Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Paid Apologists for Capitalism

Lord Bell of Belgravia was knighted by his longstanding client Margaret Thatcher in 1990.  "He is an icon in the business," says Mark Borkowski, another British PR veteran and a historian of the industry.

At Bell Pottinger, which he co-founded in 1998, "We tell stories – I don't mean lies. We work for people who want to tell their side of the story."

The government of Sri Lanka; FW de Klerk, when he ran against Nelson Mandela for president of South Africa; Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted Thai premier, whom protesters claim still controls the country; Asma al-Assad, the wife of the president of Syria; Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus; Rebekah Brooks after the phone-hacking scandal broke; the repressive governments of Bahrain and Egypt; the American occupying administration in Iraq; the polluting oil company Trafigura; the fracking company Cuadrilla; the athlete Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murder; In 1998, the campaign helped orchestrate for the release of General Pinochet during  the Pinochet Foundation’s campaign against the former Chilean dictator's British detention.  In 2000 Charles Alexander, a pro-Pinochet figure in the City of London, told me: "I said on the first day after Pinochet was arrested in Britain, 'He's got to get very ill, very quickly.' But Tim Bell disagreed with me. He said: 'Pinochet got rid of the commies, and that's our argument.'" In the end, the campaigners settled for an awkward mixture of both approaches, apolitically playing up Pinochet's frail health while also producing and distributing crude rightwing propaganda pamphlets and articles about the elected leftwing leader he had overthrown, Salvador Allende. It has represented  the much-criticised arms conglomerate BAE Systems and its complicity in corruption– Bell or Bell Pottinger has represented all of them. Many of the commercial sectors the company lists as focuses for its PR activities – "oil and gas", "mining", "financial institutions", "Russia" – suggest a readiness to work at the more rugged end of international capitalism.

In 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Independent published a Bell Pottinger exposé, including covertly filmed company executives (though not Bell or Henderson) bragging about their influence over the Sri Lankan government and the British Conservative party, and about the firm's expertise in "all sorts of dark arts".

Bell claims that his company is in fact a force for good.  "The idea that they're the only company prepared to work for controversial clients is a mistake." In the magazine's league table of PR firms operating in Britain, Bell Pottinger is at number five; Hill & Knowlton, a bigger American rival, controversial since the 30s, which has also promoted repressive governments and fracking, is just behind at number seven. Portland PR, a newer British firm set up by Tony Blair's former aide Tim Allan, has already achieved some notoriety for its work for authoritarian Kazakhstan and Russia.

"If anyone inspired me, it's Ayn Rand," says Bell.

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