaching its Code of Practice. Today, a Bell Pottinger employee sits on the PRCA management board.

All that said, though, the campaign in South Africa is, I think, different. Luxury goods company, Richemont, pulled its account of 15 plus years after its chair felt himself targeted by the campaign. How long before firms that are paying Bell Pottinger to advise and represent them in British political circles – Waitrose, Centrica, Ernst & Young – jump ship? Will our politicians and officials open their doors so readily and listen so avidly to its fixers after this?

Bell Pottinger running a campaign that is unethical, underhand and undemocratic is a familiar story. But, alongside this, it has now shown itself to have a tin ear and to be out of step with the times. The press and people of South Africa are alive to all this. It’s about time we were.

Tamasin Cave is a director of SpinWatch and leads the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency campaign. She is co-author, with Andy Rowell, of A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain.