As part of the Bureau’s investigation into lobbying, journalists posed as representatives of the Uzbekistan government keen to gain better coverage for the country’s cotton industry.
The journalists recorded two meetings in June and July with senior representatives from Bell Pottinger.
Below are extracts from the conversations which took place.
Tim Collins managing director Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.
In a slideshow presentation given to the undercover reporters, Tim Collins was described as being at ‘the heart of the worlds of Westminster, Whitehall and the media since the mid-1980s…. He has known key members of David Cameron’s team for many years.’
‘It’s not simply about although we understand the importance of the formal meeting of the 30 minutes – it’s actually getting people plugged in to networks. It’s getting people understood round the circuit of the conversation that’s always going on around the worlds of politics and diplomacy. …
Discussing the company’s contacts: ‘Again to run through some of the Members of Parliament – this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just an illustrative list – these are all people that we know, that we know very well. James Arbuthnot, for example, is the chair of the Defence Select Committee. When I was an opposition whip he was a chief whip, so he and I know each other very well. Rory Stewart is a very high profile member of Parliament because he’s got a very strong interest in Central Asian issues, he represents the constituency that is next to mine when I was a Member of Parliament so I know him. Lots of others – Peter Lilley, who’s a member of the all-party group. We think the all-party group could do with a lot more reinforcement, a lot more oomph. There are hundreds of these groups but this one is pretty low-profile.
Reporter: What do you mean by that? How do you reinforce an all-party group?
Tim Collins: Well a number of all-party groups actually have external secretariats … We have done that with other country groups in past. We could provide – be a conduit whereby the MPs who are on that committee could get much higher quality information, and would be in a position to meet people coming into the UK, perhaps do some trips back out there as well, and be a bit more high-profile. If you’ve got a story to tell, encourage them to try to organise debates in the House of Commons, to write to ministers.
‘Mark Prisk, he’s the business and enterprise minister, he’s a Conservative. We’ve got Lib Dems in our team. We didn’t want to bring on everyone relevant to you but clearly if we have a relationship there is a lot of teamwork behind all three of us … Stephen Lotinga my colleague knows Giles [Wilkes] very well, he headed up the Liberal Democrat home policy unit until the time of the general election so all the people who went into government and became Liberal Democrat special advisors all worked for him up to and including the general election. So he knows all of them, still talks to them socially. We actually took a client in to see Giles last week, last Thursday, so it’s not something that is difficult for us to do.
Talking about how they operate: ‘We would want to work very closely with the embassy here and we actually think on the basis of what we’ve done with other countries that we can provide a very significant uplift in the quality of advice that they can provide, in the contacts that they can have in terms of the people that they’re dealing with, in inviting them into political and media circles, to dinners, to social events, to opportunities to engage with to get better known by a lot of the key decision makers.
Reporter: And why don’t you recommend Vince Cable, is he cantankerous?
Tim Collins: Yes. And Vince’s starting point on a lot of these issues is he will think about politics and the presentation first and substance second. Giles, one of the reasons Giles is his special adviser, is Giles spent a lot of time in the City, he’s quite a hard-headed business person, although he’s a Liberal Democrat in terms of political orientation he’s quite a good balance with Vince because he will say let’s actually look at what’s in it for UK PLC first and foremost and worry about the politics slightly afterwards.
I would suggest we get Giles onside first and then we think about approaching Vince.’
David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations.
David Wilson is described by the company in a presentation given to Bureau journalists as: ‘an international brand-building communications specialist’. He told our reporters:
‘We’ve just started work with Lotus cars who have got a massive investment from Malaysia through Proton, their owner. And we helped orchestrate a visit from Vince Cable on Monday because of the investment that’s going in because they are looking for grant aid to develop new factories which would create new jobs there.’
When talking about the work the company did for the Sri Lanka government he said:
‘We had a team working in the President’s office, we wrote the President’s speech to the UN last year, which was very well received. We were writing a speech at the same time as [President Rajapaksa] was asking his foreign office to write a speech as well, and he chose to use our speech despite several attempts by the foreign office to change the tune. And it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go.
‘Fundamentally, though, they’ve set up something called the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which has got one fundamental flaw in its remit i investigating what has gone on e in the past, to try to bury the past, and unfortunately because that is the case, media like Channel 4 and the Times find the whole Peace and Reconciliation Commission is flawed. And it’s not flawed but it doesn’t go that extra step that it needs to go to fully embrace Western opinion or Western concern about the entire situation.
‘We could … be a conduit whereby the MPs who are on that committee could get much higher quality information, and would be in a position to meet people coming into the UK’
‘Some of the things we recommended weren’t taken up by the government and so we would have loved to have had a far more successful campaign. As I said to you before, we’re only as good as the collateral that we are given to work with and if a government might say it wants to change but won’t change, then sorry, that will come back and hit them. And I probably don’t need to say any more about the reputation of Sri Lanka.’
On ‘fixing’ the internet:
‘…We have a team that sort Wikipedia and everything like that.’
‘…. We had a client come to us last year called Dahabshiil which is the biggest money transfer business in the horn of Africa, developed in Somalia…. When they came to us their problem was when you did a Google search the entire first five pages just about everything about them was about a former employee that was holed up in Guantanamo Bay…. within three months you could look through the first 20 pages of Google whereafter we gave up because nobody looks past the first 20 pages let alone up to page 20. And there wasn’t a mention of it and that’s just through good SEO, search engine optimisation, good media relations activity, to make sure there was a good amount of stories out there, good web presence in terms of web platforms websites for them just in terms of making sure that everything worked for them effectively.’
Sir David Richmond
Sir David Richmond is a key player in Bell Pottinger International and former diplomat. He is described by the company as the person who ‘helps clients to develop and implement communications strategies in complex and often volatile international environments. He has extensive knowledge of international political, economic and security issues, notably the Middle East and the European Union.’
He explained to undercover reporters that countries seeking reputation management needed to show steps to improve. ‘For the first few months you can get away with saying the change is coming, but if it stops completely eventually people realise that it has stopped completely… It’s got to be a process even if – it doesn’t matter so much the slowness of the process, though it shouldn’t be glacial, but it’s the progress rather than the speed of the progress.’