Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Damage limitation: shining a light on Bell Pottinger

Kara Moses and Tara Clarke explain why they glued themselves to the front door of one of the UK’s most influential public relations firms

January 19, 2014
5 min read


Kara MosesKara Moses is Red Pepper's Environment Editor and a freelance writer and activist


  share     tweet  

For most companies, the more people have heard of them, the more successful they are. But for Bell Pottinger, one of the UK’s most powerful PR firms, it’s a problem if they make the headlines. It’s their job to stay behind the scenes, managing other people’s reputation disasters as they unfold. Things have gone awry when the PR company itself becomes the story.

In 2011, undercover journalists secretly recorded a meeting with Bell Pottinger. Posing as agents for the government of Uzbekistan, a brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour, they claimed to be interested in the services the company was willing to offer for a £1 million fee. The Bell Pottinger executives boasted about their access to the prime minister and foreign secretary and their ability to use ‘dark arts’ to ‘drown out’ negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour: manipulating Google results, ‘sorting’ Wikipedia pages, creating ostensibly independent blogs and placing articles in the mainstream press.

Another tactic they claimed to employ to attack negative news stories was making official complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). True to their word, when this exposé was published in the Independent, Bell Pottinger reported it to the PCC, on the grounds that it was based on information obtained through subterfuge. The complaint was rejected, as the investigation was deemed to be of sufficient public interest to be reported.

This is not the only time Bell Pottinger has had its own reputation undermined. As the fracking debate heated to boiling point last summer, a member of Greenpeace armed with secret recording equipment spoke to a Bell Pottinger executive, who said, ‘I know that everything I say sounds like utter fucking bullshit’, and admitted that fracking wouldn’t bring down energy prices – contrary to the company’s public comments on the matter.

A recent Guardian interview with Lord Tim Bell – the Bell in Bell Pottinger – paints a seedy picture of the ‘cigarette-fogged’, leather-chaired office of the spin doctor who created media smoke screens for the dictators of Chile, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Belarus, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, as well as the polluting oil company Trafigura and, most recently, the fracking company Cuadrilla. With close ties to the Conservatives, Bell Pottinger doesn’t tend to side with lefties. After all, ‘You don’t want an advisor that doesn’t agree with you’, as Bell put it during the interview. Following three successful election campaigns for the Tories as Margaret Thatcher’s advisor, Bell was knighted in 1990.

The UK has the second biggest PR and lobbying industry in the world, worth £7.5 billion. It is a powerful machine to throw a spanner into

In the Trafigura case, Bell Pottinger represented the oil company involved in one of the worst pollution disasters in recent history. Hundreds of tons of toxic oil waste was dumped in a densely populated area of the Ivory Coast, with devastating effects. Trafigura had been insisting for three years that its waste was ‘absolutely not dangerous’, but leaked internal emails revealed the company’s knowledge of the toxicity levels from the outset.

Any journalist who tried to report this was gagged using legal threats and demands for the correction and removal of media articles and programmes. Yet Trafigura eventually paid out damages of more than £100 million in one of the biggest group actions in legal history, with British law firm Leigh Day representing 31,000 Africans injured by the spill.

Undercover recordings are one way to highlight Bell Pottinger’s ‘controversial’ connections. Another is to superglue yourself to their front door, an action we and four others took as part of the Reclaim the Power action camp, on a day when fracking company Cuadrilla were hit from every possible angle: their drilling site in Balcombe, their Lichfield headquarters, their sidekick politicians – and their spin doctors Bell Pottinger. We stayed in place at Bell Pottinger HQ for five hours, blasting out the Greenpeace ‘bullshit’ recording on a megaphone to passers by before being removed by police and arrested.

Even if only for a day, we shed light on the threat that PR bodies such as Bell Pottinger pose to democracy. Lobbying the government to protect the fracking industry and misleading the public about prices affects society’s ability to make informed choices about where our energy comes from. The UK has the second biggest PR and lobbying industry in the world, worth £7.5 billion. It is a powerful machine to throw a spanner into.

As we prepare for trial on 23-24 January at Westminster Court, charged with aggravated trespass and £4 of criminal damage for half an hour of a cleaner’s time to wipe glue reside off the window, the battle continues between the filthy rich and those who campaign for an open democracy.

Bell Pottinger like to work behind the scenes, staying out of the limelight as other people’s PR disasters unfold – or don’t, if they’re successful. But they must be held to account, thrust into the light for all to see. A PR disaster of its own is the last thing the company wants. As industry magazine PR Week pointed out: ‘The Reclaim the Power protesters who superglued themselves to Bell Pottinger’s front door on Monday did little more than make a nuisance of themselves… The damage done to the firm by the PR agency becoming the story is another matter.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Kara MosesKara Moses is Red Pepper's Environment Editor and a freelance writer and activist


An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.


290